Puppetry Heroes: Mentors, Influences, Inspiration, and Legends

In 2015, I was nominated for Ronnie Burkett’s Puppetry Heroes: Mentors, Influences, Inspirations and Legends Challenge… And so began five days of writing on instagram and facebook about artists like Nancy Andrews, Paul Mc Carthy, JoJo Baby and Greer Lankton, Nancy Andrews, Janie Geiser, and the style of puppetry known as kuroko.

Day 1 – Nancy Andrews

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Images from Nancy’s website: www.nancyandrews.net  

Nancy Andrews is the intersection of puppetry, fine arts, experimental film, and performance art. I was privileged enough to study with Nancy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Nancy was my first puppet mentor, though oddly I was enrolled in her Intro to Sound and Sound for Performance classes. Sound is such an important element in puppetry! She often spoke of John Cage and one of our first projects was to solder mini-speakers and invent unusual instruments. Under her tutelage I worked on a multimedia performance that drew parallels between the plastic surgeries of Michael Jackson and body artist, Orlan, using masks and prosthetic body parts.

At Randolph Street Gallery, I saw her puppet film and performance, An Epic Falling Between the Cracks, about the voyages of Frances Coco and her dog, Lemuel, into remote locations as relayed by Nancy’s librarianesque documentarian persona.

While interning at N.A.M.E. Gallery, I witnessed Nancy’s production, Woods Marm, which I can only describe as a convergence of school pageant and high art. The sight of performers dressing up as a chorus of pine trees (with holes cut out of the trunks for their faces) every evening left an indelible mark in my brain.

While co-curating Blood from a Turnip with Vanessa Gilbert, we included Monkeys and Lumps about our efforts as individual humans to understand our place and relationship with the unknowable. The film combined hand drawn animations of monkey’s facial expressions with footage of primate puppets dancing. I later saw a retrospective of Nancy’s films at MOMA.

Currently, Nancy is faculty at the College of the Atlantic. I look forward to seeing her latest film, The Strange Eyes of Dr. Myes co-written with Jennifer Reeder about a scientist who grafts animal senses to her brain in order to revolutionize human consciousness. 

Day 2 – Paul Mc Carthy

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Images from REDCAT.org, Photography-Now.com, Artnet.com, Art21.org)

Today I draw inspiration from the world of contemporary art with the work of Paul McCarthy who uses giant masks, and animatronic figures in his videos and installations. I’m not sure when in art school I first encountered the Paul McCarthy’s work, whether it was in The Body and Its Excesses Survey, or in the History of Video Art?

Nonetheless, McCarthy addresses cultural taboos – the grotesque and perverse as a reaction to the absurdity of our heroes. Humor and playfulness can be seen through his dystopic portrayal of inner lives of iconic cartoons and fairytale characters.

In his performance/video, Pinnochio Pipenose Houshold Dilemma, McCarthy dressed as Pinocchio manipulates a nearly identical doll to reenact a sadomasochistic domestic drama. In this abject exploration of bodily fluids, ketchup and fudge transcend into blood and feces. McCarthy examines the symbolic contagion of identity by having audience members dress in similar Pinocchio masks and costumes, blurring the line between witness and participant.

In The Garden, the viewer sees a highly artificial movie set version of a forest. Upon closer inspection, a hyper realistic male animatronic figure becomes one with nature as he fucks a tree. Nearby, a younger automaton humps the ground. McCarthy also collaborated with another artist-hero of mine, Mike Kelley, for a radical retelling of Heidi using partial and life-size rubber figures to deconstruct the purity myth of Heidi and the media view of “family life, horror movies and ornamentation”, as McCarthy put it.

While in Los Angeles at REDCAT, I saw a multi-screen video installation, Carribean Pirates created by McCarthy and his son Damien. The projections included vignettes that might be found in pirate movies that examine ideas of invasion, plunder and depravity, using giant oversized masks and animatronic amputations.

Day 3  – Greer Lankton + JoJo Baby

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(clockwise) Karl Peterson, Marsian De Lellis, Annie O’Neill/Mattress Factory, Chicago Reader 

I first met Jojo Baby (who is as visually stunning as his dolls) on the set of a student film about a mortician that had a casting call for drag queens, and later at a club kid salon in Chicago, where I first experienced his work. We hung out a few times at his home studio when he was sculpting dolls. At the time I hadn’t quite moved onto puppets and was making stuffed animals that were flaccid and couldn’t do very much. It was probably through Jojo that I absorbed the idea of making a jointed understructure – although Jojo’s armatures were much more animistic and intricate: including an entire chakra system comprised of precious stones and bodily artifacts. I also learned about tissue papier-mâché he used to make skin.

Jojo often spoke of his friend Greer Lankton, who had recently passed away. Lankton made meticulous elaborate dolls of varying body types and genders with exhibitions at the Mattress Factory and a piece in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. She was a fixture in the East Village art scene of the 80’s, a Nan Golden muse, and even feathered a Big Bird. Recently, Lankton’s work has become more available to a new generation of artists thanks to G.L.A.M. (the Greer Lankton Archive Museum). I was lucky enough to visit limited showing of her work at ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles and she recently had a retrospective at Participant Inc. in NYC.

Jojo continues to make dolls and puppets in Chicago, including a wig-puppets and humanettes. He is the subject of a Clive Barker produced documentary, JOJO BABY THE FILM (which I am dying to see!) and the photo book, GETTING INTO FACE. Above (center and right) is tribute doll Jojo made of Lankton, which was displayed as part of a Radical Faerie installation/performance I helped to curate at Randolph Street Gallery.

Day 4 – Janie Geiser

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Images: courtesy Janie Geiser 


I first met Janie Geiser at a puppet festival in Chicago where she performed a walk-through series of dioramas showing a woman fleeing domestic violence while being chased for a crime she didn’t commit. I had never seen a performance where the audience moved from one station to the next. I was struck by the elegant look of her puppets, their economy of gestures, and dark adult subject matter. I was also intrigued by her art schoolgirl uniform (skirt over leggings or pants), which made an imprint on me.

We crossed paths again in Brooklyn while installing pieces at St Ann’s Warehouse. Before leaving home that day, I vowed to be prepared so much so that I would be available to help someone else, and Janie needed help with paintbrushes.

Later at an artist residency in Florida, where she was a master artist, I assisted her with an installation, Spiders Wheels. We researched optical affects like lenticular surfaces and built prototypes. We also cross-pollinated fashion and she loaned me some skirts.

She was so accessible, I decided be a part of her Puppetry Program. While visiting LA I saw the fully realized exhibition of Spiders Wheels. Afterwards, she summoned me to her Prius and quietly announced, “You know you can’t be wearing my clothes to school”. I guess your relationship with a mentor changes.

While at CalArts I produced two major shows. She really taught me to see the bigger picture from initial conception to touring, and we continued cross-pollinating ideas with live feed and kinograms.

Once I performed a disembodied foot pacing back and forth in one of her pieces. Afterwards she told me I was a “good actor”, which felt like the highest compliment, considering I was just performing a foot.

I have been following Janie’s career, witnessing two major shows at Automata, her art and performance space. Her work is sublime, nonlinear, dreamy, and speaks to subconscious states. Lately she’s more prolific than ever. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Day 5 – Kuroko
(Nagi Noda, Basil Twist, Japanese Gameshow)

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Images: YouTube – Scissor Sisters VEVO, YouTube – Mark Rowbotham Creative, Splash Magazine

For the final day, I am looking at an inspiration – puppetry styles that use kuroko. What can puppets do that people can’t? Using kuroko, I have seen limbs torn from bodies, sudden drastic shifts in perspective, hyper-flexibility, slow motion, and weightlessness. In kabuki, the kuroko are people dressed entirely in black who move scenery and props. In the few examples I’ve seen, they move objects so artfully that what they do seems more puppetry than stagehand.

On YouTube I stumbled upon Japanese Puppetry Gameshow (lower R), where bodies are manipulated beyond limits of ordinary human abilities. An arm suddenly grows ten feet long. Torsos dislocate and blast off like rockets. A missile launches from one man’s chest causing the other to explode. The contrast isn’t perfect, so you can make out some of the performers.

Basil Twist uses a similar effect in Arias with a Twist (bottom L). When Joey Arias sings about looking for a daddy to the tune of Claire de Lune, a parade of images from her subconscious (desserts and a monkey clanging symbols) hover and float by. I spoke with one of the puppeteers, Jessica Scott, who also referred to the technique as “Czech black” or “light curtain technique”. I am intrigued by the Scissor Sister’s SHE’S MY MAN video (top), directed by multimedia artist, Nagi Noda (1973-2008), whose work you might recognize from Poodle Exercise with Humans (a parody of Susan Powter’s work out video). In She’s My Man Jake Shears and Ana Matronic are having a lovely dinner that suddenly turns violent. Napkins and plates are thrown across the table in slow motion and both levitate combatively with dinner knives. Ana Matronic rips apart a chef and waiter before a jacket and what appears to be a loose hair extension strangle Jake Shears. Spoiler alert: They make up by the end.

Yes, I find this all so inspiring!