My life to live 

"It's all about ME, Not You"
An installation by Greer Lankton

Now through November 1

Cranbrook Art Museum
1221 N. Woodward
Bloomfield Hills
Call 248-645-3324.

The transsexual Greer Lankton, youngest child of a Presbyterian minister, was born Greg Lankton in Holly and grew up outside of Chicago. From a young age, Greg displayed a singular flair for creativity, wearing a washcloth, pretending it was long hair, and making dolls out of frayed clothesline. Greg also very much wanted to be a girl, which didn't cause problems at home -- the whole Lankton family was accepting and supportive -- but resulted in brutal teasing outside of it.

A 1978 news article about Lankton, just prior to her operation -- "Trapped in 'Wrong' Body, Transsexual Seeks New Life" -- quotes several harrowing encounters, including one from church summer camp involving a woman who couldn't tell whether she was a boy or girl. Lankton recalls, "She stood me on a big box, told me to walk and talk, and asked the other kids to vote on who I was."

As Lankton grew older, she was badly teased at school, despite concerted efforts to fit in. "So, I went the other way. I dyed my hair, tweezed my eyebrows and pierced my ears. The teasing got worse, but I couldn't afford to care." When people asked what sex she was, she answered "both."

At age 21, after a battery of psychological tests, hormone treatments and psychiatric therapy, she had a sex-change operation, approved and paid for by her father's church. She went on to a celebrated art career in New York making sculptures and drawings that photographer Nan Goldin describes as "surgery without anesthetic."

Lankton had ongoing battles with anorexia, prescription drug abuse and the physically painful aftermath of her sex-change operation. She showed in several New York galleries, and was in the 1995 Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennial of that same year. She was married briefly -- her father performed the ceremony -- and died in 1996 at age 38 of complications from the drugs and anorexia.

Greer Lankton's last installation, "It's all about ME, Not You," comes to the Cranbrook Art Museum from the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. She appeared at the Pittsburgh opening, sickly and painfully thin -- down to 90 pounds -- and wearing a cut-up and reconstructed version of her wedding dress. She died before the show closed.

Lankton relied heavily upon two vehicles of communication: her body and her room. Many of the exhibit's figures are self-portraits and the space is an actual re-creation of her studio.

The first thing you confront upon entering the gallery is a patch of AstroTurf -- a small plot of yard dotted with an umbrella table, plants, pets and corpse-like sculptural busts with deep red lips and snarling features; you can almost hear and smell them sipping, eating and gossiping -- leading up to a small, shingled dwelling. The structure conjures up a fusion of The Wizard of Oz (its flying house), "Hansel and Gretel" (its too-good-to-be-true house) and the menacing suburbia of David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

The room inside the house is small, just large enough for four, maybe five, people, and systematically crammed with objects and pictures. Stars dot the ceiling.

Most immediately startling are the small and large dolls --made out of masking tape with astounding technical skill -- whose waxen pallors, painful thinness and garish makeup caricature ideals of feminine beauty and glamour. The large figures pose, submissive and surrounded by objects. A torso, bald and gaping, pokes out of a bed strewn with piles of empty prescription pill containers. Across the room a life-sized mannequin lounges like a convulsive shadow.

There are figurines of fragile dancers -- disturbing, erotically charged -- some with limbs akimbo, in positions so painfully extreme they recall surrealist Hans Bellmer's transformable dolls, whose disconnectable joints allowed them to be taken apart and reassembled. Other objects include children's shoes and rag dolls -- many have a roughly cut-out hole at their heart.

Mounted on the wall are pictures and drawings which cover a wide range of stylistic terrain. Some are surgically precise renderings of sinewy bodies, recalling the Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. Others, such as Lankton's reworking of a family photograph and depiction of a bully brutalizing her as a child, are round, bright and cartoonish, and look amazingly close to the TV show, "King of the Hill." In addition, there are mounted torsos -- perversely suggesting a roast pig or turkey about to be popped in the oven for a family dinner -- and a suspended, skin-like fabric that replicates a sparse human form. There are shrines to Jesus Christ, and pop icons Patti Smith and Candy Darling.

Deep and complex histories seem to lurk in each object. We're given strands of a story -- say, the scratch on a shoe or the name of a prescribed medicine or Lankton's note to herself on her scale -- not the whole picture, and the impact is bracing and corrosive.

It's a kind of relief to view the assembled material by and about Lankton in a room just adjacent to the gallery: catalogues, letters, drawings and a film by Nan Goldin (titled I'll Be Your Mirror) which features several deeply touching snippets of Lankton, well coiffed, gently witty and chain-smoking.

Goldin, who wrote Lankton's obituary for the New York Times, described the person and the artist: "There was absolutely no distance between her life and her work, something that is said about many artists, but was especially true about Greer. She was her own doll -- starving herself, transforming herself, abusing herself. She was childlike and playful with a droll, ironic wit, but she suffered constant psychic pain which she found necessary to medicate; she felt too chemically imbalanced to feel safe without drugs."

Indeed, Greer Lankton's exhibition carries a weirdly fundamental sincerity, while offering excruciating, quite beautiful, at times even funny expressions of vulnerability.

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