Falling for Niagara

Nov 23, 2005 at 12:00 am

The legendary Niagara rocks hard, looks fabulous and talks back. A sassy femme fatale from the punk era with an international reputation, she’s a rarity in Detroit — a hardcore female cultural icon in a region that prizes Iggy’s brand of machismo.

Celebrated for her brash, idiosyncratic feminist texts emblazoned on sardonic pop portraits of bitch-goddesses-with-weapons, the work on display at CPop gallery now demonstrates a leap of faith by this artist with a single name. While her previous work is a recurring narrative starring hard-boiled babes, she has, gallery director Rick Manore says, stunningly gone “soft-boiled” as of late.

Although the gallery has distilled the intricacy of the new work by mixing in some of the old, and has also diluted its effects by hanging it on unsuitable flat white walls, the artist’s change of direction is significant. Niagara’s newly adopted heroine is a Depression-era chick with a variety of vintage hairdos — permed, bobbed, marcelled and fingerwaved. Sometimes adorned with cutesy bows or ritzy jeweled diadems, the gals often look vacant behind a hallucinogenic haze of smoke tendrils, as though the “It Girl” with bee-stung lips is down on her luck and forced to make a buck modeling for perfume ads. Or maybe Nancy Drew ditching the roadster and doing drugs, back in the times when gay meant happy. Get the picture?

Astoundingly, for an artist who has for so long used minimal imagery and relied more on the impact of pointedly worded sound balloons than on real craftsmanship, this collage work includes such art historical references as rococo luxury and sensuality, Ingres’ Orientalism, William Morris’ floral wallpaper, Bonnard’s intricate color patterns and the exotic colors and elegant metallic accents of Klimt and the Viennese Secession — all heightened more intrinsically by the tawdriness of Chinatown Noir. It all works remarkably well together.

The decorative layers vibrate on the surface to make you woozy, with confetti-like bits floating in the foreground then receding to the background, messing with your equilibrium. “I know the dream that you’re dreaming,” one reads coyly, and it’s apt, considering the viewer is adrift in a decadent realm of dragons, drug pipes, roses, toile de Jouy and “perfumed” ribbons of colored smoke, swimming in layers of peeling antique chinoiserie wallpaper, holed up in a subterranean den of iniquity. Despite an arguable fussiness, the pieces, mostly of a smallish size, are held together by Niagara’s sure-handed illustrations of sangfroid beauties painted with fine black lines.

The paintings are fun to look at because they evoke so many vintage girly words: doll baby, sweetie pie, hussy, harlot, temptress, tramp, glamour puss. Some of the creatures have names — “Vera desires Opium” and “Lila loves Opium” we’re told — and all have distinct personalities. We reel between forthright, flirtatious, gullible, pissed-off, haughty, conniving and can’t-be-bothered.

A Carol Lombard doppelgänger in “L’Opium Vert” has flushed pink cheeks and remains innocently expectant while drenched in confetti and suffocated by curls of blue smoke. The lost lamb in “Bête Noire Opium” has one lazy eye, but still enchants. In “Opium des Violets,” a mob scene of silver foil wafers, loose waves of hair, and red and yellow Chinese characters fails to animate a highly sedated nymph. “I know your deepest secret fear,” intones another hot vamp in a message scrawled in the sort of fancy handwriting taught schoolchildren a century ago.

Accompanying the exhibition is a book, Beyond the Pale (9mm Books, $39.95), celebrating Niagara’s wide and infamous history in art and music. It’s like a print version of a midcareer retrospective, but also something of a fanzine. Despite too many annoying typos, the book contains a bounty of great archival photos and adequate reproductions of her work. Its content should satisfy the historically minded, art lovers and even mere voyeurs with its love-struck paeans from various (mostly male) art stars and musicians, and excerpts from Niagara’s diaries going back to 1974. “Boys in cars appeared as I removed my top,” is a snippet from one written in Florida. (And, too, there are those legs.)

In the book, Mike Kelley, now a major force in the international art world, calls Niagara his “muse.” It covers her time as a singer with Destroy All Monsters, the punk band that included Ron Asheton of the Stooges and Michael Davis of the MC5. Photos show her frolicking with Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, Thurston Moore, Iggy Pop and Fred “Sonic” Smith among others, including those not-to-be-forgotten Detroiters, Bootsy X and Art Lyzak. Jerry Vile’s personal ode to his friend Niagara is fabulous — wry, wacky and dangerous, as befits its subject. And all of it is blended “with a little bit of sex.”


Show closes Saturday, Nov. 26, with a reception and book signing 7-11 p.m., at CPop Gallery, 4160 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-9901.

Christina Hill is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]