Punk-rocker-turned-artist and Dirty Show special guest Niagara on love, drugs, and isolation

Feb 12, 2020 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge Niagara and a furry friend photographed for Metro Times’ 20th anniversary issue in 2000. - Bruce Giffin
Bruce Giffin
Niagara and a furry friend photographed for Metro Times’ 20th anniversary issue in 2000.

In the 1953 film noir flick Niagara, Marilyn Monroe stars as a woman vacationing near Niagara Falls. In true femme fatale fashion, Monroe spends the duration of the film laying waste to men — including her husband — leaving them unapologetically in her seductive wake with the power of her silhouette, which, as always, was impossibly tight, and her smile — big and small and uncertain all at once. Eleven years later, and just a few weeks after Monroe's untimely and conspiracy-laden death, pop artist Andy Warhol would use a publicity still from Niagara to create his world famous Marilyn Diptych, which features 50 Monroe faces screen-printed across canvas. Half of the images appear in bright oranges, yellows, and neon blues; the other 25 reveal Monroe imperfectly printed in silver and black.

Niagara, the world-renowned Detroit artist and iconic punk enchantress of indeterminable age who's been described as cross between Audrey Hepburn and Patti Smith, claims to have adopted her name after years of childhood teasing by her older sister. ("Her and my cousin would torture me to make me cry," Niagara told Byron Coley in 2014. "Then when I'd cry, they'd taunt me and call me Niagara.") But it's hard to ignore the comparisons between Monroe in Niagara, and Niagara — the woman behind the women.

"I grew up watching old movies, and they're so much better than new movies," Niagara says. "I mean, every line — it's not like building up to one line, like 'You can't handle the truth.' I mean, the whole thing, the whole movie is made up of these lines. It's just the way the writers put [them] together that was killer."

Then there's the comparisons to Warhol, too. While Warhol screen-printed, Niagara makes her paintings emulate screen-printing, complete with flat colors and deliberately off-register linework. She also draws from pop art: Most of Niagara's subjects — each one a sexy Frankenstein hybrid of retro comic-book babes, old Hollywood dames, Bond girls, and what we've come to envision as the ideal modern woman — are painted in an array of bold blues, pinks, and greens, though she admits to being partial to blue because of its haunting allure and, because "all blues go together." Most, if not all, of the women are accompanied with a threatening line aimed at a man, if not all.

"That's for your bad manners," says one of Niagara's vampiric dames, this one with Bettie Page bangs, blasting a machine gun.

And then there's the pink-haired, cone-bra-wearing woman whose preferred foreplay is a French kiss-off: "Au Revoir, Romeo," she says, cigarette in hand.

"Treat 'em rough, boys," says a smoking-hot cop with perfectly flared eyelashes.

A curly-haired woman in a plunging red dress simply warns her victim to "run" while concealing a gun at her waist.

And, perhaps one of the most relatable of Niagara's fatales, a striking blonde applying red lipstick in a compact mirror, her eyebrows villainously arched: "This band sucks."

click to enlarge Niagara's femme fatales are known for their quips  as they are for their beauty. - Courtesy of Niagara
Courtesy of Niagara
Niagara's femme fatales are known for their quips as they are for their beauty.

Niagara says sometimes she'll discover a line first and then conjure the type of woman that might say it. Other times, she'll find the girl and will reserve using her until she has a line that fits. In her lifelong collecting of lines, she professes love of Bill Kennedy at the Movies, where she was introduced to older and off-beat cinema, and cites 1930s actress Tallulah Bankhead as one of many starlets who may have subconsciously inspired the parade of women Niagara has painted over the years. Niagara says she recently learned that the Gabor sisters appropriated Bankhead's affected pronunciation of the world "dah-ling," adding, "Tallulah was really something!"

"She really flipped me out 'cause she was really intense," Niagara says of Bankhead. "She was amazing and outrageous, and she was someone I read about early on. So people like that — they were kind of amazing in a different way. You know, like an outcast. You always love an outcast, don't you?"

When asked if she considers herself an outcast, Niagara wryly responds:

"I don't identify with anybody. Let's face it: that's the whole point."

While she might not identify with anyone, when we suggest that Niagara is, in fact, a real person, she shoots us down like one of her gun-wielding man-eaters.

"No, I'm not even real. You got that wrong."

Since she was a child, Niagara has been drawing mostly out of boredom, due in part to having a much older sister, and usually drawing small things and tiny subjects. She warns that her early drawings would probably make us "puke," but doesn't discredit the belief that people might simply be born to do what they're supposed to do — which is how she went on to front the proto-punk band/artist collective Destroy All Monsters with University of Michigan students Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Cary Loren, and, later, Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, MC5 bassist Michael Davis, and drummer Rob King.

Currently, she's preparing non-vomit-inducing work in her elected position as the featured artist at this year's Dirty Show in Detroit, a distinction previously earned by big-name artists like H.R. Giger, Bunny Yeager, and John Waters. The annual celebration of erotic art, fetish culture, and everything else between the thighs turns 21 this year and is once again hosted by Dirty Show founder and longtime friend of Niagara's, Jerry Vile.

"We've known each other for a long time," she says. "I've done stuff for him and I've had art in his shows before, but he's like, Let's make a big deal out of it. Jerry said, 'Just do whatever you want and it'll all fit.' I was like, 'OK, OK. I'll do it, jeez, fuck. OK.'"

For the show, she's selected some framed prints, some old, some new. Special to the Dirty Show, Niagara has hand-painted a pair of blue-suede heels because "people love paintings on shoes!" The process of shifting her focus from larger-than-life fatales to approach tiny details took about five hours a night for two weeks, something she says could not be easily achieved if she were to live in the city.


These days, Niagara is a bit of a reclusive Snow White. (It's not hard to imagine the raven-haired Disney princess with a push-up bra, a lipstick-stained apple, and a cigarette: "I'm the fairest of them all, obviously!") Since Metro Times last spoke with Niagara in 2015, she and her husband, known only as Colonel, relocated from a a Victorian house in Detroit to Hell, Mich., to a home nestled in the middle of what she refers to in the winter months as a "Frozen Forest." Niagara's Facebook page is a trove of photos and videos of deer, turkeys, and Pinky the opossum, who, like the rest of her frequent and furry visitors, is on a strict feeding schedule. At first, Niagara couldn't see herself moving away from the city, yet she craved isolation.

"I wanted to be isolated, which is always good — I mean, if you can do it, if it's what you aspire to," she says. "Maybe you grow up in isolation and then try to make enough money to go to the city to make enough money to live in isolation away from people."

Since making the move, she's been awarded the space and stillness to focus on her craft and, in turn, has become more of a perfectionist in her work. She's quick to reminisce about her Detroit days and her "adorable" house with the big garden where she used to paint with her canvas leaning against the couch, because they used to rent out the upstairs to make money. It took a few years to restore and rehab the Frozen Forest house, but she now has a proper studio where she can paint women, women's shoes, and laugh maniacally about her hungry and humble art beginnings and how they led her to be the subject of a 12-page British Vogue magazine spread in 2014, when model Kate Moss styled Daria Werbowy as Niagara — weighted fringe, smudged black eyeliner, subtle scowl, and all.

"I remember when I started in art ... there used to be only a few galleries in Birmingham because that was, like, the snooty gallery area," she says. "It was like they wouldn't look at me. So I had to think of another way."

When the time came, Niagara turned to unconventional venues to show her work, mostly in Royal Oak, mostly in shop windows of friends Niagara had collected. She began displaying work in the wrap-around windows of a vintage store called Patti Smith, where she began to sell, to people's surprise, some of her paintings, and also in the windows of Dave's Comics & Collectibles and Heidi Lichtenstein's once-iconic shop Cinderella's Attic. But it wasn't until Rick Manore opened the C-Pop Gallery in 1996 that Niagara found a true home for her work.

‘I remember going with Mike Kelley, he had a show in a Birmingham gallery and there was no music and no drinks, no nothing. I was like, God, this is terrifying, you know? What could be worse?’

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"We just made our own world of art 'cause we couldn't show in a gallery — that's for sure," she says. "[Manore] changed the scene a lot. And we were getting so much press for quite a while, and I think some of the galleries who were established never forgave us, if that's possible. It was against the establishment," she says, adding that she probably could've shown anywhere if she tried, but knew that she wouldn't be able to put on the kind of show she wanted.

"I wanted to turn art shows into parties. I was just from the music and entertainment world. Art is entertainment, so entertain!" Niagara says. "I remember going with Mike Kelley — he had a show in a Birmingham gallery, and there was no music and no drinks, no nothing. I was like, God, this is terrifying, you know? What could be worse?"


Niagara has literally never heard of Twenty One Pilots or Imagine Dragons, two bands that found themselves topping the decade-end list of Billboard's hottest charting rock songs. She blames a greedy industry for the "pasteurization" of music, something that, when she formed Destroy All Monsters in 1973, was not possible.

Famed rock critic, gonzo journalist, and Creem magazine editor Lester Bangs — who hated Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and possibly Lou Reed — once described Destroy All Monsters as "anti-rock." According to a passage in former MT music editor Brett Callwood's The Stooges: A Journey Through the Michigan Underworld, Bangs died wearing a Destroy All Monsters T-shirt, a band that never released a proper album.

"I just died when he died that young," Niagara told Callwood. "It was horrifying."

Later, Niagara fronted Dark Carnival with Ron Asheton and his drummer brother Scott, also of the Stooges. In one shaky and slightly voyeuristic camcorder video from a Dark Carnival performance at Alvin's in 1995, Niagara appears in a fur coat and pulls a clear glass vessel from her pocket before ditching the coat, taking a swig, and chasing it with Diet Pepsi. As with much of her stage antics, she would throw her waifish frame to the ground like a marionette who had just had her strings cut, remaining there, lifeless in some variation of a sequined bralette and high-waisted nylon pants, just after unleashing a piercing punk howl — almost as if the screech drained her of her lifeblood.

Ron Asheton died in 2009. Kelley died by suicide in 2012, followed just weeks later by Davis, who died of liver failure. Scott Asheton died in 2014.

"We were like part of the underground 'cause we weren't pop, that's for sure," Niagara says. "But you know, after a couple of decades, there really isn't an underground anymore. I mean we were written about, we had a ton of press even though we weren't signed to a label. But now if you're a small band, I mean, I don't know what you do. Start crying, I guess."


click to enlarge Niagara, right, meets alternative model Foxy Menagerie at the Dirty Show opening. - Jerry Vile
Jerry Vile
Niagara, right, meets alternative model Foxy Menagerie at the Dirty Show opening.

In addition to her Dirty Show presentation, the erotic showcase coincides with her debut show at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery in Los Angeles. (She adds that if we've never heard of him, he's very "fancy," and after a simple Google search, we concur.)

There were times, though, where maybe she wasn't eating because, you know, starving artist syndrome. But Niagara never concerned herself with whether her art would be a sustainable way to make a living. Not for a second.

"No, no, never, never," she says. "Art not being sustainable didn't scare me. You know, maybe if we weren't eating, maybe, sometimes, but as long as you can afford your drugs and are having high times, then you're OK. So as long as you can maintain up to a certain level, you'll be OK. Maintain your attitude and everything else follows."

Niagara's attitude is, for a lack of a better description, pure. She says what comes to mind — even if it comes off as curt. It's never mean, but still undeniably endearing — and maybe even flirtatious. She does what she wants, and, with regard to her relationship with the Colonel, her attitude is loving, certain, and somewhat relieved. Though she won't reveal how long she and the Colonel have been properly shacking up, as to avoid sounding "depressing," Wikipedia says the two have been married since 1986, something she bemoans as being just "too status quo."

"Colonel does so much," she says. "I mean, if I have a show and I pick out the stuff, he takes care of the framing and the sending, shipping, and all that stuff, which people always said they wish they had. The artists in town were like, 'I wish we had a Colonel.' I just have to do the artwork, and he does all the stuff I don't want to do in the art world or not. He likes cooking. He's a race car driver, so he does the driving. It was a good choice."

Because the Dirty Show coincides with Valentine's Day, and Valentine's Day is a bullshit farce camouflaged as a celebration of romantic love, and, since Niagara is a living, breathing oracle who, should she choose to retire, could easily pass as a perfectly medicated and enchanting life coach for the world's many underdogs in need of guidance, we asked her to supply some advice on how to maintain a successful relationship. Of course, true to Niagara's outlook, her advice could easily be applied to love, sex, drugs, art, and maybe even death.

"There must always be humor," she says. "And you can't have humor unless you're smart — and if you're smart, you probably don't need any advice from me."

Niagara's work will be shown at the Dirty Show Friday, Feb. 14 and Saturday, Feb. 15 at the Russell Industrial Center; 1600 Clay St., Detroit; dirtydetroit.com; 21+; Tickets are $40+.

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