I am a painter of torsos; I believe the body tells stories that faces can’t. Faces are like ID cards, but bodies house intimate secrets, and I think of them as landscapes. I’ve been painting torsos as a form of portraiture for more than 20 years, and throughout this time, I’ve drawn and painted over 500 people.
I first met Genesis when we were on a panel together at Invisible-Exports. I realized during our conversation that Gen and I had a truly simpatico connection. And I noticed that he/r left forearm, where he/r sleeve was rolled up, was emblazoned with so many layers of tattoos—some aged and fading, some new, sharp and crisp—that he/r skin seemed to contain oceanic depths. I knew then that I wanted to paint he/r portrait.
I got my wish when, some months later, encouraged by Invisible-Exports’s Benjamin Tischer, Gen agreed to model for me. We decided we’d play it by ear; s/he had been diagnosed with leukemia just a few months before. When s/he felt well enough, s/he would come to my studio for a few hours. And about every two months, Genesis came for a sitting. The process took more than a year.
When s/he arrived for our inaugural session and took off he/r shirt, the first thing I noticed was a tattoo of Lady Jaye on the inside of he/r right forearm. Lady Jaye’s face peeked out knowingly, smiling, from the side of Gen’s body where he/r arm rested, and I felt her presence there with us. Then I saw the snake tattoo, which originated on he/r right shoulder and spiraled down to he/r breast, where its face pointed up to a small bare-breasted figure with a masked head. Gen’s right nipple was pierced, and he/r left breast had several pink scars gashed across.
I asked what the scars were from, thinking it might have been breast cancer, something many of my models had experienced.
No. Gen explained that the scars were the result of sex play with Lady Jaye. Lady Jaye had stabbed he/r with a knife, not meaning to go so deep, but it was pretty deep. She’d wanted to take Gen to the hospital, but—Gen shrugged—s/he refused. And it turned out fine!
S/he laughed her wide-open, grinning laugh, with twinkling eyes.
I made a playlist, “Healing Music,” on Spotify for our portrait sessions. Because Gen was battling leukemia, I wanted our visits to be restful and feel positive. The music was basically relaxation music, the kind you might fall asleep to, along with some feminist drumming.
As I worked, we talked. I learned the story of Gen’s life. Getting kicked out of England (which always seemed to remain a sore spot), and getting to know William S. Burroughs; living in California, and surviving a terrible house fire, which was a turning point.
S/he talked about he/r friendship with Kathy Acker. S/he talked about he/r daughters. S/he talked about meeting Lady Jaye for the first time in a dungeon. S/he talked constantly and longingly of he/r current girlfriend, Susana, who was in Spain due to problems with immigration that prevented her from visiting the US. Gen also talked about the many notes s/he received from all over the world from young trans kids, who told he/r s/he was a role model for them. That made he/r profoundly happy.
One day Gen asked if s/he could play music made by a friend. We listened for a while to haunting music made by her friend Little Annie Bandez, and then I asked if we could listen to he/r own music. So for the rest of the afternoon we alternated between Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV.
Many friends of mine were fans of Gen as early as high school. I on the other hand wasn't familiar with he/r until I was in the Invisible-Exports show with her in 2017. Several of he/
r works from COUM Transmissions were in that show: visceral, vaginal works—what looked like flayed skin framed under glass, ephemera from performances. Hence, I knew he/r first as a visual artist. The show was called Cheap Suitcase, after the phrase, “the body is just a cheap suitcase,” which Genesis often quoted Lady Jaye as having said.
Dropped her body. That’s how she referred to Lady Jaye’s death. The body is just the body. A new philosophy for me to take in, having come of age as a queer feminist in the ’90s, which was sex-positive and also, for me, about claiming the body as sacred.
But for Genesis, this wasn’t a contradiction. The body was a cheap suitcase, but the body was a sacred cheap suitcase. The body could be kept alive through miracles brought on by shamans and by the good wishes of fans all over the world.
Gen was never without he/r charm necklace: long, draping and bright gold, it boasted a series of charms that each held special meaning. There was a rounded wooden phallus; a happy face; an elegant high-heeled shoe decorated with lavender gems. There was a tiny gold machine gun, studded with rhinestones. A Buddha sitting in meditation on a triangular base. African twin sculptures, carved in gold, connected at the waist. And a vintage heart-shaped locket, which contained faded close-up photos of two faces: Genesis and Lady Jaye, two halves of a whole.
That necklace upped the ante. After that, the necklaces my models wore became more creative. Grace, another model who I was working with at the time, decided to make a necklace for their portrait, which included many charms and special objects.
It was like the lid had been taken off of something. All of a sudden I saw the bodies as sites of creativity and magic in ways I hadn’t before. And soon after, I started making still-life paintings of my own personal altars, sacred sites festooned with celebratory, significant objects, charged with power.
Back when s/he was sitting for me, Gen signed the blank journal I ask all my models to sign. Since the late ’90s, I’ve collected writings from models as a record of the portrait, the model’s thoughts, and a marker of that moment in time. Gen wrote carefully in blue pen, and embellished the page with some drawings of childlike trees and lightning zig-zags.
19th July 2018 dearest Clarity,
We rarely are touched by contemporary paintings. Too much “deceptual art” as Brion Gysin would say. Years ago we studied with a Cheyenne Apache shaman. Talking with him about “ART” he explained to me how he assessed artworks with questions…1. Is this telling me coumthing we never knew before?
and is it adding positivity to my world?
2. Is this giving coumthing to my community /I.T. didn’t know before? Is it adding coumthing positive to my coum-unity?
3. Is this teaching this world coumthing new that adds to our world positively?
We find we use these checks our SELF when viewing new arts. Butter we also add another question.
“WHAT’S THEE STORY?” What are we learning that we didn’t know before AND what is it telling we about this mystery ov being apparently alive.
NO STORY — NO GOOD
Your paintings scream YES to every question. Stories are clearly written in flesh, and scars. Saying so much.
We are truly honoured to be included in your coum-unity ov torsos! So much to know.
L - ov - E
Genesis Breyer P-Orridge
As is clear from these words, Genesis was supportive and sensitive, enthusiastic about art and artists. And he/r own work was prolific and boundless, traversing many media and boundaries. S/he made he/r own rules, and gave people courage to be themselves, to create their own systems, language, myths and stories. S/he inspired me and left me changed, and I am profoundly grateful that I got to know he/r while s/he was still here on this earth, in he/r body.