Valley of the Judys

"Judy's been done to death."

This was a friend's way of saying that the iconic Judy Garland is no longer a viable candidate for impersonation--that drag queens should simply stop "doing Judy." Respectfully disagreeing, I talked about the sheer pleasure of familiarity and repetition--the fun of, say, lip-synching to "The Trolley Song" for the umpteenth time--but I also mentioned Tara Mateik, a performance and media artist whose work revives some of Garland's less heralded appearances, proving that Judy worship isn't just a gay male affair, and that it certainly isn't limited to a few well-known texts or strategies of impersonation.

Mateik, whose ongoing project There's No Place will be featured at Brooklyn's Morbid Anatomy Museum on Friday, November 13th, is interested in what's unexpectedly, expansively queer about such "gay icons" as Garland, Diana Ross, and Billie Jean King, among a whole host of others, including L. Frank Baum, author of the original Oz books. Restaging conspicuous cultural events like King's 1973 tennis match against Bobby Riggs (in his interactive performance, single channel video, and video installation Putting the Balls Away), Mateik's work also excavates less recognizable incidents, such as the behind-the-scenes processes by which Ross was cast as Dorothy Gale in Sidney Lumet's film The Wiz (1978). In his video Friends of Dorothy Screen Test (Diana Ross), Mateik plays the part of Lumet, lip-synching to audio of the director and combining various modes of drag in order to explore some of the more obscure ways that The Wiz has captured queer imaginations.

Not satisfied with obvious renderings of queer fandom, Mateik works to unearth, restage, and, in the process, dramatically expand the pleasures of the commercial past. Reenactment--once a denigrated documentary strategy, the allegedly stilted alternative to the trendy cinéma vérité--has recently returned to popular and experimental filmmaking with a force that is difficult to deny, and Mateik's work captures its richness for queer theory and practice. His video Unauthorized Interview Live from Studio 54 reenacts Jane Pauley's odd 1978 "infiltration" of Studio 54, when Pauley interviewed Steve Rubell, Michael Jackson, and Liza Minnelli. Playing Rubell, and lip-synching to audio from Pauley's actual interview, Mateik introduces a shy Jackson, fresh from filming his scenes as The Scarecrow in The Wiz, and finally ushers Liza (characteristically late to the party) into the frame. More than just a platform for multiple drag performances, Mateik's video is also a poignant commentary on the immediate pre-AIDS period, and a sobering critique of the kind of surveillance work that Pauley was often called upon to perform as a kind of representative of straight America in the 1970s.

Mateik's work has a special resonance in this age of digital availability--an age in which YouTube, Vimeo, and other video-sharing sites make the dregs of the distant past as accessible as a current episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Indeed, new facets of Judy Garland fandom owe much to the circulation on social media of episodes of Garland's ill-fated television series The Judy Garland Show (1963 - 1964), in which the legend attempts to out-sing her daughter Liza, or complement Barbra Streisand on a live mash-up of "Get Happy" and "Happy Days Are Here Again." Apart from reviving such brilliant performances, YouTube is also, of course, home to embarrassments--including Judy's disastrous screen tests for the 1967 film Valley of the Dolls, which Mateik will recreate live at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, alongside drag star MargOH! Channing.

The recent controversy surrounding Roland Emmerich's notorious Stonewall (2015) seemed to coalesce longstanding concerns about the way that diverse queer experiences are often reduced to the dimensions of male homosexuality--and a white, normatively bodied homosexuality, at that. If white gay men were hardly the exclusive sources of the rioting in and around Stonewall in 1969, then such figures are hardly the only queer beneficiaries of Baum's legacy, or of Garland's. Mateik's work helps us to remember the expansively queer stakes of various "gay favorites," as well as of a few fabulous misfires.

Valley of the Dolls Ladies' Wardrobe Screen Test (Judy Garland) / Afterparty for Judys, Nov 13th, 6.30pm at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, 424 Third Avenue, 11215 Brooklyn NY