The Performative Drawings of Dorian Katz, aka Poppers the Pony

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The Performative Drawings of Dorian Katz, aka Poppers the Pony

By Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa May 8, 2018

In-depth, critical perspectives exploring art and visual culture on the West Coast.


Dorian Katz’s drawings make me feel good. They make me laugh, put me at ease, titillate, inspire, seduce, and provoke me. Her spectacular species function like comfort animals who take me away to colorful fantasy worlds where tantric Olympics are possible, providing much needed respite from the traumas that perpetually unfold in ordinary reality. Earlier this month, I watched Poppers the Pony (Katz’s alter ego who appears in her drawings) participate in the “Embodied Impressions” panel at the Ev’ry Body, This Time: A Sexuality Studies Conference.1 Donning a glittery purple bodysuit and a shiny mane, Poppers pranced up to the stage in elegant, vintage heels and delivered a stellar artist talk that doubled as an intervention in the discourse on sex. 

Dorian Katz. 120 Days of Sodomy: Day 106, The Original Action Painters, 2017; ink and pencil on paper; 9.5 x 8 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

I was first introduced to Poppers on paper last summer when I went to Katz’s solo exhibition curated by Dorothy R. Santos, Art Practice Makes Art Pervert, at the Center for Sex and Culture in San Francisco. Since then, I’ve had other opportunities to experience the affective force of her drawings, which derives from the work’s playful engagement with fact and fiction, its interactive nature, and the deployment of humor to communicate deeper meanings about desire and fantasy. Katz exposes forces of nature in the animal world that help to deconstruct human-held views of normative sexuality and gender. Katz’s metamorphic animals exist in the liminal spaces between species and genders, illustrating and leveraging other ways of embodiment and being.

ARTISTIC VERSUS SCIENTIFIC DISCOURSES ON SEX

Katz’s proposition to consider the importance of radical animal sex was published in an interview between Poppers the Pony and her collaborator Gottlieb the Jellyfish (aka Barbara Greene)2 after the two were exposed to the scientific research of the transgender biologist Joan Roughgarden, a professor (now emerita) at Stanford, where Poppers was completing her MFA.3 In this interview, Poppers and Gottlieb discuss the similarities and differences in scientific and artistic discourses on sex; depictions of queer sex as acts of queer culture-making; and precedents of scholarly and artistic interventions in the discourse on sex, such as in the work of Michel Foucault and Robert Mapplethorpe.

Dorian Katz. Poppers the Pony’s Field Guide to Horses: Seahorses, 2015; ink on paper; 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

During her presentation on the “Embodied Impressions” panel, Poppers referenced her previous conversation with Gottlieb, sharing insights about cultural representations of hyenas which exemplify misogynistic, human prejudices against certain animal behaviors. Poppers explained that because of female hyenas’ enormous clits, which look like male hyenas’ penises, “people couldn’t distinguish their genders, and that’s why they have been vilified historically. People seem to do that with each other too. Additionally, female hyenas rule the pack, are larger, and have more testosterone than males. They are gender upenders to humans.”4 Such prejudices are not unlike those projected onto women who are supposedly too loud, aggressive, or sexually uninhibited—characteristics which, more often than not, are attributed to queer women, militant feminists, radical women of color, and sex workers.

Dorian Katz. Poppers the Pony’s Field Guide to Horses: the Fabella, 2015; ink on paper; 11 x 14 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

In yet another playful art-meets-science experiment, Katz created A Field Guide to Horses by Poppers the Pony (2016), a zine that combines the facts of certain species, such as seahorses (unique because the male seahorse can get pregnant), Bretons, and Fabellas,5 with fictions concerning their adventurous sex lives. Katz’s humor is complemented by her interactive approach, which lends an embodied and psychic force to this extraordinary, animalistic, and ecstatic body of work: she’s provided audiences with opportunities to participate in her work by inviting them to color her images—as she did with The Animal Sex Coloring Book (2010)—at last year’s opening of Art Practice Makes Art Pervert. And she distributed sheets of paper during her conference presentation to solicit fictional personal ads for “Poppers’ Shopper: For the Adventurous Animal & Insect,” suggesting attendees write from the perspectives of their animal personas.6 Katz’s invitation to lubricate the imagination through interactive methods is the through-line of her many bodies of work.

Dorian Katz. The Animal Sex Coloring Book (front and back cover), 2010; digital print; 17 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

POPPERS THE PONY AT THE CENTER FOR SEX AND CULTURE, JUNE 2017

It was an uncanny sight/site of first love. Stuffed animals, rocking horses, and gallery visitors temporarily lived out the utopia composed in the drawings on the walls. Humans-performing-as animals remained attentive in the “Animal Lounge n’ Play Nook,” installed in a cozy corner of the Center’s library, opposite the gallery walls. Amidst the interplay between two- and three-dimensionality, my gaze shifted between the illustrations and the installation. A mechanized stuffed horse—whose head subtly bopped around—was adorned in red leather and a giraffe-patterned headband, enchanting all who came near. Meanwhile, Katz appeared in the flesh as gallery visitors fed her collaborating performers animal crackers.    

This fantastical display occurred at the opening of Katz’s Art Practice Makes Art Pervert, which featured her series 120 Days of Sodomy—the title appropriated from the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Starting just before the dawn of the current administration, which is illustrated in the series by way of images of fecal matter, Katz completed one drawing each day. It was the beginning of Pride Month in the queer mecca of San Francisco, where commemorations for the 50th anniversary of the debaucherous Summer of Love were also underway. In its timeliness, the exhibition celebrated surreal sexual politics, presenting beautifully grotesque creatures singing in tongues turning to limbs, and flowing fluidly through efflorescent bodily apertures.

Dorian Katz. The Animal Sex Coloring Book: Japanese Macaques, 2010; ink on paper; 8.5 x 11 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

Through the exuberant colors of Katz’s drawings, Poppers manifested in multiple configurations along with her fellow, seductively gendered creatures. Unicorns, goats, and marsupials engaged in a kiss of sodomized hybridization. Throughout these transgressive acts, Poppers shapeshifted; at times appearing, double, triple, or quadruple-breasted, and at others, in liminal centaurian form. Though her hue and shape changed from drawing to drawing, she consistently carried comedic messages inflected by aestheticized smut. In the drawing from the first day of the series, a quadruple-breasted feline-humanoid carries a sex toy in one hand and a microphone in the other. From both ends, s/he invokes, “Let there be smut, let it begin with me,” instigating a synaesthetic response in which the viewer’s ears revise the familiar tune.

Dorian Katz. 120 Days of Sodomy: Day 1, Let There be Smut and Let it Begin with Me, 2017; ink and pencil on paper; 8 x 9.5 in. Courtesy of the Artist.

The composition of image and text that appears in the 120 drawings—at times mimicking musical notation—results in a calligraphic seduction through which cosmic hermaphroditic creatures perform their virtuosity, crawling and flying in the midst of tantric-athletics. The scenes are overlaid with a pacific color palette of pink, baby-blue, and lavender, which adds a softcore layer to the hardcore acts on display. The optic journey into these intricate drawings (each one measures 8 x 9.5 inches) leads our gaze to the end of one spiral, only to be taken on another line of flight as bodies and shapes morph into one another, and then another. The white background on the majority of the images allows the figures to pop—especially the protagonist, Poppers, who gracefully reappears as horns, hooves, and wings travel in and out of her, and her collaborators. These carnivalesque scenes unfold as an ecstatic feminist pornographic film, activating the viewer’s hermaphroditic psychic inversions and extensions.

Dorian Katz. 120 Days of Sodomy: Day 99, Booty, Booty, Booty, 2017; ink and pencil on paper; 9.5 x 8 in. Courtesy of the Artist. Photo: Dina Fayer.  

PERFORMATIVITY AND COLORING BOOKS

The longer I sit with Katz’s drawings, the more their performativity—that is, what they do—manifests in multiple realms.7 When I first watched gallery visitors coloring at the opening, they appeared to be fully embodied in the participatory context of Katz’s fantastical image-making, as I have also been with my very own The Animal Sex Coloring Book. In the process of coloring and following the movements of her robust strokes, we become part of the implicit energy of Katz’s images. In turn, she gives us erotic agency, allowing us to decide which colors to use, and whether we want to color within the lines or not.

In my drawing meditation, I contemplate what color to use for the harness worn by the figure I’ve named Rainbow Bright Macaque. I decide on the royal blue of the Leather Pride flag. Photo: Heather Cox.

The coloring book performs in its form and content. The form does something to us, as does its content. The experience of coloring is both active and passive, as well as physic and physical. We closely look at how the images were made, contemplating another way of being and desiring. The activity also serves as an antidote to our collective, disembodied state: the process brings us back to childhood and using our hands as we once did. We connect pencil to paper, rather than perform the unnatural ergonomic gestures demanded of keyboards and touch screens. A Zen-like meditation unfolds as fantasy and reality blend into each other by way of our liberated hand gestures. Katz’s playful images encourage us to see animals and ourselves in a new light, showing us that the possibilities are endless. 

Though Katz’s visual works evoke a visceral response, it is also the durational and participatory context of their presentation—as described in the examples above—that enables a fuller engagement. The strength and efficacy of her images lie in their ability to serendipitously penetrate the viewer’s psyche and body—whether while sitting on the bus, or riding the slow waves of sleep or lovemaking. Their depiction of radical genders and sexual practices does the important work of keeping our beloved and dystopian Bay Area queer, which has increasingly proven to be a challenge given the region’s drastic demographic shifts since the early 2010s.8 The sexual synaesthetics and utopian imagery that characterize Katz’s drawings offer relief in the midst of dark times, making her art practice a politicized form of art therapy, as well as queer culture preservation.

Notes

  1. The event was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Sexual Culture at University of California, Berkeley, and the “Embodied Impressions” panel featured two other scholars, Jess Dorrance and Dinah Lensing-Sharp (both from UC Berkeley), who discussed transgender representations in contemporary art.
  2. See Boo Chapple, “On the Collaborative Work of Barbara Greene and Dorian Katz,” in Almanac: An Index of Current Work and Thought (Stanford: Stanford University, 2010), 146-147.
  3. Roughgarden related her research on variation in animal sexuality to the fallacy of heteronormativity. Her book, Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, was taught in Peggy Phelan’s “Intro to Queer Studies” class, which Poppers and Gottlieb took while Katz was also studying with Enrique Chagoya in the Art Department. Roughgarden also acted as the primary content adviser for The Sex Lives of Animals, an exhibition at the Museum of Sex in New York City in the summer of 2017. The exhibition provided evidence of homosexuality, group sex, intersexuality, and other sex and gender practices in animals that are typically considered non-normative among humans.  
  4. Chapple, 148. Poppers’ statement calls to mind hermaphrodites, intersex people, and people of color who displayed “abnormalities,” such as Herculine Barbin and Sarah Baartman (aka the “Hottentot Venus”). These historical figures, about whom much has been written, were subject to intrusive examinations by the scientific field in the early nineteenth century (see for example, Michel Foucault on Barbin, and Sander Gilman on Baartman). At the UC Berkeley Conference, Katz also mentioned that she used the location of the hyena colony that formerly lived for thirty years at UC Berkeley as her research site. For information about the colony’s closure, and the research on hyenas that happened there, see http://www.berkeleyside.com/2014/09/15/berkeleys-captive-colony-of-spotted-hyenas-closes-after-30-years
  5. The Breton is a breed of draft horse developed in Brittany, from a native ancestral stock dating back thousands of years. The Fabella is a miniature horse, one of the smallest breeds in the world, developed in Argentina, with Andalusian and Iberian bloodlines. 
  6. For this fictional dating site project, Katz will use the anonymous ads to publish a new zine of drawings. Katz mentioned to me that anonymity is an important part of her ethical approach as an artist: “Like consent, protection of people's anonymity has been an important component in the ethics of the San Francisco queer women’s BDSM community since the 1970s. It seems like a good practice to extend this basic courtesy when encouraging and hoping for play and interaction.” From an email correspondence with the Artist, April 15, 2018.
  7. Within the field of performance studies, scholars often cite the work of J.L. Austin (How to Do Things with Words, 1955) who introduced the concept of the “performative utterance” as that which accomplishes what it sets out to do in its very utterance (“I do,” in a marriage ceremony is one of his primary examples). Subsequently, scholars in other fields have applied this concept of performativity as “doing-ness” to other phenomena, such as Judith Butler who developed theories concerning the performativity of gender (Gender Trouble, 1990), that is, the way it is constituted through language as well as through the repetition and reiteration of learned behaviors.
  8. For one of many articles that examines this demographic shift, see Dan Kopf, “San Francisco’s Diversity Numbers Are Looking More and More Like a Tech Company’s,” in The Atlantic, 9 May 2016, accessed April 20, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/05/san-francisco-diversity-migration/481668/.

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