Catch LA’s iconic, trailblazing butch lesbian musician and artist Phranc’s first ever retrospective, Phranc: The Butch Closet, at Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, CA, until December 2.
Phranc: The Butch Closet is a multi-disciplinary installation that spans over 40 years of queer icon Phranc’s life as an artist and ‘Jewish Lesbian Folksinger and Cardboard Cobbler’. Building on her performance Phranc Talk, which explores the development of Phranc’s butch persona, this exhibition contextualizes the artist’s lifelong experience as a trailblazing performer and maker, constructing and reconstructing her image against a larger historical context of second wave feminism and queer activism, spanning the history of our community, from lesbian separatism to the ongoing evolution of gender identity.
Designed as a memoir-like survey of over 40 years of her creative life, The Butch Closet presents Phranc’s acclaimed, witty cardboard-made artwork, installation, and ephemera as a way to celebrate her groundbreaking life of queer music and activism, art, feminism, and butch identity.
Phranc, 66, has simultaneously released her solo music on major streaming platforms for the first time, including her acclaimed first solo album Folksinger (1985), I Enjoy Being A Girl (1989) featuring the acclaimed song “Take off Your Swastika”, written as a reaction to punk violence and use of the swastika, Positively Phranc (1991), Goofyfoot (1995) and Milkman (1998).
Of the exhibition Phranc says, “I wanted to create a ‘memoir’ through a museum-like retrospective of my lifelong artistic work as a queer butch artist and musician. Since I come from a punk, DIY background, I didn’t want to wait until someone approached me, and I started organizing to create The Butch Closet with the support of the esteemed Craig Krull Gallery. After this initial show, the retrospective will continue to play galleries and art spaces in 2024, with exciting venue announcements to follow.”
By meticulously re-creating such personal objects as Phranc’s Baby Quilt and Lamb Chop Halloween Costume out of paper, cardboard, thread, and found materials, Phranc explores complex and layered aspects of memory, personal history and nostalgia. These handcrafted objects illustrate the narrative arc of her life set against the artistic, musical and revolutionary scenes in L.A. (feminist art, punk rock, surfing, and queer communities) that she was an integral part of and witness to, from the 1960s to the present.
The exhibition includes a number of new painted paper sculptures that reference the clothing and significant objects that track her evolution from a young girl to an old butch, such as colorful, little girl dresses and black leather combat boots. The exhibition also includes an archive room highlighting posters, record albums and other ephemera from her music career and an installation that re-creates her studio, documenting the many facets of her artistic process.
Born in Santa Monica in 1957, Phranc came out when she was a teenager and quickly became a lesbian feminist activist studying at the Feminist Studio Workshop at The Woman’s Building in the mid-1970s. In the late ’70s she was a leading voice of the LA Punk Rock scene with bands such as Nervous Gender, Catholic Discipline and Castration Squad. As a reaction to punk violence and use of the swastika, she wrote a song called “Take off Your Swastika” and began identifying on stage as The All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger.
Phranc gained attention with her flat top crewcut, androgynous persona and wry sense of humor. The writer V/D wrote of her for the punk fanzine Slash, “On stage, Phranc looks like a 14-year-old runaway from a boys’ reform school.” Her band Nervous Gender was influential in the development of what later came to be known as ‘electropunk’. Phranc appeared with Catholic Discipline in the landmark 1980 documentary The Decline of Western Civilization. She was also in Castration Squad, a feminist, all-female punk band which featured Dinah Cancer of 45 Grave, Elissa Bello of The Go-Go’s, Alice Bag of The Bags, Tracy Lea of Redd Kross, and Shannon Wilhelm.
Her visual arts practice of making sculpture from painted paper and found cardboard has been part of her creative process from back in the punk days. Her commitment to building community has led to projects that focus on queer survival such as in the exhibition, Swagger (2018) that included a series of orange painted paper life jackets, and an installation of a gay trading post for the Autry Museum during their “Out West” series highlighting LGBTQ histories within the museum’s collection.
In the 1980s, Phranc pursued a solo career. She performed in Paul Morrissey’s film Madame Wang’s (1981) as Phranque. She began playing an acoustic guitar and released Folksinger on Rhino Records in 1985. She opened for music acts such as The Smiths, Hüsker Dü, Violent Femmes, and Billy Bragg. Describing a live performance, Adam Block wrote “Phranc’s unnerving androgyny (expressed with easy confidence) and her fervent opinions (couched in sly, laconic wit) make her a fascinating performer.”
In the 1990s many bands and musicians involved in queercore music began collaborating with her. She appeared as a guest on the Team Dresch LP/CD Captain My Captain and, as well, members of Team Dresch, Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, Patty Schemel of Hole and others have played with Phranc on her EP Goofyfoot and other songs. In the 1990s Phranc performed “Hot August Phranc”, performing as Neil Diamond. Her most recent releases, including Milkman, appear on her own independent record label, Phancy Records.
Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventure in Plastic is a 2001 film that follows her career as a Tupperware Lady and is currently screening on the Criterion Channel.
Phranc still performs occasionally, but spends more time working on creative visual art projects, and flourishing art career, including the Cardboard Cobbler sculptures. In December 2007 she had a solo art show at Cue Art Foundation in New York City curated by Ann Magnuson; The New York Times compared her work to Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. Phranc lives and works in Santa Monica, California and Vancouver, BC.
PHRANC: THE BUTCH CLOSET: Now until December 2, 2023, Tuesday – Friday 10am – 5pm at Craig Krull Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave #B3, Santa Monica, CA. This exhibition is part of the LA citywide, Circa: Queer Histories Festival organized by the One Institute. More information can be found here.