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White Queen of Detroit: Niagara's Torrent Upon Her Rock-Solid Guys (Part 2)

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The artist Niagara’s career can be mapped in collaborations with her three husbands, a torrent of persona, performance, and painting.

Mike Mosher

Continued from Part 1.

IV. Gary’s (or Her) Last Great Ride

The Colonel's NASCAR proclivities and pride make him the anti-Loren; one suspects mom-fed Ron Asheton was more like Cary Loren than it first appears, in the role of musico rather than artist. Perhaps he’s comfortably established himself as the man who’s clearly NOT in, or spoken to in, those Niagara paintings.

At least half of Niagara’s paintings and prints, the ones that brought her notice, have a man involved. He may be in the frame, being shot, slapped, stomped. He may be just outside the frame, in the shoes of the spectator, being told off, given his comeuppance with a sassy quip (if he’s lucky; a bullet if he’s not). She shows female empowerment, but in intensely heated, interpersonal zero-sum games with men. There are winners, and there are losers, and the woman is determined to come out (and, presumably, to come) on top. If her painted ladies are at rest, they are still posing, the camera lingering lovingly upon them. Or they are lost in solitary, stoned reverie, as in her Opium series. Gal-about-town, both scene-stealer and stoned dreamer. After all, the goal of John Sinclair’s imprisonment-risking White Panther Party activism was, ultimately, unfettered marijuana.

Now, Niagara's longtime art dealer and representative Rick Manore might argue with the Colonel being primarily credited with her business success (when asked, he graciously didn’t). Nevertheless, her spouse creates the environment in which the painter can work, and is sheltered from any un-chosen distractions, can set her own hours and work as she pleases. In her Dearborn Heights house with her husband Gary, Niagara had room to paint.

In listing an August, 1993 Hamtramck Falcon Club gig, Lisa Cramton called Niagara Dark Carnival’s leader, a “glamorous part-time astrologer/some-time artist/full-time sex kitten from hell”. The art exhibitions began to pile up: a three person show in September, 1993 at the Whitney Restaurant on Woodward, a February 1995 “Violence is Golden” show, accompanied by Dark Carnival set, at a club called Industry in the gentrifying “New Pontiac City”. In 2000 she was showing paintings in entertainment venues like Lilli’s 21 in Hamtramck (a Punk club that closed in 2002 with a concert by a Punk polka band called the Polish Muslims) whose website is now all written in Chinese. Susan Alteri noted in Real Detroit Weekly: “Almost as soon as she picked up a paint brush, she suddenly went prime time.”

To visit Niagara’s website, one finds a loop of dramatic black and white photographs of the artist, in fishnet stockings, in black bra, with an insouciant cigarette dangling from her lipstick’d lip, brandishing guns. The stentorian voice of a hip critic calls her "Motor City queen, low-brow artist." Another appraisal, in text, by Mike Rubin of SPIN, calls her "A secondhand Nico." If Loren and his friends Kelley, Shaw and the musically-virtuoso Miller brothers chose a gentle Warhol/Smith New York or Syd Barrett Cambridgeshire dandyism, Niagara cranked up the aggression in her artistic persona, clad in tight, trashy, intimate and revealing female attire.

Niagara herself is what the comics artists of the 1940s and ‘50s called good girl art, living her adventures in a story where Life and Love exist as a comic book. People encountering her work have made facile Roy Lichtenstein comparisons, since the painting or fine art glicée print is clearly like a comic book panel, have flat color and slightly clunky insistent lettering. Yet they lack Lichtenstein’s detachment, privileging sexy heat, sensuality and passion instead. I've heard her style compared to that of Dale Messick's long-running strip Brenda Starr. Comics in southeastern Michigan have a rich history, and, consciously or not, Niagara's paintings are in synch with that. Robert Crumb even wrote and drew two issues of a book called Motor City Comics, featuring a revolutionary female commando squad leader named Lenore Goldberg. In the second, Goldberg saves Michigan hippies—including John Sinclair, drawn cowering on the cover—from the oinking and oppressive police. Lloyd Dangle, who graduated high school in Ann Arbor five years after Niagara did in Berkley, MI, produced America’s best political cartoon ”Troubletown” for 22 years. Mark Dancey is another active Detroit artist, who has shown both witty pop graphics and realistic oil paintings in CPop Gallery, may be most famous (and threatened by juggalos) for comics lampooning the Insane Clown Posse. Link Yaco, who appeared in Cary Loren’s Super-8 movies and frequented Destroy All Monsters gatherings, created an alter ego Joe Shwart (intended to be Shwartz, but Yaco was stoned or distracted and forgot the “z”) to lampoon his Ann Arbor Pioneer, and later Earthworks alternative, high school circle. Yaco went on to write the comics MetaCops and Space Chix vs. Businessmen for Eros Press in the 1990s. Paul Remley, another occasional Loren movie actor, also wrote comics for it satirizing high school friends, some of which I illustrated; Remley co-curated a Destroy All Monsters exhibition at Center on Contemporary Art, Seattle WA in 2000. In 10th grade, both Yaco and Remley were instrumental in establishing a comics club at Pioneer High in order to obtain use of the school Ditto machine for publishing, much as Loren published his ad hoc Destroy All Monsters magazine in Ann Arbor about five years later.

Among Niagara’s artwork on the website, there are some flubbed notes. Winston Churchill with a (WTF?) head of hair. Art-school stuff, like every student’s first paintings derived from photographs. There’s a leaden black and white Andy Warhol, Marlene Dietrich in fur, another 1930s figure (Jean Harlow?) doubled like Warhol’s gun-slinging Elvis. In the 1990s, while she was immersed in her band, her old Berkley High School friend David “D.B.” Keeps became editor of Details magazine, and it began to make use of Niagara’s artwork there as illustrations; perhaps these served that role. They’re evidence that it took her some time to find her shtick, identify her defiant-gal themes, to establish her brand. Parts of the website seem to be her garage, her inventory that she hopes to sell off for people who want a Niagara, any Niagara. A 21st century Diego Rivera would not paint a Detroit Industry mural cycle after America's emblematic automobile manufacturers declared bankruptcy, nor does public art like Jon Onye Lockard's 1980 Afrocentric mural cycle at Wayne State University, its figures alternately outraged and optimistic, represent today's hollowed-out Motor City...though Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project street-of-bricolage might. Niagara's industrious easel painting and printmaking model small-scale industry and craft for the culture of a Detroit of modest ambitions. She has acknowledged the inspiration of Warhol as much for his assiduous process (industrial as an auto plant) as for his visual aesthetics.

Women in Niagara’s paintings are tough broads. Yet women making independent, tough choices people (and are embodied in the the narrators of) another Detroit woman’s work, Marge Piercy’s thinly-veiled autobiographical novel of University of Michigan in the 1950s, Braided Lives, or of bomb-throwing radicals unhappily on the lam in the 1970s in Vida. Not that Piercy’s was Niagara’s Seventies; while their Ann Arbor friend Jimm Juback was making a Super-8 movie with Francesca Palazzola as Patty Hearst, Cary took Niagara to Florida to film her as a mermaid, in starfish pasties, emerging from the waves and rolling on the beach. It took time--and maybe her years in a hard rock band--to grow tough.

“Man, everyone in Detroit carries a piece!” exclaimed John Sinclair in a White Panther tape in the UM archives published on CD by Loren. I jokingly quoted this line to a black social worker teaching in my university, and could see the dismay on her face. In promotional shots for Dark Carnival, one guy posed with the black-brassiere-clad singer and Ron Asheton (who hunted and fished, and bought a cabin in northern Michigan for that purpose), someone holds a luger in front of Gary and Niagara’s 1966 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. This also calls up both Detroit and Dearborn’s troubled racial histories. Of the female criminals populating her work, she told Real Detroit’s Susan Alteri “Every city has violent crime, but it’s kind of the epitome of Detroit...It has a really amazing character, a really strange aura of pure crime.”

Niagara was fortunate to gain notice among artists linked in the “low brow” aesthetic, first articulated by southern California painter Robert Williams, who began as an advertising artist for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth—I remember Roth’s ads in Hot Rod magazine about 1966—before drawing an underground comic Cootchy Cooty about 1970. This generally high-concept, slick and unambiguous neo-Pop movement was popularized in JUXTAPOZ magazine, founded by Williams and associates, in which Niagara has advertised her prints, and often been shown in their party and gallery opening shots, once beside the architect Frank Gehry. Rick Manore founded CPop Gallery in downtown Detroit, on its symbolic main street Woodward Avenue—Route 1—in 1996, to feature this new wave of artists (including bringing Williams and his work to Detroit), but eventually left it to Tom Thewes, himself an artist. Her regular shows helped sustain CPop gallery until Thewes offered her a humbling contract. The gallery went out of business in 2009. Since 1996 Detroiter impresario, publicist and playwright Rick Manore has frequently represented her work, whom she’s rewarded with a Lex Luthor-like portrait. Niagara rocks on the dance of early 20th century predecessors like Marie Laurencin or Florine Stettheimer, women painters who traveled in charmed circles, where the action was. Or one might locate her in the tradition of lady surrealists like Leonor Fini, Frida Kalho—who painted tragic works about her Detroit hospitalization—or SaintRyan (Sally T. Ryan), Detroit-born and still active in southeastern Michigan in her early seventies. Of course, Pop culture can be acclaimed as a form of American Surrealism. One recalls that in 1980 issue of Cultural Correspondence that extolled the progressive political potential of home-grown surrealists like the Three Stooges.

In one Niagara painting, a blueskinned woman with vodka, proclaims "It's 5 o'clock somewhere." A favorite one, with an endearingly maddening kind of fuck-it-all Michigan individualism, shows a heavily pregnant woman, cigarette in mouth and whisky bottle in hand, proudly proclaiming “I’m Drinking for Two.” Of her painting “Name Your Poison”, she told Real Detroit’s Susan Alteri “That’s how I think of Detroit—you go out, free drinks, maybe some drugs, there’s great music playing—that’s Detroit. That’s nirvana to me.”

Detroit has a dubious relationship with Asia. A generation ago rage at declining auto industry jobs, blamed on Japanese automakers, caused the fatal beating of Vincent Chin; today China is top buyer of General Motors’ Buick line. Niagara’s “Opium” series, painted upon printed Chinese papers evokes a particular kind of 1930s orientalism, from William Derr Biggers’ honorable San Francisco detective to Sax Rohmer’s wicked Asian villain, as portrayed by Boris Karloff. In junior high school one afternoon, Paul Remley and I were the only ones attending a matinee at Ann Arbor’s Fifth Forum Cinema of a later generation of British Fu Manchu movies, starring Christopher Lee.

Her profile has increased, both internationally and around Michigan. Upon the occasion of her 2007 show “You’re A Nice Man In A Nasty World, Mac, That’s All- Now Get Outta My Line Of Fire” at the Richard Goodall Gallery, Manchester UK, Gordo of gallantly called her an “an astonishingly good looking blond pocket battleship of indeterminate age”. A 2010 exhibition in Sydney, Australia was enlivened with concerts, Niagara’s vocals backed by local band the Hitmen. There Niagara told Alice Wood of the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010 "I was so tired of women in art being treated like still life. I wanted them to start saying what they are thinking, I wanted to see that mix of beauty and hardness in incredibly caustic women. And there is humor, you can see the humor."

removed a mock-Niagara painting in 2010 that was deemed to “model violence against men”. She chuckled at The Sincerest Form of Flattery, as sh looked forward to a well-publicized exhibition in Los Angeles towards the end of that year, along with those old arty boys, Cary Loren, Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw, an event about which, as she packed for the flight west, she joked she was “getting paid”.

Yet it is Niagara’s paintings that carry the day. In her gals-with-guns imagery she reclaims and feminizes the Detroit Jewish underworld of her grandparents’ generation, the Purple Gang, a mob that Elvis Presley name-checked in the 1950s, and Link’s father Murray Yaco claimed still controlled the soda shop in which he courted wife Rosemary. She depicts them in the visual style of the pulp magazines and comic books, produced by other Jews, in New York. In the MC5’s version of John Lee Hooker’s “The Motor City is Burning”, singer Rob Tyner (né Derminer) implores “I’m a white boy but I can be bad too!” Niagara has resurrected the teased-hair, made-up, sexily dressed white bad girl. In fatter times, perhaps a public art grant will fund the placing of Niagara paintings in all abused women’s shelters around Michigan. Or perhaps not.

Much as Tyree Guyton is Detroit's great primitive (a role the Spaniard Picasso played with gusto in Paris 105 years ago), the high-concept and easily recognizable black artist that consequently sucks all the air out of the room or town, making Detroit’s many other black artists invisible, Niagara is the great white (and female) hope, not white whale but svelte barracuda, the embodiment of creativity stubbornly alive in the de-industrialized rustbelt. Niagara is like the white queen in the Eurocentric myth of Zimbabwe's ancient stone structures, the she-who-must-be-obeyed that must have directed the Africans in their construction, for they couldn't have mastered the architectural and fabrication skills by themselves. It is no wonder she's a favorite of Real Detroit Weekly (aka Real Detroit Whitely), which so often resembles a magazine of the 1940s or 1950s in that no more than a single African-American face--an entertainer or sports figure--appears. And this is supposed to be Detroit.

To a teenager forty years ago, Esquire magazine provided a guide to college-bound young men, probably the first place I heard of Norman Mailer’s equation, about fifteen years prior, of the hipster as the “White Negro”. Niagara is the opposite of Negro, but she’s Mailer’s “White Negro”, a hipster, the white queen of the Detroit chessboard. Niagara’s paintings show a romantic world that’s bad without being black. What Detroit now needs is a young black Niagara; perhaps one of my current college art students. Imagine the historical resonances if the woman in such paintings was black. The Rodney King beating probably precludes that subjection of the black male body, except self-imposed by gay men like William Pope L. Yet is there a black female artist painting women as defiantly as she? Has Detroit produced a notable female graffiti artist? One might also stylistically compare her flat, outlined comic book images of lovely ladies—supposedly the 18th century slavers’ kept women—in Senegalese glass painting. Artists Kara Walker and Wagenechi Mutu have depicted women and crime, but as victims, not as righteously vengeful perpetrators. Musically, there was no black Punk woman, no female Hiawatha Bailey--the black White Panther, later Punk rock singer for the Cult Heroes--in Detroit’s revolutionary era of the 1960s and early 1970s who might be emulated. Black women in the arts emerging from Detroit were like the Supremes, or Reverend Franklin’s big-voiced, chubby daughter: expressive of voice but models of decorum and sartorial elegance, ready to entertain auto executives in posh supper clubs like the Roostertail. As far as Hip-Hop goes, rapper Miz Korona gave a turn in the factory in Eminem’s “8 Mile”, but generally flies under the radar. Whereas a tough, no-nonsense “strong black woman” is a cliché, a slinky femme fatale is less common; Eartha Kitt and Robin Givens are few that come to mind. And, like Angela Bassett and Hallie Berry (or Lena Horne), they generally have a shorter career in the spotlight. What young, gifted and black singularly fine painter, Punk rocker and personality is waiting to step forth from the east side of Detroit, or even from the nearest suburbs like Ferndale or Oak Park?

V. She Got a TV Eye

The glow (think: black-and-white television) of Niagara’s very persona helped me establish my post-Ann Arbor friendships. After I moved to San Francisco, after that summer back in my parents’ house in 1978, I found a cheap apartment I liked in the Fillmore district. I put up the Niagara fold-out that had appeared in PUNK magazine a year before, bearing John Holmstrom’s unmistakable lettering crediting photographer Dennis Ledbetter, and the message “I love you but you’re dead” in Niagara’s own spidery hand. A few days later the property management company’s handyman, a painter named Tim Valdez, came to fix something. A fan of Punk, which then was locally centered in his alma mater the San Francisco Art Institute, he remembered a Destroy All Monsters feature in editors/publishers V. Vale and Andrea Juno’s Search & Destroy magazine. “Wow, you mean you actually met her?” he asked with amazement, and I unspooled a few stories of Michigan Punk glory.

To Valdez, Niagara epitomized the Detroit Punk scene, as Patti Smith did New York Punk. But I also suspect Niagara stayed home a lot. There’s a Robert Frank photo, taken during the year the photographer took shots of the Ford River Rouge plant in Dearborn and surrounding metropolitan area, on a trip from New York funded by a Guggenheim Fellowship. It’s labeled in his 1959 book The Americans and subsequent publications “Detroit, 1955” (the year Niagara was conceived), of a sad, mousy little woman working as a ticket taker at a movie house. The movie showing is “A Woman’s Face”, starring Joan Crawford. The live woman glimpses us pensively, and is glimpsed, from a small booth covered with stills from the grim-looking film, including a roughly 3’ x 4’ cut-out of Crawford’s terrified or horrified face, the back of her hands pressed to her lips and cheek. Many of my generation first saw this picture others by Frank, reproduced on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main Street” album in 1972; Frank then accompanied the band’s tour, commissioned to make a documentary movie called “Cocksucker Blues” after the band’s unreleased song. On that album cover, casual, un-posed new black and white photos of the band were juxtaposed with Frank’s photos from his 1950s cross-country trip. One wonders to what degree the ticket-taker is like Niagara, thoughtful girl surrounded by movie images, and--like the Rolling Stones--locating her work in an older, seemingly archetypal mid-century American pop culture.

Besides 1960s Detroit kiddie-show hosts--clowns, a bellboy, a jester, two sailors, a Great White Hunter with an African child pen-pal--there were plenty of old movies shown, with personable hosts. Cheerful Rita Bell in the morning, and suave ex-actor Bill Kennedy in the afternoon, hosted the endless product of Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s. Some hosts were exaggerated personages, like avuncular vampire Sir Graves Ghastly, or Ron Sweed’s character The Ghoul for late-night stoned high school kids. Niagara must’ve absorbed these, as well as female vamps like TV’s Morticia Addams and Lily Munster, or cinema’s Vampira and Elvira.

In 2012, love and death came together for Niagara in an unaesthetic way that wasn’t wry and funny. Destroy All Monsters had reunited once again for a November, 2011 exhibition of their mid-1970s artwork at the Prism Gallery in Los Angeles, part of the multi-venue Pacific Standard Time series of exhibitions across the region. Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw are considered so important to California that the catalogue of the 2006 retrospective exhibition “Los Angeles 1955-1985” at the Pompidou Center, Paris, listed “Formation of the protopunk band Destroy All Monsters Ann Arbor, Michigan” as one of Los Angeles art history’s milestones for the year 1974.

In photos of the four at the reception, Jim Shaw looks like a slightly befuddled mid-life intellectual, while Cary Loren sports the gray beard and nonchalance of a happy old hipster. Mike Kelley is gray and rotund as many Fortune 500 CEOs of the 1970s were; my first thought upon seeing his picture there was that he should consider playing one in one of his performance works. Or he might act in low-budget movies as then-portly Ron Asheton did in the 1990s for several lighthearted, small-budget Troma horror productions. Niagara remains lithe and elegant as a memorable scene-maker, proud as a Bloomfield Hills society dame. But she’s not, she’s an artist, living simply and humbly in Dearborn in circumstances more comparable to Kelley’s working-class home in his youth than opulence.

The 2011 show resulted in Artforum featuring Niagara recounting her long-ago DAM days with the art boys for its “1000 Words” feature, her reminiscences illustrated by a bare-breasted Cary Loren photo. Anthony Ausgang, another successful “low-brow” Pop artist, appeared at the Prism opening in grey Wehrmacht uniform, perhaps in tribute to the late Ron Asheton. All good fun, yet supposedly Jim Shaw had to urge Mike Kelley to even attend the opening of the exhibition he'd helped to organize, for Kelley was despondent after an autumn breakup of a romantic relationship. Kelley's spirits perked up in the course of the evening, and those in attendance recalled him laughing uproariously at Niagara's quips at the artists' dinner afterwards, and even, to the party’s delight, a moment of dry-humping hilarity between them. She also urged Kelley to revisit and stay in his hometown Detroit for a while, to chill out from his years of exhausting productivity. The restful sojourn was not to be; Kelley stayed in L.A., and six weeks later, he killed himself. One lovelorn sad sack worth saving, and it was as if his dame pulled the very trigger (as I write this, the circumstances of his “apparent suicide” have not been released). That’s not how the movie of the young and smart artists--all four with active careers lo these many years--was supposed to play out in the end.

A better, more lasting key to Niagara’s aesthetic is a cheerful mid-century classic American movie, maybe one for which tickets (adults 50 cents, children 15) were sold by the ticket taker Robert Frank photographed, and shown the week before or after “A Woman’s Face.” That movie is the the Samuel Goldwyn-produced movie of the musical “Guys and Dolls”, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and which came out the year Niagara was conceived; maybe her parents went to see it one evening, then came home to bed to complete that very act. Clearly, meta-genealogically, Niagara Detroit is the heir to its charming gambler and gambling impresario Nathan Detroit. Hey, what’s a better metaphor for underground fame, rock n’ roll, and/or the art world than “the oldest floating crap game in New York”?

For Niagara lives in Damon Runyan’s Detroit, one populated not by Harry the Horse, Nicely-Nicely Johnson, Bennie Southstreet, Rusty Charlie and Society Max but Iggy Pop (OK, formerly), Rock Action, Sonic Smith, Greasy Carlisi and Hiawatha Bailey. An aesthetic world where, eternally, a guy—a chump—does something dumb to impress some doll. “Sue me, sue me, get a gun and shoot me” shrugs Nathan (Frank Sinatra). Sinatra told the Hollywood Reporter in 1955 “Exterior schmaltz is no good. Real schmaltz has to come from the heart.” Where would he locate it in Niagara’s persona, performances and paintings? Niagara’s been known to dress in a manner befitting the chorines in the Kit Kat Club where Miss Adelaide stars. She even nicknamed her friend Francesca Palazzola “Frankie”.

The dolls in the movie—Sister Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) and Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine)—have less agency, are more acted upon than active, than those in Niagara’s paintings. Still, in those good ol’ days, a Sailor Jerry tattoo of Lady Luck on a guy’s arm usually lasted longer than the company of the dame whose own arm encircled it. One-man (at a time) woman Niagara has made a memorable career over three and a half decades, first modeling and acting as the blood spattered victim or vamp villainness, then crooning songs of dread and warning, then robustly painting the many monstrous moments behind closed doors. Moments when things get hinky and squinky between men and women, when some chump stops, in the words of the movie’s song, “doin’ it for some dame”, when the had-it-up-to-here doll gets the gun out of the guy’s pocket, or from her night table, and evens the score. Niagara has recreated a Detroit not too distant from Frank Loesser’s clever songs, amidst the bright colors of Irene Sharaff’s costumes and Howard Bristol’s sets. Just like in the Hollywood movie, this doll ended up with the best out of each guy she’s teamed up with. Luck be a lady, named Niagara.

Mike Mosher was exiled and sent away, by his parents, to a distant college, far from revolutionary-era Ann Arbor's radical influences and his high school friends, during most of Destroy All Monsters' heyday.

All paintings and drawings by Niagara. Photo of Shaw, Asheton and Kelley by Cary Loren; Destroy All Monsters at Prism Gallery by Shane Ferrero.

Copyright © Mike Mosher. All rights reserved.

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