COUNTRY GLITTER Larry Krone in Sequins
In front of a glittering tinsel back drop, three janitors swept a small stage. “The House of the Rising Sun” began playing, piped in over a tinny loudspeaker. One of the janitors shouted, “I love this song!” With that, they all unbuttoned their coveralls, revealing the tops of gold and silver costumes, and started to dance and pretended to sing. When it was over, they put their arms back in their sleeves, buttoned the tops of their coveralls, picked up their brooms and walked offstage. This was the prelude to Commitment, a performance by Larry Krone.
Glitzy costumes awkwardly hidden under workaday uniforms are perfect metaphors for many of Krone’s favorite themes. Since he began exhibiting his sculptures, installations, and videos in the early nineties, Krone has employed labor intensive fabrication to produce works in which he attempts to fulfill his wildest fantasies while exposing his vulnerability in various ways. Inspired by feats of folk craftsmanship that go into tender souvenirs made by ordinary working people, Krone delights in devoting countless hours of pointless hard work to produce intricate and sentimental creations that elicit gasps of amazement, giggles, and a hint of tears, all at the same time.
Commitment was the most recent installment of an enterprise in which Krone risks complete humiliation as he lives out his dream of country music stardom. Since 1996, when he began refining his program of country renditions, Krone’s obsession with country music has been steadily mushrooming. Although he is the headliner, he is almost always accompanied by family and friends, most often his sister Janet and her husband Randy. In earlier performances, they sang off-key and played ineptly, but they are steadily becoming more proficient. Every visual element–costumes, backdrops, programs, publicity flyers–is handcrafted by Krone. Limited edition Larry Krone souvenirs are for sale, including tee shirts, camisoles, and scarves printed with Krone’s hand-drawn renditions of the classic bandana pattern, his name printed with large letters in the center.
Usually, the programs begin with solos. Dressed in a patchwork shirt, Elvis belt, and cowboy hat, Krone may perform Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” a tearjerker about a child who, in spite of his classmates’ ridicule, proudly wears a multicolored coat sewed by his mother from scraps because he knows it was made with love. Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville” (“Wastin’ away in Margaritaville, searchin’ for my lost shaker of salt”) is another favorite solo number. A mock serious feminist segment can start with an onstage costume change that elicits hoots and catcalls from the audience, as Krone removes pants and boots to reveal a skintight pink chemise dress and fishnet stockings. Pigtailed blond wig, feather boa, and hat complete the drag, clashing amusingly with Krone’s hairy chest and tattoos, for “80’s Ladies,” a ludicrous number about women’s liberation, with lyrics about burning bras, dinners, and candles at both ends.
Then there is the “real” portion of the program. “There’s been too much glitz and glitter tonight, I gotta show something real,” Krone may announce, changing into a bathrobe with a big blue star on the back. Commitment featured Krone’s first original song, “Never Afraid.” “I dreamed I was happy and didn’t have to drink. I dreamed I was a genius and I didn’t have to think. . . . I dreamed I was rich and had so much money. I dreamed I had a girlfriend and she called me honey. I dreamed I was famous and always got laid. I dreamed I was tough and never afraid.” But in the end, “the problem with dreams is you always have to wake.”
Although live performance is a relatively recent development in his work, Krone has been making videos since 1989. Taking a cue from Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, his earliest videos documented feats of endurance and humility. “My performances always explore how embarrassed I can possibly make myself,” the artist says. To the tune of “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers, Country Music Video #3 (1992) begins with an open toilet, seat up. Flowing into the toilet for over three minutes (exactly the length of the song), a stream of urine, so loud you can almost smell it, nearly drowns out the music, until the tip of a penis enters the frame and shakes, and the toilet flushes. Achieved with plenty of labor intensive splicing, this marathon urination display is, to Krone, “the crude realization of a fantasy of grandiose macho achievement.” It also exposed one of the most vulnerable moments anyone could show.
Changing Clothes (1989) features the artist stripping out of his ordinary clothes and recostuming himself, step by step, to the accompaniment of music by AC/DC. He begins with a rubber jockstrap, followed by a wet suit and sequined underpants. A sparkly vest, flaring miniskirt, and silver jeans jacket are accessorized with necklaces, bracelets, a gold swimming cap, and rhinestone glasses. Finally, he picks up a shoulder bag and leaves. “A guy in a dress, acting like a guy, is always funny–Milton Berle and Jack Lemmon, for example,” says Krone. “Putting on silly outfits on stage is about doing anything to make people laugh.” Although Krone says his deadpan drag performances are purely comedic, he does admit to implying a bit of sexual ambiguity and enjoys displaying his body for a tease.
As a teenager in St. Louis, Krone made jewelry and mobiles, sewed, did projects from a Barbie activity book, played the saxophone in rock bands, and fantasized about becoming a famous singer without ever actually singing at all. Going to art school merely for lack of interest in any so-called serious career, he was drawn to early minimalist video and Fluxus, where he found justification for his pleasure in ephemeral craft projects and his disdain for the more serious activities of painting or sculpting a masterpiece.
Krone’s performances have taken place in art world venues including the New Museum for Contemporary Art, Exit Art, the St. Louis Forum for Contemporary Art, and the Gramercy Art Fair, most often accompanying exhibitions of his sculpture and installations. In a kind of fetishization of the pathetic, Krone’s works often include objects made from discarded parts of his own body, including extracted wisdom teeth and fallen hair. For Krone, using body scraps to make art is another way of exposing vulnerability. It is also a way to fill the work with authentic feeling. If Krone fails to realize the modernist goal of complete individual artistic expression, at least he can assert that in one respect his art is a true emanation of his real self.
Most frequently exhibited are works from a series of hair drawings Krone began in 1995. At first he simply preserved the random patterns occurring in clumps of long hair taken from the shower drain by sealing them between wax paper and colored glassine. Adding text was the next step. Beginning with a piece of wood hammered with protruding nails that outline a word from a country song, Krone winds hair saved from hairbrushes around the nails and stiffens it with hairspray. After the nails are removed, the hair word is sealed within two pieces of wax paper. Once a representation of each word of a phrase is complete, the drawings are assembled into multi-panel installations. “I wanted to find a way to give others the same experience I got from the songs. In the hair pieces, I was trying to contain the moments in the songs when the lyric is the most emotionally affecting.”
Also utilizing parts of his own body were Krone’s Wisdom Tooth Fool Dolls, teeth painted with facial features and dressed in miniature hand-sewn costumes. Other sculptures and installations include a hand-sewn, brown, cotton tree-stump cushion stuffed with cedar chips (an object filled with utterly charming contradictions–a cuddly piece of wood), and Peanuts, three thousand cocktail peanuts in shells brought to life with tiny pipe cleaner limbs.
As sung by Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You” has been a favorite of Krone for years, perhaps because it unites two key obsessions: time and sentiment. An early, rather minimalist video from 1993 consists of a spliced series of extreme close-ups of Krone’s face, singing along with Parton as she repeats the phrase again and again with small variations, twisting the repetition into a humorous, yet irritating meditation on the nature of duration and emotion that seems to go on forever. For a 1996 installation in Chicago, Krone sat on the toilet in the gallery bathroom and wrote the words “And I Will Always Love You” in black magic marker on every portion of the walls he could reach. And for Man at Work, a performance at the Swiss Institute in New York in 1996 in conjunction with the group show Time Wise, Krone dressed as a carpenter and spent every Saturday covering the Institute’s columns with the same words. Repeated so often, the meaning of the phrase comes into question. What does it mean to tell someone “and I will always love you”? Does repetition make the emotion more concrete, or does writing it a thousand times drain all meaning from the concept of everlasting love?
Another installation consists of an 8 x 6 foot representation of a parquet dance floor made from 80 x 80
masonite panels covered with a wood-grain-patterned transfer paper held on with double-stick tape. “The floor was a way for me to make something without using words to express the same kind of futility of labor. It’s non-functional,” says Krone. “The actual floor is really constructed like a platform floor, except it is totally rickety, and to walk on it would be to destroy it. To make it took the same amount of effort as it would to make a real, functional floor, but it’s just something to look at and have. How does the falsity of the wood affect its looks, its value, or its preciousness?”
Krone’s performances have the quirky, inside-out relationship with the country music genre that his exhibited work has with country handicraft. On one hand, the performances grow out of his interest in minimalist seventies performance art. “I have a romantic, theoretical relationship with that work,” Krone says. “Just that fact that it exists was my entry into doing my performances as performance art. It’s a back door into being a singing star. That’s the only way it could happen. And my thinking about the way things look on stage comes from seventies performance art.”
However, Krone’s adolescent dreams of truly becoming a country music singer are probably the root motivation for his performances. “My highest aspiration is to be recognized by the real country music people, to have them know who I am, and to be able to present an award at a country music awards ceremony.” But Krone never forgets that he is an amateur. “I’m out there, I’m not a very good singer, things aren’t together, but that’s how I see it relating to the other work. It’s an attempt toward something that is futile, because I don’t have the basic elements. In the tree stump–trying to make fabric look like a tree stump is totally futile, almost a waste of time. And I try, when I sing, to get the audience on my side, because that’s my only hope. If they like me, they will want to stay, even though it’s not the best music.”
Love Can Build a Bridge, Krone’s most elaborate performance to date, was held in conjunction with his solo exhibition at the St. Louis Forum for Contemporary Art in 1998. In addition to the usual sidekicks, it included an opening act and a finale featuring a children’s chorus. The show began when Krone’s brother placed a tape player on a stool in the middle of an empty stage. Once the music began, a microphone was placed on top of the tape player to make it clear that the opening act consisted only of canned music and was completely false. Krone’s mother’s hairdresser, a family friend since Krone’s childhood who often performs in drag at bars in St. Louis, appeared in a velvet strapless dress, upswept hairdo wig, and large earrings. A fake woman holding a fake microphone, he began lip-synching and hamming it up to “Superwoman,” a country-themed, black R&B song: “I can’t be the kind of woman that you want me to be.” The words of the song assert a real identity, that sung by a man, turn into a joke.
Questions of fakery and reality run through every aspect of Krone’s work. Authenticity–“realness”–is often the goal of pop music. Stars convince their audiences that they are communicating real emotions, but only the artist knows if anything true is revealed. Clever concert banter between star and audience feeds into fan fantasies of emotional connections that will never exist. The illusion of realness is thus achieved through craft, and Krone falls for these tricks just like any other fan. But in his own performances, he maintains a humorous distance from his material, and is careful to avoid any pretense of cultural authenticity. While exotic backwoods harmony and homespun ukelele duets lend his music a poignant folksy resonance, when he forgets lyrics, or begins a song again because of a mistake, he always takes the opportunity to jokingly remind spectators that he’s not really from the country at all.
Krone does strive for realness, but his kind of truth is not achieved through craft. Awkwardness is a common signifier for authenticity. Endearing themselves to audiences with a clunky lack of production values, Krone and his fellow performers tend to mess around awkwardly with the microphones between each song, making it obvious that they don’t know what they are doing. They often watch their fingers as they play their instruments, because they don’t have the expertise to perform without looking. Spectators, who are usually personal friends, feel that they are viewing a performance that is not very different from what might happen if they got on stage and tried to sing themselves. Renditions are almost as intimate as a mother singing to an infant. When a piece is completely successful, the performers seem as surprised and pleased as a child at a school recital who plays without a mistake.
Just as he enjoys spending endless futile hours trying to create a squishy tree or a dance floor impossible to dance on, Krone derives artistic satisfaction from his musical ineptitude. His attempts at country stardom, or in drag, his absurd imitations of women, may be phony, but his potential embarrassment is all too real. In attempting to communicate authentic emotions through obvious falsity, Krone has found a way to insinuate his hobbies into the dry traditions of minimal and conceptual performance and art. The work’s humorous poignance is found in the gap between means and results. With inordinate labor and craft, Krone explores the poetry of failure. As his performances continue to become more polished, one wonders how long he will be able to continue to walk this particular tightrope.
Elisabeth Kley, an artist and writer based in New York, contributes to PAJ and various on-line publications.
Published in Performing Arts Journal, Vol.. 23 (PAJ 67-69), 2001.