an art piece with four polaroid photos of artist Tali Halpern dressed in a duck mask surrounded by psychedelic paint
Credit: Micco Caporale

Bugs Bunny has a luscious ass. We’ve all seen it—the way he goes from a stretch of fur to curvaceous provocateur with just a few outfit and attitude swaps. It’s one of the things that makes the character so iconic. There’s something so sincere about the way he’s able to embody a range of roles without mocking anyone except his oppressors. His power to evade capture by shifting personas is also what makes him meaningful to queer artists, like Tali Halpern, whose collage show “Devotion” at Happy Gallery (curated by Magnet Freda) makes liberal use of him and other cartoon characters from yesteryear to grapple with the question: what does it mean to be an artist today devoted to the queer underground?

With much of the work created since the pandemic started, the Chicago-born, LA-based Halpern reveals a struggle reconciling the person they were raised to be with the person they are now, as well as the world that now exists versus the world that they strive for. The result is both exuberant and chaotic. 

To create this noisy sense of collision, they use materials such as colored pencils, gouache, marker, glitter, candid photos from both their childhood and adulthood, vending machine temporary tattoos, puffy retro Disney stickers, and cutouts from old fetish magazines. The result is a rich personal lexicon that eschews “good taste” and refinement while rooting itself in a sense of nostalgia, affordability, and self-reflection familiar to anyone right now who’s interested in pleasure, power, and resisting the Disneyfication of the world while having been raised on Disney.

In Butch Bugs, a Bugs Bunny sticker raises cat’s-eye glasses to give the viewer a teasing look while wearing a leather motorcycle jacket. The rest of his body is painted on. He leans against a brick wall with a temporary tattoo of roses entangled with barbed wire snaking down it, set in painted swirls of green, yellow, orange, black, and fuschia with dreamy hearts, yellow and pink star stickers, and a butterfly temporary tattoo. To the right, Wile. E Coyote looks on, trapped with their feelings inside a water droplet.

Butch Bugs

Halpern exaggerates the tension between the feminine eyewear and masculine top by giving Bugs long legs with thick thighs and an ample butt wrapped in leather pants and knee-high leather boots with spurs—as though to say, “Paging all leatherdykes!” But wait, Bugs isn’t a dyke. Right? We call Bugs “he” . . . except when Bugs is a “she” . . .  but like, can a cartoon even have a gender . . .? Meanwhile, Wile E. Coyote—the beautiful oaf who can’t tell an underpass from a painting on the side of a rock—is so under Bugs’s spell, they’re surrounded by hearts and moisture. Damn. Bugs got Wile E. wet. Was Wile E. tricked? Is it even a trick when love and desire make fools of us all? By putting someone famous for pursuing and someone famous for being pursued in a new dynamic (Halpern has “shipped” Bugs and Wile E.!), we’re invited to witness a new kind of pleasure found in chasing and being chased. As another famous Rabbit put it, no one’s bad here; they’re just drawn that way.

“Devotion: Tali Halpern”
Through 1/30 (contact gallery for possible extended hours), Happy Gallery Chicago, 902 N. California, 815-546-4135, instagram.com/happygallerychicago

Star looks like something from a ten-year-old’s journal that got a little damp in the rain. There are daisy chains surrounding Tweety bird stickers, peace symbols, a canvas, and a childhood photo of Halpern—very “portrait of the artist as a young child,” but weathered. Contrast that with Dykey the Duck: Magica de Spell—a collaboration with artist Eve Kujo—which sets four Polaroids of Halpern cosplaying as a very sexy duck (think a hot cousin of Donald) inside a halo of matte gouache psychedelic geometric patterns. You’re sucked into a trippy world that’s both playful and uncomfortable for the ways it’s childish, ridiculous, self-aware, and hot.

Most of the work is like this, save for two paintings made pre-COVID-19. Those are detailed gouache portraits from 2018 when Halpern was still living in Chicago: one, a self-portrait, and the other of underground techno DJ and Smart Bar resident Ariel Zetina. Each image is rendered with a sense of intimate precision—a shaky matter-of-factness that offers the firmest, most unvarnished clue into what Halpern’s world is like beyond their collages. They’re not representative of the show as a whole, and yet they offer a sense of literal and figurative realism absent from what feels real or sincere about the smattering of cartoons, embellishments, and advertising cutouts throughout the gallery. If the collages are drag performers, the paintings are the civilians beneath the makeup.

What really completes the show, though, is Halpern’s journal from the pandemic, which rests on a pedestal in the center of the room like an exhibition catalogue absent any overwrought essays. Instead, there are scraps of thoughts, expressed through a mixture of writing, drawings, and collaging, more frenzied and less precise than what appears on the gallery walls. You witness Halpern struggling with things like life under lockdown, the day-to-day weight of an eating disorder and a body that doesn’t feel like home, what to do about friends whose actions don’t align with their expressed values, processing the George Floyd protests and feeling frustrated by other white people, and the un-sexy parts of being an artist like applications, residencies, self-promotion, invoices, and constant rejection. Despite it all, they return to the ritual of creation, grounding themselves in a process that’s as much self-excavation and documentation as it is world-building. In this sense, they remain devoted: to themselves, their desires, their community, their art.


A previous version of this review did not include the curator’s name. This has been included as of 5:24 PM on Friday, 1/28/22.

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