When I first saw Julie Laffin at the 1992 Philadelphia Women’s Theatre Festival, I was expecting the more obvious confessions of outrage and injury common to feminist performance art. But instead of talking about the intertwined forces of eroticism and self-repression, Laffin wore them.

A beautiful woman with long black hair, a lush figure, and an intelligent face, Laffin wound masking tape around her torso and upper thighs, then smeared red paint over the constricting layers, creating an archetypal red dress to die for. With a coy fillip, she painted her lips, leaned precariously down to pick up an enormous dead carp, and began to sing: “Oh my man, I love him so…” She was a frightening and funny cartoon, casually enduring a literally breathtaking fashion to express her unrequited love to a dead fish. Stale relationships and the idiocy of feminine role-playing had never been so visceral.

Since then Laffin has explored the connection between women’s bodies and public spaces, using her past relationships as grist for the emotional mill. At a Remains Theater performance she knelt in a pool of light and painted a dress onto her naked body. At the Lunar Cabaret she lay prone on the street, her red velvet skirt twisted into a funnel cloud and attached to the building’s awning. In Cleveland she led audiences on a strangely campy “walk of mourning,” kissing the names of her ex-lovers onto poles and sidewalks while dragging the 50-foot train of a 100-pound black gown.

Laffin’s cumbersome, sheathlike gowns express the ironies and oppressions of conservative gender roles. “I see the dress itself as an icon that says ‘woman,'” she explains. “It has an intimate relationship with the body–sometimes it even stands in for a body, objectifies the woman wearing it. The woman in the dress is ultimately what’s important to me.” She creates all her performance dresses herself, sewing in “a state of solitude, very internal, focused on my body and lifting and shaping these large, unwieldy dresses.” It’s an intense process she compares to creating a sculpture.

In the year since Laffin last performed in Chicago, she’s transformed her personal life as well as her theatrical ambitions. She moved to Riverside, where she’s appeared impromptu, dressed in her long gowns in nonurban public spaces. Ten months ago she married Andrew Cook, an artist and, coincidentally, one of the ex-lovers she mourned in her kiss-and-walk, black-dress performance. Her friends were surprised, she says, because she’s “never been very focused on domestic things–and I’m still not!”

But even if she never fulfills the stereotype of a Riverside housewife, marriage has begun to change her work. Unrequited love no longer shapes her billowing dresses: “I’m still interested in juxtaposing incongruent images, but there’s a lot less agony in my work. The new work is quieter–less in your face and more consistent.

“There’s still definitely an element of pain involved,” she admits. “That’s the nature of doing durational work. Endurance is an important aspect of it. Andrew recently compared my work to some forms of martial arts, because it shares a dimension of spiritual achievement through the chronic resolution of pain.”

This Friday Laffin will launch her first group performance, Supine, in the garden of the Museum of Contemporary Art. While she’s unwilling to divulge many details, her cast includes ten friends and colleagues. “I picked people that I love to be in the performance,” she says. “It was about how their personalities and bodies would activate the dresses I make. I basically set tasks for everyone–you know, ‘This is what you need to do, and you have two and a half hours to do it.'” The audience will view Laffin’s performance from the upper terrace and possibly the lower garden; spectators are invited to leave and return as if they were visiting a moving sculpture.

Abstract as her performances may be, Laffin’s wacky, imagistic costumes and wry sense of style turn her feats of endurance into witty countercultural moments that transform the spaces they inhabit. Laffin’s fans will be glad to hear that she hasn’t given up on her solo work: this summer, whenever the spirit moves her, she’ll walk the lakefront in a sculptured gown. Keep an eye out for her.

Laffin will perform tonight at 7 PM as part of the “First Fridays” program at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago; admission is $10. Call 312-280-2660.

–Carol Burbank

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Christine DiThomas.