Total Control Over Mind and Body: Seven Artists Grapple with Bob Flanagan's Legacy

Sheree Rose,“Wall of Pain” Variation, 1981 / 2017, Photo Collage on Canvas 36”x 72” (detail), photo courtesy of the author

Every Breath You Take
Sheree Rose, Rhiannon Aarons, Martin O'Brien, Jeffrey Vallance, Victoria Reynolds, Simone Gad & Michael Delsol
December 2 – December 30, 2017
Jason Vass Gallery
1452 E. Sixth Street Los Angeles, CA 90021


During the art boom of the late-1980s in Los Angeles, the artist and super-masochist Bob Flanagan emerged as a “living legend.” The “living” part, however, was never taken for granted. At the time of his most active period as an artist and writer, Flanagan (b. 1952) had become one the oldest individuals known to survive cystic fibrosis - a disease that is a pre-teen killer - which had claimed both his sisters’ lives before they reached 21. The “legend” part grew out of his performances.

Flanagan battled the unfathomable agony of his disease with a uniquely provocative art, a mixture of mutilation and erudite humor that included all manner of piercing and cutting (author’s note: I attended a performance around 1988, with no foreknowledge of its contents, and today there are still visual bells that can’t be un-rung). “I learned,” Flanagan said after a youth of being poked and lanced in a hospital, “to fight sickness with sickness.” In his expositions of agony and control, he was acted upon by Sheree Rose. Rose was his performance partner, wife, and co-signer of a legal contract that gave her “total control over his mind and body,” a document that remained in force until the very end of Flanagan’s life in 1996. 

Michel Delsol, Sheree Rose and Bob Flanagan, Wedding Vows with ’S’ Cutting, 1994, Archival Pigment Print on Hahnemuehle Paper, photo courtesy of the author

“Every Breath You Take,” currently at Jason Vass Gallery, offers a personal rumination on Flanagan by seven artists, each of whom orbited his work from various distances. Closest to the origin is Sheree Rose herself, who confronts viewers as they arrive with her Wall of Pain, a grid of photos Rose took (she had sole control over his image) in the early-80s picturing Flanagan in the throes of performing. Although he was manifestly sick, Flanagan seems youthful and determined in this collage, with a defiance and courage that is palpable. 

Jeffrey Vallance, Nipple Rings, 2017, Silver Ring Piercings, Leatherette, Velvet, Dymo Labels, photo courtesy of the author

Rose also provided the artist Jeffrey Vallance with Flanagan's performance props – fish hooks, nipple rings, hand cuffs, etc – which he has memorialized in the manner of relics; Vallance, whose practice often includes the obsessive archiving of arcane objects, finds a perfect subject in Flanagan. His vitrine of “artifacts” is a central element to the exhibition, and while transforming S&M implements into relics might seem overly ironic or potentially “deadening,” there is a real humor and poignancy to his gesture. The traditional reason for a reliquary was to gather tiny shreds of material from saints that were thought to still have spiritual powers, but more recently a cleric commented that they “help people overcome the abstract and make a connection with the holy. In this regard, Vallance succeeds in bringing us closer to Saint Bob, through objects that still gleam with menace and power.

The exhibition ducks into historical territory with an appropriate nod to the Marquis de Sade, the perverted Grand Poo-Bah of sexual libertarianism. His text “Philosophy in the Bedroom” is the basis for a collaboration among Rhiannon Aarons, Rose, and Martin O’Brien (an artist who also has CF, and is carrying on Flanagan’s work with Rose). They invited the public to come to their London motel room, and “do whatever they pleased” to the artists for the length of one hour, in a piece that Flanagan had planned (but never executed) in homage to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s “Bed-ins.” Simone Gad displays a suite of works on paper that are collaborations with ​Rose,​ ​Vallance,​ ​​O'Brien,​ ​and​ ​Aarons, collaging​ ​pinup-style photos ​of​ ​the artists​ ​with​ images of ​animal​ ​rescues​. Victoria Reynolds' gorgeous renditions of raw meat and Michel Delsol's photographs of Rose and Flanagan round out a solid group of kindred spirits. 

Simone Gad, Bob Flanagan Green Parrot, 2017, Collage and Drawing on Paper, 17 x 12 in, photo courtesy of the author

Needless to say, this isn’t the show to take the in-laws visiting from Peoria for the holidays. But in our current art world, where authenticity is noticably lacking, “Every Breath You Take” delivers the real deal. WM

Lawrence Gipe


Lawrence Gipe is an artist, writer, professor and curator based in LA and Tucson. His work is represented by George Billis Gallery (New York) and Lora Schlesinger Gallery (Los Angeles). Gipe's writings have appeared most recently in SquareCylinder.com as well as Flash Art, L.A. Weekly and Artillery Magazine. Recent curatorial projects include "Everyone is Hypnotized: Artists Dérive the Bay Area" at ProArts Gallery, Oakland (May 2017) and "The Known Universe" at Root Division, San Francisco (March 2016). View all of Gipe's projects at www.lawrencegipe.com.


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