Let There be GWAR!

You may know GWAR primarily as the cartoonishly grotesque metal band whose live stage show involves dousing the audience in all manner of pseudo-gore. But “Let There Be GWAR!,” an exhibition on view through September 28 at the Gallery at Black Iris Music in Richmond, Virginia, turns a more critical eye on the musical art project, which was founded by a collective of local artists working under the moniker of the Slave Pit three decades ago. I caught up with curator Benjamin Thorp to go further into about drug-induced drawings, Christian fan mail, and crucifixes in urine. 

Can you talk a bit about some misconceptions people have about GWAR, and a few things about the group’s origins that might not be common knowledge?
Well, GWAR is a production of Slave Pit Inc. The Slave Pit is an amazing collective of talented artists and musicians who approach their public performances with measured doses of intellect, story telling, satire, incredible craftsmanship and, of course, irreverent chaos. GWAR’s roots are in Richmond, only an hour away from D.C., and I think it’s really important to understand the socio/political context that birthed the band. The D.C. hardcore scene had a certain politics, an organized strictness to it that resulted in a particular sound, image and style. GWAR wanted no part of that, and Richmond was a creative playground. In the early 80’s you could do whatever you wanted here. That freedom allowed the members to dream, to take chances and express themselves in ways that were un-proscribed. They were having fun, making art and shaping their future on their own terms. One thing that’s so great about the members of the Slave Pit is they are really down to earth and understand and utilize humor brilliantly. Everyone is in on the joke. 
The exhibition includes archival material–including letters and arrest reports–as well as what are termed ‘genital molds.’ There are over 400 pieces in the show, but what are a few of the more salacious, controversial, or downright shocking inclusions?
There are a lot of small details in this exhibit that illustrate the complexities and challenges of creating something as monolithic and enduring as “Let There Be GWAR!” One of the aspects of the group that I think a lot of people miss is their impact on community. We have one display composed entirely of materials (letters, drawings, paper dolls, poems) from fans. What ends up being shocking (in an unexpected way) is the overwhelmingly positive impact that GWAR has on people, especially youth. There’s one letter from a 15 year old girl that concludes with her saying, “…I just wanted you to know that you have at least one church going, straight-A student who really appreciates what you’re doing.” People see through the media propaganda that surrounds GWAR and understand the art and theater of it all. 
Can you tell me a bit about the ‘acid drawings’ that will be on view?
The “acid drawings” involve obsessive mark-making, executed in a style associated with drug-induced visions. When you’re looking at a floating head (in the work Anton The Art Critic by Dave Brockie) that consists of thousands of meticulously placed marks that read as a beautifully disgusting, textured face, it’s pretty easy for your mind to start wandering, twisting and engaging in a thought process that’s pretty weird. It’s an aesthetic phrase, really.
What’s the strangest experience you’ve ever personally had at a GWAR concert?
So much great theater is dependent on the performers being able to generate the conditions necessary for the audience to suspend disbelief. GWAR are masters at this. The catharsis that happens at a GWAR concert is magical in this respect. How strange is it to watch thousands of people witnessing Presidents, celebrities and Queens being dismembered, soaked in body fluids with 115 decibels worth of intergalactic metal coursing through you? The strangest part of a GWAR performance is after the show is over, watching the audience leave smiling and happy with a sense of having experienced something truly one of a kind.
On September 19 you’ll have Sarah Cunningham, a former Director of Arts Education at the NEA, as a guest speaker in conjunction with the exhibition. Which do you think the American public would find more objectionable: Andreas Serrano’s Piss Christ photograph that was made using NEA funding (and featured a crucifix submerged in urine), or the "Let There Be GWAR!" exhibition?
First off, Serrano’s photographs are absolutely gorgeous! I think the title Piss Christ is what really got people twisted. The photograph in question was made in 1987 and it shocked people; we’ve come a long way since then. Similarly it seems first reactions to GWAR’s performances and work is completely reactionary. We’re encouraging a second (or more complete) look at the Slave Pit’s practice.  
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