When the biggest snowstorm in five years fell on Ridgewood last week, it took the alt-burlesque performer Mimi Silk three hours to make her snowman. Like everywhere else in New York, the sidewalks in Queens were fill, first with intransversible piles of snow and then with local inventions. Caves were dug out of the walls of plowed snow and forts built and defended in nearby playgrounds. But everywhere you could look, snowmen were being quietly sculpted and appearing magically, their carrot noses and button eyes announcing that winter, only two months too late, had finally arrived.
The most vivid of these, perhaps, could be found on Catalpa Avenue, an unimposing street of rowhouses that abuts Myrtle Avenue. On such a street Ms. Silk’s snowman was striking and continuously stopped passerby in their tracks. It was an entirely different animal: a snowcat, in fact, brightly colored with protruding whiskers made of felt. She had crafted eyes that were large and mysterious, their frozen expression of expectation not unfamiliar to any student of residential feline behavior.
“I see art as this kind of very visual representation of our thought process,” Stephanie McGovern told Bushwick Daily. But McGovern, who in the pre-Pandemic era performed as Mimi Silk at venues like the Footlight and House of Yes, admitted: “I didn’t want to stay in my house all day.”
A Bay Area native who had drifted to New York, McGovern is now pursuing a graduate degree at SVA. Two years ago, she had performed for the first time at an amateur burlesque night hosted at the House of Yes and had discovered a new medium she described as “burlesque with a sort of twisted edge to it. Nothing, I’d say, that’s traditional.”
But it had moved her greatly to be up there, to create something and watch people react to it in real time.
“The moment I did it, I was like, this is what I was meant to do. It was such a visceral feeling that I kind of had to chase it,” she says.
McGovern sees a living connection between the deliberately ephemeral work she performed on the stage and her careful creation of snow, ice and color. The work’s value as a local pop art artifact could be evidenced merely by watching it and, since building it, she’s observed the reactions from the COVID-safe perch of her apartment window.
There were the kids, joyously shocked by its sudden and colorful appearance, the adults who dutifully whipped their phones out and committed the novelty to digital memory. Two gruff characters paused in front of it and likened it to erstwhile presidential candidate Hillary Clinton before moving along. “That’s what art does,” McGovern muses.
McGovern came to Ridgewood for the arts scene, which before the pandemic, she says, had been among the most quietly vibrant in the city and describes vividly as an entire community of peers making projects around the corner from each other, anchored both by their proximity to Manhattan by train and the neighboring club and galleries in Bushwick. Before she turned to performance, McGovern worked primarily in textiles and its an interest that brings her around often to the Supermoon art space on Onderdonk avenue, a daytime daycare that doubles into an alternative gallery with a focus on highlighting the neighborhood’s rich knitting history. (According to the Queens Chronicle, knitting mills in Ridgewood once produced three out of every four sweaters worn in the country.)
These days, her work as Mimi Silk has been largely confined to her Vimeo page, where it similarly evades loci of easy characteristization. In one piece, a version of a performance called “Hard Tommy,” Silk initially appears in an oversize suit, finger gunning behind a Nicolas Cage facemask, punting confidently to the Rod Stewart disco hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?,” a choreographic feat that evokes nothing less than Christopher Walken in “Weapon of Choice,” before the track changes to the Cardi B single “Money,” a connection that makes a certain kind of visceral sense. Online, she says she’s building a visual language to catalog her performance work in a way that wouldn’t have been possible on stage at the House of Yes, where she can zoom in and edit herself. Lately, some of her work from home has involved slime and more tactile materials, which she says makes her work feel sensuous and playful. And, yes, she has fielded comparisons to Marilyn Minter, the celebrated Manhattan painter who had a show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2017.
“But I’ve always kind of made things like that. I’m very interested in hands and closeups of the face,” she says.
When she started building the snowcat on Catalpa Avenue, with brash colors would certainly not look out of place on one of Minter’s later glitter-studded canvases, McGovern’s ambitions were more modest. “A lot of it was trying to make sure it didn’t look phallic or weird,” she said.
But the open-ended approach is not unlike how she looks at performance work, a legacy that stretches from the last century of Duchamp-style surrealism to the alternative burlesque stage. Maybe it’s only me who sees the snowcat as a radical confrontation with the limits of the body, its bizarre shapeliness suggesting a world beyond the limitations of the real. (It makes “no anatomical sense,” she admits.) And then it will go away and exist only in the cell phones of thrilled passerby.
But I think that’s also the point, and maybe McGovern agrees.
“Anything can become art when you’re putting it on a stage. Like, I cut my hair on a stage, like a year ago, and that was a big art piece,” she reminisces.
But to be a performance artist in conditions that diminish the capacity for human contact poses its own questions and, in same way, it’s not hard to see how something so temporary and yet charismatic as an extraordinarily colorful snowman presents something that’s not unlike an answer.
“How do we keep making art when we’re not allowed to be around people? Do we stop? Some of us can’t.”
Cover photo credit: Andrew Karpan
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