112 Bailey Scieszka

Born 1989, Royal Oak, MI / BFA, The Cooper Union, New York, NY / Lives in Detroit

In his 2017 bestseller Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen makes the convincing case that an essential aspect of the American character is a brazen disregard for the line between reality and fantasy. This is a congenital condition, he argues, that dates back to the nation’s founding.

Andersen’s thesis provides a useful lens through which to view the work of Bailey Scieszka, a multimedia artist and writer with a voracious appetite for history, on one hand, and popular fantasies like conspiracy theory, live action role playing, and end times prophecy, on the other. But for Scieszka, it is not just our eager and longstanding embrace of the irrational that makes Americans Americans; it is also the will to violence that is so dangerously entangled with our mania for make-believe.

Scieszka’s work has a great deal to do with violence. It’s “the only way to tell a true story,” according to her unbridled alter-ego Old Put—a murderous, shapeshifting, basket-weaving demon clown and pro wrestler who is the star of her elaborately-conceived plays, performances, and videos, and who features prominently in her prodigious drawings. Indeed, Scieszka’s astonishing output to date can be understood as an extravagant explosion of American violence, fantasy, and myth—a deranged, bedazzled, go-for-broke freak show that is informed by history, interpolated by trash and post-internet pop culture, and framed by anxiety about the horrors of contemporary life. Her work is a funhouse mirror reflection of the world today, hilarious at one turn and terrifying the next.

The story of Old Put is told over the course of six plays (2014-17). It’s a tortuous tale that chronicles the ambitious and misunderstood demon’s struggle to make something true, and to be appreciated as an artist. It involves a talking bong and bottle of poppers, a dolphin witch and a rat queen, as well as end times “preppers,” transcendent baskets, alien invasion, murder, cooking, and more. (Much, much more.) Eight short “wrestling promo” videos (2014-2017), meanwhile, track Old Put’s ongoing feud with offscreen-nemesis Bobby Dolphin—described in intricate monologues that vacillate between bellicose, posturing threats and dazzling existentialist poetry. For all of these productions, Scieszka writes the scripts, and, following a year-long workshop at the now-closed Detroit Puppet Theater, she typically performs all the roles. She also designs and makes everything—props, puppets, costumes, digital scenography—and does her own makeup. The fruits of her handiwork are occasionally exhibited in galleries at home and abroad—special episodes, you might say, of the Old Put show.

Between 2013 and 2015, Scieszka made what are undoubtedly her most challenging pieces, nearly 200 works on paper that further elaborate her cracked cartoon cosmos. Boldly, quickly executed and frequently, unsettlingly violent, they present a bloody, psychedelic melee of dismemberment and metamorphosis. Churning with anarchic force, they depict Old Put (in various forms) in conflict with sundry anthropomorphized objects and characters from the plays, as well as with pop culture memes and figures from ISIS, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Westboro Baptist Church. These are deeply disquieting meditations on violence and hatred, made all the more unsettling by their candy colors and the (apparently) childlike hand that created them.

Scieszka’s chaotic, fast-and-furious drawings offer little preparation for her most recent 2D works, a studious and accomplished series of acrylic and gold leaf paintings (2018) that transpose wrestling and conspiracy theory imagery onto a form of early American portraiture. Her inspiration comes from the 18th century folk artist John Brewster, Jr. and his contemporaries, who frequently painted early American children—often to memorialize them after their premature deaths. Roughly copying her source paintings’ conservative compositions, Scieszka maintains the sitters’ period dress but swaps their likenesses for enigmatic figures culled from a popular conspiracy theory—the one about intraterrestrial lizard people who masquerade as humans, maintain a global shadow government, and feast on disappeared children.

Scieszka’s relentless upcycling of pop and media culture is never arch or ironic. Her work’s entanglement with professional wrestling, for instance, is born out of her childhood love of the genre and her bard’s appreciation for its compelling narrative form. (“They’re telling a story while they’re fighting,” she says. “It’s like ballet.”) Her incorporation of lizard people lore is similarly sincere. With Scieszka’s adoption of her 18th century source material’s elaborately coded compositions—in which each detail means something—she transforms an insane contemporary fantasy into epic mythology, and uses it to probe an uncomfortable, persistent truth. In the immortal words of Old Put, “Everybody today keeps beating this drum, saying, ‘Be free, don’t be afraid to be you!’ But the truth is, half of us is creeps underneath.”

Matthew Piper, October 2018

Copyright Essay’d, 2018