Savannah Knoop stumbled into art in a uniquely personal—and public—way. Two decades ago, when Knoop, who uses the pronoun “they,” was just 19 years old, they appeared as the public face of teenage-prostitute-turned-literary-wunderkind JT LeRoy.
When LeRoy wrote about his experiences of horrific childhood abuse and truck-stop prostitution in the 2001 book The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things it became an instant cult sensation and LeRoy a celebrity darling. There was just one problem: JT LeRoy wasn’t real. The author was actually a middle-aged woman in California named Laura Albert, who happens to be Knoop’s sister-in-law.
So as demand for public appearances from LeRoy grew, Albert came up with a plan to invent a public persona. She sent Knoop out in a blond wig and sunglasses to stand in as the shy, androgynous, whispery-voiced Leroy.
Knoop had no idea what they were getting into by taking on the role, which they played for six years before the truth finally came out. “It grew and grew and grew, and it snowballed,” Knoop tells artnet News. Eventually New York Magazine unmasked LeRoy in 2005 and Knoop returned to “regular” life, first by earning a bachelor’s degree in art at the City University of New York, where Knoop studied with fellow performance provocateur Vito Acconci, and then enrolling at Virginia Commonwealth University, where they received a master’s degree, specializing in performance art and sculpture.
In retrospect, it’s not a stretch to think of LeRoy as an extended work of performance art. “I don’t think at the outset I was ever framing it that way,” Knoop says, “I just had no idea that you could frame it that way.” A feature film based on Knoop’s 2008 memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, starring Laura Dern and Kristen Stewart, is coming out in March.
Today Knoop says that it was an inherent interest in the concepts of truth, identity, and perception that drew them to play LeRoy in the first place, so it’s no surprise that those are the themes that remain central to Knoop’s artistic practice today and that figure prominently in their first solo show in New York, at the gallery Essex Flowers.
The show, titled “SCREENS, a project about ‘community,’” stems from the artist’s time paying regular visits to the Russian and Turkish Baths in New York starting in 2016. There, in the scalding hot steam rooms, a sweaty but ultimately cleansing experience, “I started thinking of our bodies and minds as screens,” Knoop says, “how we also navigated the implicit social codes that were a part of the space—a privacy partition screen is a contra-nym, it shows you that there is something there, but also blocks your view of that thing.”
Knoop began filming their fellow bathers over a period of about eight months, including one night when they rented out the entire facility. Filming conditions were challenging, to say the least. The baths are dark, wet, and approach an intense 200 degrees at their hottest. “Because of the extreme environment in the baths, I’m not sure that I could have made this film, say, 10 years ago,” says Knoop, who invested in GoPros and other versatile cameras for the project. “I used the sort of adventure cameras that you would use to shoot a volcano!” Even so, the footage sometimes appears distorted, the image becoming wobbly due to the extreme heat.
In the 20-minute film that resulted, the bathers often just sit and inhale, embracing the high temperatures. Other times, faces come in and out of shadows, water droplets fall on the camera lens, and people break out into song. “You get really blissed out when you’ve been bathing for a while,” says Knoop. “It’s almost as if people want to let something out—their voices. People are always humming and sighing—and sometimes singing—really loudly.”
Despite the relaxing atmosphere, sometimes political debates broke out (it was shot, after all, during the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election). “Our brains were baking there, which makes you very adamant,” Knoop said. “The heat is rising literally.”
At times, Knoop appears on screen, wrestling with a giant newspaper a lá Buster Keaton and miming the motions of an orchestra conductor or an air traffic controller. “The film is specifically not a documentary, it is one bather’s perspective and fantasies, a mix of people’s natural habits as well as also performing for the camera. I also would stage certain things in the space,” Knoop says. “The large newspaper acts as a character of the ‘outside world,’ which keeps swallowing people up.”
Newspaper—not something you’d normally encounter at the baths—is a recurring theme among the several sculptural works also on view in the show. It appears braided and woven into screens, coated with aqua resin and polyurethane and dyed a murky green.
“I brought one of the regulars [from the baths] to watch the film,” and they told Knoop, “‘I can’t tell what’s real. You’re an unreliable narrator!’ And I like that—I think that murkiness, that feeling of uncertainty, is getting at the true core of the project.”
That, of course, is very familiar territory for Knoop.
“Savannah Knoop: SCREENS, a project about ‘community’” is on view at Essex Flowers, 19 Monroe Street, New York, through February 3, 2019.