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'Jeremy Kost: Friends with Benefits' looks at Pittsburgh 'queens'

| Wednesday, Jan. 2, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
Jeremy Kost, detail from “Friends with Benefits: Communing with Andy,' 2012
Jeremy Kost, 'Whatever You Call Them, They're Still Tears,' 2012
Jeremy Kost, 'Untitled (Heidi at Andy's Grave),' 2012
Jeremy Kost, 'Frankenstein's Monster,' 2012
Jeremy Kost, 'Little House in Shadyside (Sharon Needles as Tammy Faye Baker),' 2010
Jeremy Kost, 'Walk Away (Veruca),' 2011
Jeremy Kost, 'The Wicked Witch of the West,' 2012
Jeremy Kost, 'Marsha Marsha Monster Mellow,' 2009

The exhibit “Jeremy Kost: Friends with Benefits,” which opened last month in conjunction with the Andy Warhol Museum's “Naughty-or-Nice Holiday Bash” hosted by Pittsburgh's own drag queen extraordinaire Sharon Needles, is anything but a drag, even though Pittsburgh's drag queens are the focus.

Pittsburgh's drag scene has grown in recent years to reach national attention, thanks, in part, to Sharon Needles winning this year's season 4 of “RuPaul's Drag Race” on Logo TV.

So, it's no wonder that Kost, a tireless chronicler of gender, sexuality and nightlife, would focus his camera on the likes of Needles, Marsha Monster Mellow, Veruca La'Piranha, Heidi Glum and Cherri Baum, all drag queens who take center stage in elaborate photo collages made from dozens of Polaroid pictures.

That's right, Polaroid. That quick fix for shutterbugs over the second half of the 20th century, in which you snap a photo and out comes your picture in an instant. Polaroid may have put the instant in instant camera, but, thanks to digital photography, that's ancient history now. Polaroid produced its last lot of instant film in February 2008.

“All of the Polaroids in the exhibition expired in 2009,” Kost says from his car, on the way to a gym in Los Angeles. “They're all real Polaroids. Every single image in that show is what I tend to refer to as ‘dead stock.' ”

At 35, Kost is a rising star in the art world. A native of Corpus Christi, Texas, he splits his time between Los Angeles and New York City. The latter is where he met Warhol director Eric Shiner in 2006. And since 2008, he has been chronicling Pittsburgh's drag queens in his own inimitable way.

“All of the collages are unique objects,” he says, with the piece “Friends with Benefits: Communing with Andy” being the largest and most ambitious.

It features all of the aforementioned drag queens surrounding Warhol's grave in a Bethel Park cemetery, along with Brigid Berlin, artist and former Warhol “superstar.”

“When Brigid Berlin had her show at the Warhol a few years ago, we all went to Andy's grave together,” Kost says. “It was actually Brigid's first time visiting the gravesite since they buried him.”

Kost says the title of the piece, as well as the title of the exhibit, is a play on words. Whereas, “friends with benefits” has a sexual connotation, he sees it as having a more “friend-oriented” aspect.

“In a weird way, I thought it was an interesting play on the way these kids have a relationship together,” he says. “Not in a sexual sense. But they are part of this tight-knit family, of sorts. In essence, being this sort of dysfunctional family of drag queens who have known each other for so long and really have been, for all intents and purposes, building blocks for each other. They've all sort of learned from each other and come up together. I find it really fascinating.”

Not necessarily part of a series, Kost says the pieces in this show fit in with multiple bodies of work he has been working on that deal with gender, body issues, forms of transformation and identities built around transformation and deconstruction.

“I used to be 250 pounds and now I weigh about 170,” he says. “So, most of my life story develops around being a really heavy guy and sort of developing from there … my own discomfort with my own body and such.”

“These collages sort of deconstruct and re-contextualize and sort of compartmentalize,” he says. “As a whole, I'm OK with where my body is now at this point. I take care of myself quite a bit. But that's a big part of what the work is about, this question of transformation whether it's permanent — vis-a-vis transsexuals — or this sort of drag queen that becomes a character, whether it's for a night or an afternoon for a photo shoot.”

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kshaw@tribweb.com.

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