In an essay accompanying the exhibit “69 Witch Eyes,” Justin Vivian Bond, who uses the pronouns they/them, asks a pertinent question for life during the pandemic: “How do we care for others during times when we ourselves feel existentially threatened on the daily?” And then another: “How do we survive the dark times and muster the resolve to remain in or at least return to the light?”
For the show, Bond has been working on a set of 69 4-by-4-inch watercolors of the left eyes of iconic authors, movie stars, singers, drag queens, and more, from Oscar Wilde to Judy Collins. Many of them are pre-sold, but they’ll be on view at Provincetown’s AMP Gallery at the show’s opening on Friday, Aug. 28, from 6 to 9 p.m. The New York City-based artist will be attending in person.
A cabaret performer, singer-songwriter, author, transgender activist, and visual artist, Bond first came into prominence as Kiki of the punk-cabaret act Kiki & Herb, between 1993 and 2007. Bond’s renown continues to grow globally — they recently made their opera debut in the world premiere of Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando at the Staatsoper in Vienna, Austria.
Bond understands a few things about feeling “threatened on the daily.” Born in 1963 to a religious family and raised in the suburb of Hagerstown, Md., young Justin attended high school during the 1970s, a time when identifying as transgender was rare and acceptance even rarer. Bond’s 2011 memoir, Tango: My Childhood, Backwards and in High Heels, details the violence — emotional and physical — and the humiliation, the perpetual sense of non-belonging, that had to be endured throughout much of their early life. During adolescence in particular, art became Bond’s escape and a means to covertly express vital parts of who they were without inviting judgment.
Drawing and painting portraits of female friends in high school and admired female icons allowed Bond to focus on femininity in a way that was usually forbidden. “As a kid, I was glued on women’s faces,” Bond tells the Independent. “I wasn’t allowed to use makeup or play with long hair, so I started drawing the women I idolized. And, for some reason, I always started with the left eye.”
Bond now considers the left eye to be both magical and meditative, “the eye that sees the world in a spiritual way.” A line attributed to Bond’s idol, Joan Crawford, inspired the phrase “witch eyes” to mean left eyes. During the filming of Autumn Leaves in 1956, director Robert Aldrich is said to have asked the 51-year-old Crawford whether she could cry on cue. Crawford’s response: “Out of which eye?”
“I came across that quote years ago, I can’t even remember exactly when or how,” Bond says. “I’ve been obsessed with Joan Crawford since I was a kid.”
Following the 2016 election, Bond began calling their left eye paintings “witch eyes” and selling them as talismans. “When I was a kid,” Bond says, “my family went on road trips. We would stop at souvenir shops that sold ‘devil eyes,’ which were supposed to protect you from evil. So, basically, I painted my ‘witch eyes’ for people who don’t want their lives to be invaded by patriarchal oppression.”
Initially, Bond’s left eyes were only of women. Then, during the Covid lockdown, when Bond wasn’t live-streaming weekly performances of “House of Whimsy” concerts, they binged on YouTube and came across a Dick Cavett interview of Truman Capote. In it, Bond says, Capote “went on a tirade about how badly Tennessee Williams had been treated by the press, and how, in other countries, he would have been a hero instead of being constantly ripped to shreds. I found Capote’s defense of Tennessee Williams to be so moving, I decided I needed to introduce more diversity of gender.”
As a result, Bond adds, their left eye paintings became “less about glorifying beauty or glamour. Especially, coming out of the last few months of racial unrest and the Supreme Court decision about LGBT rights, as well as going into the election, I felt it was really important just to focus on honoring and holding space for those who are doing the work of making the world safer for other people.”
Bond considers the images of Joan Crawford’s and Truman Capote’s left eyes to be key works in the show.
The artist uses photographs or images from film to capture the nuances of the subject’s left eye. Why create a set of 69? “Because the numbers 6 and 9 look a little bit like eyes to me. Also, the number 69 is evocative of yin and yang.”
Painting “witch eyes” has become something of a meditative practice for Bond. “I sit here every day and drift off into the reverie of painting these eyes, which, you know, is great,” they say. “Since I can’t sing on stage right now, I’m happy I have these eyes to paint.”
Art Is a Cabaret
The event: “69 Witch Eyes,” a show of watercolors by Justin Vivian Bond, along with “Taking Stock,” work by Liz Collins
The time: Opening Friday, Aug. 28, 6 to 9 p.m.; on view through Oct. 15
The place: AMP Gallery, 432 Commercial St., Provincetown
The cost: Free