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Elf Girl: A Hilarious Memoir by Art Star Reverend Jen

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“Our mission: . . . humiliate ourselves in the name of art.”

The joy I felt while reading Reverend Jen’s memoir, Elf Girl, can not be expressed in words. Instead, it should be expressed by devoting one’s life to performance art — dignity forsaken, shame stricken from the lexicon. One should stock up on foam core, cardboard, dollar store instruments, hot glue guns, and whatever else it takes to live a life by Rev Jen’s example. This would be the appropriate response after reading Elf Girl. A lesser, although still respectable, response would be to fall absolutely in love with this woman, a woman who played a formative role in shaping the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 90s.

Elf Girl begins with Jen’s stint as a Christmas elf at Bloomingdale’s. As a longtime fan of elves, often considering herself one, Jen, disappointed by the department store’s idea of what the fantastical creature would wear (“Dresses!”), counteracted the inauthenticity with her own beloved elf ears, which, oddly enough, did not go over well with the management. This incident offers shades of what’s to come: fierce individualism and unintentional anti-social behavior, all at the expense of self-preservation.

Throughout the book you get the sense that Jen isn’t merely “doing” performance art, she is performance art, as if outrageous and absurd are Jen’s default modes.

At an early age Jen was a creative force, starting with her elementary school endeavor, Jen Magazine. Taking her art seriously even then, she recruited classmates to serve on the editorial team. At 15 she was accepted to a free art program. Under the instruction of “the most maniacal art teacher in the western hemisphere,” who taught his students to “sacrifice sleep, sanity, and any semblance of a normal life,” she learned “that being an artist wasn’t a way to coast through life. It required discipline.”

When she later left her hometown in Maryland for the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, living in a Salvation Army run residency on Gramercy Park South, she teamed up with her newfound friend Julia and formed Pop Rox, a band outfitted with a $2 toy guitar and snow-leopard-print unitards. At first they played covers of Guns-n-Roses, Metallica, and Alice Cooper but soon moved onto originals, which included one about their love for Woolworth’s, an inexpensive department store. They played to captive audiences of art students — locking their fellow classmates in a room — and crashed parties where they soldiered on through the jeers.

You would think that at SVA, an art school based in New York City, a quirky girl like Jen would at least be embraced by, if not hoisted on the shoulders of, fellow students. However, Jen was shunned by both the student body and the faculty. Eventually, however, Jen found her place and began to make a name for herself on the Lower East Side.

It was there that she came into contact with open mic nights; in particular, one run by an actor and producer known as “Faceboy”. Together, in the mid 90s, they formed a tongue-in-cheek group called the Art Stars, a term first coined by Andy Warhol. There are thirteen steps to becoming an Art Star, all listed and explained in Elf Girl. Just a few, to give you an idea, are:

1. Eliminate Hobbies: Everything an Art Star does should be done with obsessive/compulsive zeal. . .

3. Avoid self-improvement: . . . Self-improvement is for people with time on their hands, and Art Stars have no time on their hands.

6. Only take jobs that offer no room for advancement: The last thing you want is to get roped into a job that will prohibit you from staying out until four in the morning five nights a week. . .

One of the main components of being an Art Star is aversion to competition. Four years out of art school and turned off by all forms of art criticism, Jen was horrified that artists and performers, would willingly subject themselves to the spectacle of judgement. In direct reaction to an ongoing poetry slam at the time, the Anti-Slam was born — a place where performers could go on stage without leaving with a number pinned to their act.

Around the same time, John Ennis, the director of Toolz of the New School, a show that aired on the cable access station Manhattan Neighborhood Network, contacted Jen to see if he could borrow her elf costume for their Christmas special. Just before filming he asked if she wanted to be in the episode; and so began Jen’s televised career in sketch comedy. Nearly every episode, whether Jen showed up at NYU orientation as a student forced into prostitute in order to pay her tuition or at FAO Schwarz as Doo-Doo, the hard-drinking Teletubby forced into exile, ended with someone threatening to call the cops.

As someone who enjoys quirky social history, especially when it’s about New York City, I found the chapters involving Rudy Giuliani’s mayoral years some of the most interesting. Not only were they hilarious, as he often butted heads with local artists, they served as a reminder of the political climate during that time. In 1994, when Giuliani first assumed the role of mayor of New York City, I wasn’t yet old enough to understand the implications his tactics had on artists in the area. I do, however, remember that he ramped up the police presence as part of an aggressive campaign against crime. Before Giuliani my parents warned me against walking east of 1st avenue while later, in my 20s, I was getting overpriced, chic haircuts on Avenue C. However, it is disputable whether Giuliani had much to do with this decline in violence or whether the city had been part of a coinciding nationwide trend.

One of the more notable offenses was when Giuliani, in 1999, threatened to cut off funding to the Brooklyn Museum if they went ahead with an exhibition featuring controversial British artists. I won’t ruin Jen’s stories for you but one I can’t help mentioning took place in response to Giuliani’s enforcement of the cabaret laws as part of his “quality of life” campaign. The previously unenforced law, one that prohibits dancing in bars and clubs when the owner doesn’t have the proper license, led to a two day closing of friend Robert Prichard’s club, Surf Reality, the home of Faceboy’s open mic. Swiftly, Prichard and Jen formed the Dance Liberation Front and organized a guerrilla-style, agitprop protest: a conga line down Houston Street to Tompkins Square Park on Avenue A. The action, which Jen eloquently called it “social commentary disguised as comedy,” brought hundreds out onto the streets and received write-ups in local newspapers.

Since the start of her time in New York, many of Jen’s cohorts have moved to Los Angeles, but Jen remains a fixture of the Lower East Side, hosting her Anti-Slam every last Wednesday of the month at the Bowery Poetry Club and co-running the Art Star Scene Studios, an independent film production company, and writing a regular column for Artnet. New York is a better place for retaining this elfin wonder and once you read Elf Girl, you’ll think so, too.

::[Links]::
Buy Elf Girl at IndieBound
Reverend Jen’s website
Bowery Poetry Club
Diary of an Art Star column at Artnet.com
Jen’s Troll Museum Reviewed in The Village Voice
An interview with friend John Ennis (with photos)
Toolz of the New School videos

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Written by Gabrielle

January 24, 2012 at 6:37 am

Posted in books, reviews

Tagged with , , , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. This looks hilarious!!! I added to my list to read!

    Lori Madison

    January 24, 2012 at 10:19 am

    • looooved it. i was laughing in public and didn’t care.

      Gabrielle

      January 24, 2012 at 12:06 pm

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    January 11, 2015 at 11:50 am


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