Terence Sellers’ eyes are framed with dramatic makeup, her face in concentration— an expression of bloodlust and hunger but with a knowing absurdity. Her body is poised, sitting upright with one hand on her hip and the other hand pulling a string that is operating a rudimentary sexual torture device. The woman in this black and white photograph wears a sparkling long-sleeve blouse adorned with flowers and a deep plunging neck line that runs open all the way down to her waist. To complete the outfit, her legs are decked out in fishnets and short black shorts. The string Sellers is pulling is tied to a sex toy that is threatening to enter the body of a man sitting atop what appears to be a stationary unicycle (similar to a workout bike). The man is wearing a macabre lion mask (perhaps it is a stretch to call it a lion mask but it is the closest resemblance), a polka dot tutu, matching ruffled socks and no shirt. The man grips the sides of his elevated seat in an awkward, uncomfortable-looking position. Terence Sellers sits next to him (albeit lower to the ground), looking powerful, menacing, and bonkers all at the same time.
It’s a bit difficult to try to label or classify Terence Sellers and her work. The most accurate word one could use to describe her is “artist” or even a performance artist of sorts. Sellers was born in Washington, D.C. in 1952 and according to her Curriculum Vitae (published on her official website), she attended St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico and was part of the Classical Studies department from 1970 to 1973. Although she did not receive her degree, Sellers’ intellect was apparent in her works of art and writing. Even while scanning her journals from the 70s and 80s with little to no knowledge about her (apart from the fact that she was a professional dominatrix), I could tell this was a woman of a domineering intelligence.
But from all her papers, journals, correspondences, and magazine entries, I chose to focus on this photo of Terence, a still from The Movie That Was Never Made by Gordon Stevenson (1980-1981) because of its striking and strangely alluring qualities. It’s simultaneously twisted and comical and in my opinion this is the purest expression of Terence Sellers as an artist and the Downtown New York Arts Scene in the 1980s.
In The Downtown Book: The New York Art Scene 1974-1984, Marvin J. Taylor references Robert Siegel’s explanation of Downtown artists’ (perhaps subconscious) motivations, objectives, and approach to making art. Art created by artists, such as Sellers herself, was about “understanding how the discourse of institutions constructs who [one is], and then using that knowledge to complicate cultural discourse” (21). I think of this stretch of time as a period of postmodern art: intelligent, witty, tongue-in-cheek, and willing to obliterate the borders between art/fantasy and reality. Artists in the period were rejecting conventions and dabbling with representations of taboo subjects. They were rebelling from the art institutions in uptown Manhattan that rejected their ideals and new notions of art.
I prefer the title “performance artist” over “professional dominatrix” for Sellers because the erotic practices of BDSM are highly stylized and performative. This is not an insult to the BDSM community; I am not dismissing the practices simply as an artifice and denying the sexual pleasure they arouse and/or the therapeutic relief is provides. Rather, I am trying to emphasize that Terence was highly aware of the importance of life interweaved with performativity. In fact, we must stop perceiving the word “artifice” as something entirely negative. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard said, “And so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality.” Our everyday actions are repetitive and performative and construct the reality we live in. If there is such thing as a pure expression, it will always be mediated by our words and actions. Sellers understands this and takes the performativity of our everyday lives a step further, upping the strangeness with masks and costumes. But this is ultimately to demonstrate how truly absurd reality is because it is in fact all constituted through artifice. Authenticity and performativity were central themes that constantly reappeared in the works of Downtown artists (Taylor 24).
Furthermore, in the 70s there was a shift to a more “process oriented” art that was “situationally specific, involving a relationship between materials, concepts, actions, and locations…sometimes spontaneous, improvisational, open-ended, and often collaborative” (10). This still from the Sellers’ and Stevenson’s film is evidence to a temporal sort of art. Even the title is a wink to the temporality of the piece—The Movie That Was Never Made. But of the photograph of the performance piece exists, does that make the photograph a work of art as well?
In the Downtown book, Irving Sandler states that many postminimal artists—artists that created works of art that are not tangible—believed that the documentation of the event through photographs and archives is not a work of art in itself (26-27). To some extent, I believe some of these postminimal artists are right. Documentation does not entirely recreate the original work of art. That does not mean the documenting photograph cannot become a new work of art, one that is separate but still linked to the original piece of art. The photograph is repurposed and brings along with it new observations and personal or historical meanings. For example, I can read this still from the film using the framework of the theory of “prior innocence.” Looking at photographs of Sellers, I was aware that she had died in early 2016 of Leukemia. This knowledge somehow did influence the way I analyzed her photos. Viewing the photograph of a deceased individual that acquires prior innocence is one that captures them in a moment of life—in joy or happiness— while being completely ignorant of their impending tragedy. It serves as a testimony to a life once lived before an untimely death. These photographs transcend their initial meaning as they pass on from the private to public spheres and acquire a cultural and historical status. There was that lurking apprehension that she was no more. I use this example simply to demonstrate that while documentation of an artwork is not the original artwork itself, it transforms and becomes a work of art that can stand on its own.
One of the final things that caught my eye within Terence’s archives was a personal journal entry from February 8th, 1975 that stated, “Diaries stink. Who wants words connected to you. Who wants their words remembered. Whoever remembers another’s words is full of garbage.” I found it amusing and absurd, another instance of performativity even in the personal. Therefore, I chose a photo of Sellers to be the spotlight of this project because a picture is worth a thousand words.