IDOL THREAT?IS ARTIST PAUL WILSON'S PROVOCATIVE WORK REALLY ALL STALK AND NO ACTION?
Upon receiving an Emmy Award for her work on Cheers in 1991, actress Kirstie Alley jolted audiences with the highly unorthodox conclusion to what was otherwise a standard-issue acceptance speech. Eyes narrowing into sly slits, the actress grinned wickedly at the audience, then gave special thanks to her husband, Parker Stevenson, "for giving me the big one for the past eight years." Paul Wilson should be so lucky. The Phoenix artist has got to be the former teen idol's No. 1 fan.
Best remembered for his role as one of the youthful sleuths in the late-Seventies TV series The Hardy Boys Mysteries, actor Stevenson (to say nothing of his "big one") has been a major obsession of Wilson's for nearly ten years. During that time, the prolific artist has turned out more than 50 sketches of Stevenson, many of them inspired by photographs in a dog-eared collection of teen magazines.
About a dozen of those pieces, many of them featuring homoerotic images of Stevenson (Parker looked up in surprise as I broke into his house to kidnap him" reads the handwritten caption under a detailed drawing of the nude actor reclining on a couch), form the nucleus of a provocative art exhibition centering on Wilson's obsessive fantasies about his idol.
Although many gallerygoers may fail to discern the difference, the smitten Wilson maintains that his Stevenson show is a spoof of celebrity obsessions, not a celebration of same.
"It is important that the Parker obsession is noted as a fictional satire of an obsession," Wilson emphasizes in a handwritten brochure titled The Key to Me by Paul. "Though the artist is truly infatuated with Parker, he wouldn't kill him!"
This last statement will no doubt come as a great relief to Parker Stevenson. The actor, now 41, did not respond to a request, through intermediaries, for a comment on Wilson's unusual tribute to him.
In addition to the racier Stevenson images that draw the most attention at Wilson's show, the artist has also included several goofy panels that chronicle the couple's imaginary "first date" (Wilson depicts himself in incredibly bad drag) and another work in which the pair performs a scene from South Pacific with Wilson (in drag again) as native girl Liat. ( . . . "You Like?" asks the matchmaking Bloody Mary as Parker gazes at Wilson, looking like a refugee from a Hawaiian bar mitzvah.)
"When I was in art class in college, I was drawing Parker so much, people joked that I was 'sick,'" explains Wilson. "So I just decided to capitalize on that and satirize a sick obsession."
In addition to lifelike color-pencil sketches, freestanding cardboard cutouts, dioramas and phony record-album covers depicting Stevenson's ever-smiling visage, the show includes newspapers with doctored headlines (SICK ART STUDENT KEEPS PARKER HOSTAGE," "PARKER STEVENSON RAPED AND MAULED"), as well as a truly creepy video presentation titled What Paul Wants, Paula Gets. In the video, Wilson transforms himself into alter ego "Paula," a bewigged, lip-smacking "woman-thing" who stalks Stevenson, ultimately abducting him and holding him hostage. Perhaps mercifully, the dnouement is left to the viewer's imagination.
On view at Alwun House through October 3, the show (which also includes works by Valley artist and Wilson friend Linda Kase) also features art inspired by other Wilson obsessions: actor Sam Elliott (like Stevenson, Elliott is portrayed as nude); Patty Duke as Neely O'Hara, the Judy Garlandlike character she played in Valley of the Dolls; the pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins; and elaborate buffet tables laden with incredibly realistic-looking fake party food, all of it liberally garnished with plastic cockroaches. Adding further flavor to this hodgepodge of fetishes is an overflowing bucket of what appears to be--but, thankfully, is not--human excrement. (It's really just papier-mch with corn kernels," reveals Wilson. "The secret is to treat it with a gloss medium finish so it looks fresh.")
Titled "Pretty Things and Dirty Things," Wilson's celebration of "the gorgeous and the ghastly" is the 29-year-old artist's first major exhibition. The show originally opened early last August at Berlitz Gallery, a gay art space formerly located at Park Central Mall. After that gallery lost its lease last month, a streamlined version of the show was hastily relocated to Alwun House.
"In a week, we've had more traffic through here than we'd had in the entire past two months," reported Jack Matter, former part-time gallery manager, shortly after the Wilson show opened at the Park Central venue. "People look in, see these half-naked paper dolls of Parker Stevenson, and wonder what's going on. So they come in, and most of them appear to be fascinated by the whole thing."
@body:Paul Wilson is an outwardly quiet sort, whose earnest, ultracourteous demeanor and retro-natty manner of dress (bow tie and oxfords clash with mismatched plaids) suggest Howard Sprague, the soft-spoken bachelor on The Andy Griffith Show. Wilson's personal fascination with "Parker" began midway through the artist's college career, when he happened to catch Stevenson in a 1985 episode of the new Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV anthology.
"I don't know what it is about him, but the minute I saw that show, I just knew I had to start drawing him," explains Wilson, who makes his living painting considerably more prosaic backdrops for a company that supplies scenery for conventions and industrial shows. "Maybe it's just because he's so artificial in terms of handsomeness, with those big, blue eyes, sparkling teeth and blond hair, but he epitomizes what I tend to think of as perfection."
Still, Wilson claims a lot of his female friends miss the attraction altogether--assuming they recognize Stevenson's name in the first place.
"A lot of people can't quite place him," explains Wilson. "Everyone usually gets him mixed up with Shaun Cassidy, one of the guys from Starsky and Hutch, or someone else from the Seventies, so I have this rap that I do, explaining exactly who he is," Wilson continues. "Then, when they finally figure out who I'm talking about, they'll say that his eyes are too close together, that he's just not that interesting and that he looks like the Seventies. "And they're right about one thing--he is very Seventies. He was hot for a very short period back then--there were posters and everything. But visually, he's still very much in that rut, and that may be why he doesn't work as much as he used to."
@body:In 1985, the Fates smiled on Wilson. Stevenson was in town to shoot a TV series titled Probe, and Wilson somehow landed a three-day job as an extra in a sequence being shot in a Central Corridor bank building.
Wilson grows almost giddy as he recalls that long-ago encounter with the actor. "When I finally saw Parker in person, I was so delighted, because he really did look better in person than he does on TV," explains Wilson. "As you know, that usually isn't the case when you meet your dream star."
Not content merely sharing the same air with Stevenson, Wilson began using crew members to funnel snapshots of some of his "tamer" Stevenson material to his idol. Finally mustering up his courage, Wilson approached Stevenson and introduced himself as the artistic mystery fan.
"Are you the one who did these?" Stevenson reportedly asked Wilson about the photos of the artwork. "These are very nice."
"Parker was very polite, but not at all curious," recalls Wilson. "He didn't ask me why I did them, what I did with them or if I sold them. He just didn't care--or at least he didn't act like he did. It's occurred to me since that perhaps actors do that to keep their distance from fans."
If that was, indeed, Stevenson's strategy, it failed miserably. "I did bother Parker a lot," confesses Wilson, who breached film-extra etiquette so many times it's a wonder he wasn't fired. "Throughout the three days I worked on the show, I was always running up to him on breaks asking if he would pose for pictures or sign things," says Wilson, who convinced the actor to autograph the back of one of the more wholesome cutouts now on view in Wilson's show. "Because of Parker's handwriting, a lot of people misread it as, 'To Paul: You're annoying.' But if you look carefully, it actually says 'amazing.'"
On the final day of the shoot, Wilson decided to push the envelope by presenting the actor with What Paul Wants, Paula Gets, the videotape that made it clear that snapshots and autographs were the least of what Wilson wanted from Stevenson. Chickening out at the last minute, Wilson asked the show's female star to deliver the video for him. Whether Stevenson received the tape (or whether he ever watched it, even if he did), Wilson has never found out.
Not exactly surprised by the lack of any further contact with his idol, Wilson philosophizes that no news is good news. "So far, no lawsuits," he says cheerily. "But at least he's aware of me and he's seen my work."
Or at least some of it.
@body:The actor that The Encyclopedia of TV identifies as a "generic TV hunk" is simply one of the longer-running obsessions in a life filled with fleeting fixations on pop-culture icons of greater or lesser renown.
"You want Paul Wilson stories?" says Bob Haberer, one of Wilson's art teachers during the artist's stint at Camelback High School in the late Seventies and early Eighties. "Well, have you got a day and a half? Paul is not the sort of guy you can sit down and talk about for only two minutes. In your teaching career, you're really fortunate to come across someone like Paul. He was and is a very unique individual, and, as a teacher, you feel very lucky to have rubbed shoulders with someone like that."
Told about the Parker Stevenson-stalker aspect of Wilson's exhibit, Haberer laughs. "I'm not surprised," says the former art teacher, now a golf instructor at a Valley junior college. "When he was in one of my classes, he was into Harrison Ford--that went on for over a year. Then there was his Wonder Woman phase. Wonder Woman buttons, paintings, posters--you couldn't walk across the campus without seeing Wonder Woman somewhere. I was over to the campus a few weeks ago, and in the auto shop there's still a Wonder Woman up on the wall."
But Wilson's most notorious contribution to the Camelback High landscape was the mural he painted on the exterior of the school's art building in 1981. The shocking subject matter? Madge the Manicurist, the acerbic TV pitchwoman in Palmolive's memorable dishwashing detergent commercials, who was forever telling customers, "You're soaking in it!" "I personally thought the Madge the Manicurist mural was hilarious," recalls another art instructor at Camelback High, who requests anonymity. "Probably the funniest thing about it was this big brouhaha that it caused among the administration. If this kid had simply painted a desert landscape, no one would have given it a second thought. But Madge the Manicurist? That they couldn't deal with."
"You don't ask Paul where these things come from," explains Haberer. "He just pulls them out of the air." The controversial artwork was eventually catapulted to respectability when a photo of the mural was subsequently published in the Colgate-Palmolive house organ, prompting Jan Miner (the actress who portrayed Madge) to strike up a long-term correspondence with Wilson that continues to this day via the occasional Christmas card. "Paul performs, he role-plays, he acts out parts," continues Haberer, who once returned to his classroom after a half-hour break to discover that Wilson and his cronies had transformed the room into a reasonable facsimile of an office, complete with typewriters, telephones, secretaries, a water cooler and a sound-effects recording that played the sounds of a real-life business building. "Paul is unique," concludes Haberer. "He was the guru of the art students, no doubt about that. But to those poor individuals who dealt with realism all their lives and couldn't see anything abstract, he was a pretty strange character. You've just got to accept that he lives in a different world than the rest of us."
@body:Judging from the looks of his east Phoenix home--easily one of the Valley's most unusually appointed abodes--Wilson's world ended somewhere around 1963. That was not only the year he was born, but the most recent year that practically everything in the house was manufactured.
Since buying the house two years ago (his family lived in it for the first 13 years of Wilson's life, later buying a larger house next door), Wilson has turned the place into a virtual showroom of late-Fifties/early Sixties middle-class chic. Like everything Wilson touches, the effect is visually jolting; in this case, the result is like stepping directly into a vintage layout from Better Homes and Gardens, replete with kidney-shaped coffee tables, space-age cocktail carts and nubby, turquoise-and-yellow sectionals.
Not even the inside of the refrigerator has escaped Wilson's fertile imagination. It's filled with empty containers from some long-discontinued food products and with faux food, like a papier-mch spiced ham with foam-rubber pineapple slices that Wilson created using a Fifties-era cookbook as a visual reference.
Wilson admits there are some drawbacks to living in Yesterday's Dream House of Tomorrow. Real food must be hidden in the crisper, and store-bought milk must be transferred from plastic containers to glass bottles salvaged from a long-defunct dairy. Other necessities of modern life, such as a telephone answering machine, stereo equipment and a VCR, must be tucked away under furniture or stashed away in closets. And don't even think about trying to make a credit-card call--all the phones in the house are rotary.
More a live-in stage set than an actual home, the house appears to be a continual work-in-progress. Tired of staring at a blank wall, Wilson decided several years ago to "redo" the west side of his living room in "flagstone," a feat he accomplished by photographing close-ups of the flagstone edifice of Carpetime, then painting the stones on the wall for a trompe l'oeil effect.
More recently, Wilson wearied of his bedroom's decor, which had been furnished to resemble a cabin on the Queen Mary (complete with portholes and an ocean view) and, later, a cheesy motel room in Hawaii.
Contrasting sharply with the party-perfect neatness of the rest of the house, the bedroom has been transformed into a frighteningly realistic re-creation of a sloppy teenage girl's boudoir, circa 1959, right down to the 45 rpms, sweaters and old movie magazines scattered about the room in adolescent disarray. Pictures of teen idols past and beefcake stars present adorn brightly colored peg board on the wall. Pastel bunting hangs over the bed.
Explaining why he's chosen to decorate the room in the manner of a latter-day Sandra Dee, Wilson says that this is his "way of dealing with being gay in the Fifties."
"In the Fifties, people weren't gay--or at least they didn't talk about it," he continues. "So pretending to be a teenage girl allows me to put up pictures of Tony Perkins and Parker--even though he's from the Seventies--and just sort of mix everything up."
Perhaps tellingly, Wilson adds that his current bedroom is not the one he slept in when his family originally owned the house. "I thought about it a long time, and decided it probably was psychologically healthier if I slept in a different room," he explains. @rule:
@body:"Ever since Paul was a tiny thing, we noticed how much curiosity he had about everything."
So says Joan Wilson, who, along with her mechanical-engineer husband, Roger, has apparently grown so accustomed to her son's artistic idiosyncrasies that the pair dutifully helped Paul remove dozens of faux cockroaches, the pail of ersatz excrement and more than a few of their son's artfully rendered masturbatory fantasies when Berlitz Gallery suddenly closed last month.
"As soon as he could pick up a pencil, he was drawing scribbles, cartoons, figures--anything he'd seen on television," remembers Paul Wilson's mother. "When we'd go on car trips, I used to amuse him by writing four numbers in a series, and he'd somehow connect all those numbers to make a picture. It was really fantastic. Where he gets it, though, I have no idea. I studied art in college, but I couldn't begin to come up with some of the stuff he does. Paul's got an imagination that won't quit."
Pressed for anecdotes about her son's early bursts of creativity, Joan Wilson laughs. "Where do I begin?" she asks.
For starters, she recalls the time that Paul and a female friend from high school dressed to the teeth and sat down to a formal table setting in the family driveway, so they could toast the anonymous milkman who brought dairy products to the Wilsons' door at 4 a.m. each day.
Come again? "They just decided to toast the milkman, that's all," Joan Wilson reiterates matter-of-factly. "The milkman thing was just another of Paul's ideas. From what he told me, the milkman was pretty surprised."
Joan Wilson is considerably more animated when recalling Paul's annual New Year's Eve parties, soirees inspired by the climactic scene from The Poseidon Adventure, the film about a luxury liner that capsizes at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. "I told him he could do it as long as they contained it to his room," she says of the parties, during which Paul's formally dressed guests assumed roles of characters in the movie, then threw themselves on the floor and rolled around in food and broken dishes for several minutes while Paul played an audio recording of the corresponding scene from the movie.
(Paul Wilson reports that guests vied for the privilege of "plummeting" through a "skylight"--in reality a structure built over a bed.) Joan Wilson laughs. "I can still picture those kids lining up in my hall to take showers. Paul insisted that they throw flour up in the air to simulate dust, and everyone was covered with fake blood. Like I said, he's always had quite an imagination." @rule:
@body:Fake blood, chaos and confrontation are an unholy trinity that continually pop up in Wilson's work. Longtime friend Linda Kase, whose work is also showcased in the "Pretty Things and Dirty Things" exhibition, recalls how she and Wilson once tossed a wig, a dress, a pair of pumps and the contents of a purse on the floor of the elevator in Arizona State University's art building, then smeared themselves with fake blood and awaited reactions from fellow students who entered the elevator. "It was really quite interesting to see how people responded," says Kase, who prefers to think of the pair's escapades as "recreation" rather than "performance art." "Some people would look around and say, 'What did you do to her?!', while others would just ignore us completely," she says.
The duo received similar reactions upon using the elevator as a stage for daylong "birthday parties" (complete with balloons, confetti and presents), as well as the site of endurance-elevator-riding marathons. "I think my record was something like six hours before the director of the art department told us we couldn't do it anymore," says Kase. "We were told it was 'too disconcerting' to the other students to see us in the elevator every time they got in, and that somehow we were creating a 'safety hazard.'"
When not testing the limits of the campus Otis equipment, Wilson and Kase spent a lot of extracurricular hours cross-dressing--he as a woman, she as a man. "One of our favorite things to do was go to the Thursday night Art Walks as what we called the 'Scottsdale Couple,'" recalls Kase. "Before we'd go, we'd always stop at a thrift store and buy some incredibly bad painting, then attach a ridiculously ostentatious price tag, like $10,000." Armed with the painting, the odd couple then schlepped from gallery to gallery, squabbling all the while, until one of them grabbed the painting in exasperation and flung it under the wheels of a passing car. Another time, the pair attended a Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme concert at Phoenix Civic Plaza; Wilson dressed as Eydie, Kase as Steve. Oblivious to the stares of puzzled concertgoers, the couple even headed for the stage door after the show and managed to have a photo taken with the genuine articles. Did someone say, "Get a life"?
"Actually, I've had a lot less people saying that to us when we were doing all this weird stuff than once I got involved in 'legitimate' activism, like women's rights and nuclear disarmament," reports Kase. "I find that ironic."
Kase is considerably more thoughtful when asked about some of Wilson's more disturbing Parker Stevenson pieces. "I've known Paul so long that I'm jaded to what he's doing, and I don't feel that there's any real threat to it," she says. Still, Kase questions the wisdom of using kidnaping and rape fantasies as the focus of a gay-and-lesbian exhibition, particularly at a time when the gay community is fighting for mainstream acceptance.
"When we were getting the show together, I told him he might want to be a little more sensitive to what he was putting up," says Kase. "Personally, I feel that this whole thing with abducting Parker Stevenson is not subject matter for a public show. I have friends who have themselves been victims of this type of thing, and I know that at least some of his work would offend the sensibilities of at least a few of them."
Although declining to identify any particular artwork, she might be referring to a series of especially graphic bondage-rape pieces that concludes the Stevenson-abduction series. Wilson obviously had second thoughts himself--he withheld several pieces from the show, claiming they were "inappropriate" for a public viewing. In one sketch, the seminude actor is pictured bound with ropes, kneeling in a pile of garbage. In the other, "Paula" (Wilson's drag persona) digs her fake fingernails into her victim's biceps, drawing blood as she performs a sex act upon the screaming Stevenson. The series ends with a photograph of Wilson sitting behind the desk of the Channel 12 news set, a shot taken when his college video class visited the station some years ago. Underneath the photo, Wilson has written: "Once again, ladies and gentlemen, Parker Stevenson has been kidnaped and is . . . probably . . . dead." "In communicating this to people, I had to make it as ugly and explicit as they think it would get," says Wilson in defense of the explicit scenario. "In order to show this as most people would imagine something like this being resolved, I had to make it sick and sensationalistic.
"In reality, I wouldn't want it to be brutal, though," Wilson continues. "I'd want it to be fun."
@body:"I don't see how anyone with any degree of sophistication could begin to take this as a serious threat," says ASU art instructor Muriel Magenta, referring to Wilson's pictorially sinister narrative. Calling Wilson a true "standout" among all the students she's taught during her many years at ASU (Wilson produced the Stevenson stalker video in one of her classes), Magenta praises Wilson's unbridled imagination--particularly those flights of artistic fancy that move his work into areas that may be unsettling to some viewers.
"Paul's gift is that he can take all these things that the media's throwing out at him, bring them into his own realm and put this extraordinary spin on them," says Magenta, who claims she's often wondered why Wilson hasn't done more to capitalize on his talent.
"He's a true artist, but he's hiding under a rock, in a way," says Magenta. "But on the other hand, he's at peace with himself, and there's certainly something to be said for that. "A lot of people with his talent would head for New York or Los Angeles, but he seems happy rooted in Phoenix," Magenta continues. "And like the saying goes, 'If it's not broken, don't fix it.' If Paul left Phoenix, one of two things would happen. He'd either fly with it or just crack. My personal opinion is that he'd fly.
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