Interview with an Alter Ego
Apr 29, 2015 09:04AM
By James Walmsley
“You have to think to yourself: What is art? And then, what is doing art?” French, 31, argues while brushing the tip of my nose with his big toe. “If I go shopping, is that art? It is.”
We had just finished rollerblading in sub-20 degree weather as one of the conditions of his interview, and Isacc—spelled with two c’s to make up for the k, he says — was lying across the arms of two hulking men dressed as Vikings, allowing his feet to breathe.
At least that’s how French’s imagination made it seem.
“If I decide to wake up in the morning and fix my hair, why am I not an artist?” French continues in a shrill, glass-shattering tenor C-sharp. “You have hairstylists and they say that they’re artists and sometimes they’re not, because I went and got my haircut and my bangs are kind of, as you see, messed up.”
Disheveled as it is now, French admits that had his once perfectly groomed pageboy wig not collided with the front grill of Denim’s ’57 Cadillac in Shenandoah, Iowa, over two decades ago, his career would’ve gone in a different trajectory. The New York galleries he crashed, the ribbon dancing that he profited from, and a viral dance video that found its way on the now defunct Attack of the Show might have all been a dream, French says, had he caught the down-and-out art dealer’s eye a moment sooner.
“You know, fate,” he says. “It’s kind of a fate thing.”
Denim, now well into his 70s, according to French, was excommunicated from the art world in 1992 after a scandal involving counterfeit paintings. French explains that this tall, debonair native of Germany was fleeing New York for Las Vegas when he happened upon French’s genius and the abstract paintings that had dripped onto old newspapers underneath French’s drying still lifes of food.
“Mr. Denim saw the paintings on the floor and said, ‘Oh, that’s good! Sorry I hit you, kid!’” French says in his best German accent. “He saw something in me, so he just pretty much picked me up and took me away from my parents.”
After a long run together that peaked with a showing at the Aboriginal Colony Gallery in Australia in 1998, which French describes as mostly sticks and face paintings and a tribe of people who were “trying too hard,” the two split for good. Denim, who French hasn’t spoken to in years, can probably still be found, he says, throwing lavish ice cream and champagne parties somewhere in New England.
As for French, he can now be found in Omaha—at our First Fridays, Fashion Weeks, and galleries—as a living, breathing critique on art and reality, existing alongside our terribly executed fake laughs and our routine social disguises, formal and casual.
And while he doesn’t deny the fact that he is the alter ego of an Omaha artist who refused to give his real name for publication, French assures me that he isn’t a sham. He’s just more elaborately decorated than the rest of us.
“Realistically, I don’t know that I am real, but I put on my clothes and I put on my shoes and I put on everything that anyone else puts on, so I suppose I’m real,” he says. “But at the same time, people decide what’s real or not—I decide what’s real or not.”
French looks away for a moment to catch a glimpse of his reflection in an ornate freestanding mirror.
“I hope I’m real,” he sighs and brushes his hair to the side. “Do you see me?”