From performance, Taking Stock in Yourself, at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, photo by Michael Niemetz, 2014

From performance, Taking Stock in Yourself, at Los Angeles Contemporary Archive, photo by Michael Niemetz, 2014

Molly Jo Shea: Driven By Fear

Performances that Make you Laugh and Feel

Los Angeles performance artist Molly Jo Shea knows that you’ve got some genuine feelings, you’re just scared to reveal them. If you attend one of her shows, maybe you should be afraid. Shea operates as a doula of the emotions and she will barf blood or take a tough unripe tomato to the kisser to make sure that you give birth to as many of your passions as possible.

A striking, brown-eyed 27-year-old woman with a dark pageboy, Shea may be most famous for sampling Shia LaBeouf’s unintentionally hilarious performance art tapes in her promotion of an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign for 2015’s “Perform Chinatown— Rush Hour” festival. But though LaBeouf’s wacky screaming of “DO IT! DO IT!” qualifies the pledge drive as the most excruciating in history, Shea deserves more notice for reminding startled viewers that love dies, that they possess a dangerous will to power, and that the old maxim “never give up” could have been the worst piece of advice they ever took.

“I’m driven by fear,” Shea explained on a recent sunny morning at Blue Bottle Coffee in downtown Los Angeles. She wore black slacks, a patterned blouse, and a ceramic “snake/penis” necklace she made herself. Her huge eyes glowed as she described her latest act, in Vienna, where she used Snapchat faceswapping and rainbow lighting to convince the audience to project their desires onto her. “I’d pretend to be their mother or their wife or their girlfriend, and then I’d crouch down next to them and promise that I’d love them forever, even after they wound up in the grave,” she exclaimed, sipping a cold brew. The show riffed off the opera Tales of Hoffmann, and Shea encouraged her subjects to have supersized panic attacks, as did the protagonist in that grim tale.

Shea understands extreme emotional states and finds Los Angeles the perfect city to freak out in. Born in Northridge, CA, she attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, returning to LA upon graduating. In her art career she executes work that processes “the evil undercurrent of a city without seasons, that doesn’t reset.” Whereas in Chicago she learned that “it could be okay” to “not go outside” because of the cold and snow, in Los Angeles there’s an expectation that people will always be productive, happy and “at the beach.” But Shea apprehends that a lot of Angeleños fail at that stereotype, and how rough that can make their lives.

“I never feel comfortable feeling things,” she admitted, taking a bite of chocolate chip cookie, and smiled.


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From Sandman performance at Im Ersten in Vienna, photo by Johanna Braun, 2016.

Shea’s talent for finding her audience’s triggers energize her earliest performances, which jeer at physical, professional or sexual failure. In 2011’s Bloodsport, filmed in Chicago while she was “having a nervous breakdown,” Shea gamely danced to Sugar Ray’s peppy song “Someday” as her septum spouted a prolific nosebleed. Upon moving to LA in 2012, she enacted “It’s My Party and I Can Die If I Want To,” where she joked about the mesmerizing badness of a life dedicated to the arts (“What’s the difference between an orgy and a performance art piece? People at an orgy know when they’re sucking.”) and puked up the fake blood. Around the same time, she initiated a “Misogynist Massage” series, where she rubbed naked clients as they watched a woman-hating video (“Remember all the fucked-up shit your mother ever said to you …She was probably a huge bitch. And now release.”). Shea also took a star turn in Season’s Greetings With John Baldessari, where she dressed up as Santa/Conceptualist John Baldessari and sang Christmas carols to the classy folks that inhabit something called “Chatroulette”—a wrist-slitter of a service mostly populated by men seeking chat companions via Skype-ish technology. Season’s Greetings’ reveals Shea/Baldessari/Santa getting rejected by about 30 suitors (“Your partner disconnected. Press ‘Next’ to find a new person!”) when she wasn’t blinking at penises getting masturbated.

But the 2015 Taking Stock in Yourself probably measures up as the, literally, biggest punch to the face: Shea got locked up in the kind of wooden stocks that the Sheriff of Nottingham would have used to torture Robin Hood, and gave her audience a lecture on how to “overcome humiliation.” While her head and hands waved from their enclosures, Shea merrily covered the debasements that arrive with Love, Money, Ego and Outside Forces (“Sometimes you do something totally depraved for love, like drive to LAX.”) as an assistant squirted water in her face. The dénouement arrived when she required audience members, including her own mother, to read out personal affirmations (“I can positively take responsibility for my own actions”) and throw unripe tomatoes at her head while she screamed at them for being pussies.

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From performance, You Can’t Cut Your Loses: A Castrati Cocktail Hour, at PAM art residency, photo by Evans Vestal Ward, 2015.

In his Poetics, Aristotle argued that the best dramatic tragedies inspired catharsis in the audience. “Catharsis” derives from the Greek medical term katharsis, meaning “bodily purging, or cleansing,” and the term seems apt here. Shea will stomach pump a wad of emotions out of you whether you like it or not, and in the process you might find yourself laughing with anguish, while conceivably committing assault and battery like those frightful guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment.  

“I’m trying to be more empathetic, because people are complicated,” Shea explained at Blue Bottle, while her snake/penis necklace glittered softly. She shrugged about the tomato concussions and suggested her work revealed how people share the same sadness she often struggles with. “By giving [the audience] my own vulnerability I’m able to do a trade—I mean, to understand something else. [I want to] trade what is inside of me, and gain knowledge about the audience, so that I can understand something.” Shea paused, looking out the window at LA’s warm, golden sky. “Something that was invisible to me. Something I didn’t see.”

See Molly Jo Shea’s work in “I Can’t Even… A Pet Peeve Funeral,” a collaborative installation and performance with artist Steven Frost on January 7th at Basement Projects in Santa Ana at the Santora Arts Building.