‘NEA Four’ performance artist Fleck still pushing buttons in latest show

WEST LOS ANGELES – “I like to remind myself, ‘At least I’ll always be a footnote in the Art History books!’” That’s what John Fleck has to say about his role as one of the “NEA Four,” a quartet of performance artists who in 1990 had their grants rescinded by the National Endowment of the Arts under pressure from Washington – in particular, Senators Alphonse D’Amato and Jesse Helms, who led a coalition of fellow conservative senators to impose guidelines restricting the organization from supporting whose work “may be considered obscene.”

When the Blade sat down with the veteran LA performance artist to have a conversation about his latest show – a new cabaret extravaganza called “it’s alive, IT’S ALIVE!,” which opens February 19 at the Odyssey Theatre – we knew we had to ask him about the incident that made him notorious. What, exactly, did he do that was so obscene the government felt it had to intervene?“It was a show called ‘Blessed Are All the Little Fishes,’ back in 1988. I had this toilet that I found on the street, and I put it on wheels and rolled it onto the stage – I was dressed as a mermaid – and I created this whole religious epiphany thing where I vomited into the toilet, and I was saying ‘God, why did you stop loving me?’

“Then God answered from the toilet, ‘I never stopped loving you, you stopped loving me!,’ and it became this ‘miracle of the toilet bowl.’ A Bible appeared, and then – being a punk, you know these were the old punk rock days – I whipped out my penis and peed in the toilet, and I’m reading this biblical passage and experiencing this miracle, and then I reached down into the toilet, I had these little bowls down in there, and I brought out a goldfish. And I was like, ‘God answered my prayer with a stupid goldfish?’ Anyway, I learned the meaning of love through this little goldfish, and that was the germ of the piece,” Fleck recalled.

Over thirty years later, many of our readers might think that sounds like just another Saturday night – as many did back then, as well. Nevertheless, it caused a stir. After starting out as a club performance (with the now-defunct troupe Theatre Carnivale at the long-gone Olio, in Silver Lake), it eventually moved to the now-torn-down Tiffany Theatre; somewhere along the way, Fleck says, a friend suggested applying for an NEA grant, and he did it. To his surprise, he was awarded $5000.

Flashing forward to 1990, he tells us, “I remember coming home from doing a show at the Chris Brownlie AIDS hospice in 1990, and on my message machine there were something like 40 phone calls from CNN and so on, saying ‘What are your thoughts about your grant being taken away?” That was how I found out. And I was, like, ‘Whoa, Senator Jesse Helms, you really do NOT like my work!’ And then, you know, one thing led to another and we ended up going to the Supreme Court – and here I am a hundred years later.”

The four artists (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes were the other three) won that Supreme Court Case in 1993, scoring a victory for Free Speech, but the NEA – again, under pressure – subsequently discontinued awarding funds to individual artists.

Fleck says the whole episode gave him an exaggerated reputation that dogged him for years.

‘NEA Four’ performance artist Fleck still pushing buttons in latest show

“I remember talking to Holly Hughes and saying how we couldn’t create anything because all we were doing was defending ourselves. I’d read things like ‘John Fleck masturbates in front of an audience!’ or that Helms was saying I urinated on the picture of Jesus Christ, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, I never did that.’ But suddenly I was labeled. Beware of labels, they really stick. I spent a lot of time trying to peel mine off and define who I really was.”

Looking back now, he sees a clear connection between the repressively prurient atmosphere of those years and the resurgence of extreme conservatism today – something that’s particularly obvious in the extremist fervor of the MAGA crowd.

“OF COURSE we all want to make America great, I don’t know about ‘again’, but there IS that mythology. We were founded on great principles, let’s make it great as a democracy. But y’all remember how great it was during the late ‘80s and ‘90s, with Reagan in office who never once mentioned AIDS? And here we are in another fucking contagion, but sure, let’s go backwards and pretend that shit never happened.

“But really, for the extreme right-wing, what they mean is that some people are great and some are not great.”

Conveniently, the topic allows Fleck a deft segue to talk about his upcoming piece.

“In ‘IT’S ALIVE!’ I play three characters, and one of them is this extreme right wing guy, and it’s fun getting to spew all this misogynistic, homophobic stuff – it always gets a big laugh in the audience, because it’s such a pressure releaser, these things we’re not supposed to say. And then I also play this mythical Covid germ, who’s basically on the far left, in a way, and he’s ‘an emissary of love,’ saying the virus isn’t here to kill humanity, its mission is to save the world. And on top of all that – you know, gosh darn it, I’m a gay performance artist and there’s definitely a queer sensibility to the whole thing.”

In other words, his new show might not be “obscene”, but it’s sure to ruffle some feathers.“I love to push those buttons,” Fleck enthuses. “To make an audience uncomfortable, make them look at reality. We have to get grounded again. We’re all lost in our own realities, there’s like the MSNBC reality and there’s people like my family in Cleveland who are… whoo! Man, they believe in some crazy shit!

“But really, I’m just trying to get us all away from being so entrenched, to get to the roots of our humanity, to remind everybody – and yes, I know it sounds simplistic – that it’s all about loving each other.”

Still, he’s quick to assure us the show is meant – mostly, at least – simply to be to be a “rollicking good time”, using musical numbers, dance sequences and broad characters in “a hilarious and uniquely ribald theatrical rollercoaster” skewering our fears and assumptions about everything from COVID-19 to our identity as earth dwellers at this precarious moment.

“I wanted to get back to my performance roots, to doing cabaret, and perform with a band, so we have a two-piece band and some singer-dancer-actors who are helping me out. It’s been incubating for like a year-and-a-half. I always think of it as this baby, and it poked its head out in September when we did the workshop, and we got a great response, and now Baby wants to be born!”That baby, written and performed by Fleck and directed by his longtime collaborator David Schweizer, will appear onstage at the Odyssey February 19 thru March 20, with tickets and information available at 310) 477-2055 or OdysseyTheatre.com.