Known for her sexualized sculptures of the female form, New York-based artist Valentina Vaccarella explores new mediums in Bless this life his first personal exhibition at No Gallery. Throughout the exhibit, frames fitted with vintage dot linens embroidered with the initials of past couples are adorned with larger-than-life acrylic transfers of notorious madams, including Heidi Fleiss – a Hollywood favorite – and Kristin Davis, a busty blonde hedge fund manager turned scammer. Through her work, Vaccarella, herself a sex worker, celebrates the outsized power of women in the underworld while deconstructing the dark side of their notoriety, insinuating that when it comes to politics and sex, it’s always a world of men. Loud party scenes are juxtaposed with tabloid imagery and stark portraiture, reminding the viewer that while these women were considered heroines by several generations of sex workers, the clients they served and the systems they exploited n Were not that forgiving when it came to getting caught. To learn more about her process, No Gallery alumnus Richard Kern interviewed Vaccarella about pimps, pornography and the price of marriage while photographing her in his Bronx studio.
RICHARD KERN: I saw the exhibit you have at No Gallery and the whole subject was famous ladies. Can you tell me why you chose them as a subject?
VALENTINA VACCARELLA: The reason I chose them: it’s not about sex work per se, but about women’s relationship to power and how madams, compared to escorts and dancers, have the highest level of power. There’s an element of masculinity to these women, when you combine that with the antique linens, which are bridal linens that have the couples’ initials embroidered on it, it becomes a commentary on the power struggle between men and women in the relationships.
KERN: Do you have a favorite lady among all these women?
VACCARELLA: Kristin Davis is my favorite lady because she didn’t start out as an escort like other women, she worked in a hedge fund. She had a strange relationship with Heidi Fleiss. She had worked with her, but not for her. She became madam because she signed all the numbers and documents for these guys and saw how much they were spending on escorts. She saw it as a business opportunity.
KERN: When I was researching this topic, I noticed that there are a lot of ladies who get arrested and sent to jail, but I didn’t see any men. I mean, the only person I can think of is Jeffrey Epstein, and nobody calls him a pimp.
VACCARELLA: The title of procurer generally corresponds to traffickers, whereas I have not heard of a lady who has been a trafficker, at least thanks to my research. The horrible thing about all of this is that these ladies have served their sentences. The martyrdom of all the madams I have on this show has to be Deborah Jeane Palfrey, because she took her own life. She wanted to bring everyone down with her. She even called Randall Tobias and Senator David Vitter to testify for her and support her. She wanted everyone out, she even tried to sell her phone book to a news station. Some people think his suicide was fake, much like Epstein, which is very possible.
VACCARELLA: She was an escort and then she got arrested, she said she felt a bit uptight, so she became a madam. She says, “That’s what I have as an option, so I’ll do it the best I can.” She had a very clean and upscale escort service company in DC. What’s crazy is that his clients who were discovered and caught were really anti-prostitution. They get a slap on the wrist and she gets these serious charges against her and then ends up killing herself at age 52. His life is ruined, and these guys still have their wives and [careers].
KERN: Do you have a relationship with sex work? What are your feelings about this?
VACCARELLA: The thing is, sex work – the underworld – is the only environment I’ve seen where women have the power to really enjoy things the way men do. This is why they are arrested. It’s like, “Okay, do you want to play with the big boys? We’re going to punish you like the big boys,” except the big boys never get punished.
KERN: I’ve seen some of your other work at No Gallery, what are some of the other things you’ve done?
VACCARELLA: Before making these pieces, I was making sculptures. One was an abstract sculpture, sort of Hans Bellmer-esque in form. It was the [Lc4 Corbusier] lounge chair designed by Charlotte Perriand. You would probably recognize him. It was in a lot of porn sets in the 2000s.
VACCARELLA: I was watching porn one day, and there was this really specific hardcore scene with a white leather version of this chair with a chrome frame. The porn star was bleached blonde, dressed in an all-white body stocking and chrome six-inch heels. She was getting rammed and it looked like she was part of the chair. It was so wild to see. I made a sculpture from it.
KERN: Of yourself?
VACCARELLA: I did a body cast of one of my girlfriends at the time.
KERN: A full cast?
VACCARELLA: No, just the lower torso area. I made two, then joined them and added the lower body on top. I varnished it so it wouldn’t get dusty.
KERN: Let’s see, I don’t know how to ask…
VACCARELLA: You can ask anything.
KERN: Well you are obviously interested in sex work, have you ever been a sex worker?
KERN: Where does your experience come from?
VACCARELLA: It starts in the gigs section of Craigslist for most people. Now that’s over, but that’s how it starts. You get curious, you skim through headlines and classifieds, and it goes from there.
KERN: How old were you hanging out on Craigslist?
VACCARELLA: I was much younger, I was 18, 19. I think a lot of it was a result of boredom and curiosity.
KERN: Well, I know a lot of women who have done this and for all sorts of reasons, but usually it’s like they have a massive amount of debt to pay off. A woman was looking for a billionaire, and she’s super smart, and she’s tried every other type of business. She finally said, “Fuck, I have an asset and I’m going to use it as much as possible.” She found a billionaire, and now she’s living with that billionaire, and he left his wife and everything.
VACCARELLA: It’s really interesting, like with Madame Claude, she was the one who was really big in the 60s, 70s, a lot of the girls who worked for her ended up marrying these wealthy clients. It was almost like a way for them to get married, which is a funny form of twinning. It’s like, of course, I want to meet a millionaire instead of going to dating sites. You become an escort and hope to fall in love with a client.
KERN: I feel like with Seeking Arrangements and all these websites, that’s definitely the draw. A lot of [the girls] are looking for someone to take care of them. People have asked me, “Have you ever heard of a sugar daddy?” I’m like, “I’m broke, I can’t do this.”
VACCARELLA: The kept woman is perhaps the smarter and less bulky version of a sex worker than a girl who sees multiple clients. But at the end of the day, it’s the same thing, she’s just more conservative about it.
KERN: Marriage is not a salary either.
VACCARELLE: [Laughs] How long have you been married? Are you still married?
KERN: No, I was married about nine or ten years ago. I didn’t realize everything she did until we weren’t married and I had to do everything. I was like, “Fuck.”
VACCARELLA: It’s good that you realize that. I feel like a lot of men don’t realize how much their wives do for them.