Known for her sexualized sculptures of the female form, the New York-based artist Valentina Vaccarella is exploring new mediums in Bless This Life, her first solo show at No Gallery. Throughout the exhibit, frames fitted with vintage dowry linens embroidered with the initials of couples past are emblazoned with larger than life acrylic transfers of notorious madams including Heidi Fleiss—a Hollywood favorite—and Kristin Davis, a buxom blonde hedge fund manager-turned-hustler. Through her work, Vaccarella—a sex worker herself, celebrates the outsized power of women in the underworld while deconstructing the darker side of their notoriety, insinuating that when it comes to politics and sex, it’s still a man’s world. Raucous party scenes are juxtaposed with tabloid images and austere portraits, reminding the viewer that while these women were seen as heroes by several generations of sex workers, the clients they serviced, and the systems they were exploiting, were not so forgiving when it came to getting caught. To learn more about her process, No Gallery alumnus Richard Kern asked Vaccarella about pimps, porn, and the price of marriage while photographing her in her Bronx studio.
RICHARD KERN: I saw the show that you have on at No Gallery and all the subject matter was famous madams. Can you tell me why you picked them as a subject?
VALENTINA VACCARELLA: The reason I picked them—it’s not about sex work per se, it’s about women’s relationship to power and how madams, in comparison to escorts and dancers, have the highest level of power. There’s an element of masculinity in these women, when you combine that with the antique sheets, which are bridal sheets that have the initials of couples embroidered on them, it becomes a commentary on the power struggle between men and women in relationships.
KERN: Do you have a favorite madam out of all those women?
VACCARELLA: Kristin Davis is my favorite madam because she didn’t start as an escort like the other women, she worked at a hedge fund. She had a weird relationship with Heidi Fleiss. She had worked with her, but not for her. She became a madam because she would sign off on all the numbers and paperwork for these guys and see how much they were spending on escorts. She saw a business opportunity there.
KERN: When I was doing my research on this topic I noticed that there are a lot of madams 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 pimp usually correlates to traffickers whereas I haven’t heard of a madam who’s been a trafficker, at least through my research. What’s so horrible about all of this is that these madams have done time. The martyr out of all of the madams that I have in this show has to be Deborah Jeane Palfrey, because she committed suicide. She wanted to bring everyone down with her. She even called on Randall Tobias and Senator David Vitter to testify for her and back her up. She wanted to out everyone, she even tried to sell her phone book to a news station. Some people think her suicide was fake, kind of like Epstein, which is very possible.
VACCARELLA: She was an escort and then she got busted, she said she kind of felt stuck, so she became a madam. She’s like, “This is what I have as an option, so I’m going to do it as best as I can.” She had a really clean, high-end escort service company in D.C. What’s crazy is that her clients who got outed and caught were really anti-prostitution. They get a slap on the wrist and she’s getting these serious charges against her and then ends up committing suicide at 52-years-old. Her life is ruined, and these guys still have their wives and [careers].
KERN: Do you have a relationship to sex work? What are your feelings about it?
VACCARELLA: The thing is, sex work—the underworld—is the only environment I’ve seen where women have the power to really take advantage of things the way men do. That’s why they get arrested. It’s like, “Okay, 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 saw some of your other work at No Gallery, what are some of the other things you’ve made?
VACCARELLA: Before I made these pieces, I did sculptures. One was an abstract sculpture, kind of Hans Bellmer-esque in form. It was the [Lc4 Corbusier] chaise lounge that Charlotte Perriand designed. You would probably recognize it. It was in a lot of porn sets back in the 2000s.
VACCARELLA: I was watching porn one day, and there was this really specific hardcore scene with a white leather top version of that chair with the chrome frame. The porn star was bleach blonde, wearing an all-white body stocking and chrome six-inch heels. She was getting rammed and it just looked like she was a part of the chair. It was so wild to see. I made a sculpture based off of that.
KERN: Of yourself?
VACCARELLA: I did a body cast of a girlfriend of mine at the time.
KERN: A full body cast?
VACCARELLA: No, just the lower torso region. I made two of them, then conjoined them, and added the body stocking onto it. I varnished it so it doesn’t get dusty.
KERN: Let’s see, I don’t know how to ask…
VACCARELLA: You can ask whatever.
KERN: Well, you’re obviously interested in sex work, have you ever been a sex worker?
KERN: Where did your experience come from?
VACCARELLA: It starts in the gig section of Craigslist for most people. Now that’s defunct, but that’s how it starts. You get curious, you look through the titles and the classifieds, and it goes from there.
KERN: At what age were you hanging out on Craigslist?
VACCARELLA: I was much younger, I was 18, 19. I think a lot of it resulted from boredom and curiosity.
KERN: Well, I know a lot of women who’ve done that and for all kinds of reasons, but usually it’s like, they have some gigantic debt they have to pay off. One woman was looking for a billionaire, and she’s super fucking smart, and she tried every other kind of business. She just finally said, “Fuck it, I have an asset and I’m going to use it as much as I can.” She found a billionaire, and now she lives with this billionaire, and he left his wife and everything.
VACCARELLA: That’s really interesting, like with Madam Claude, she was the one that was really big in the sixties, seventies, a lot of the girls that worked for her ended up marrying these affluent clients. It was almost like a way for them to end up married, which is a funny form of matchmaking. It’s like, of course, I want to meet a millionaire instead of going on dating sites. You become an escort and hope you fall in love with a client.
KERN: I feel like with Seeking Arrangements and all those websites that’s definitely the aspiration. A lot of [the girls] are looking for someone to take care of them. I’ve had people ask me, “Have you ever heard of a sugar daddy?” I’m like, “I’m broke, I can’t do it.”
VACCARELLA: The kept woman is perhaps the smarter, lower volume 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 being more conservative about it.
KERN: Marriage is also no pay.
VACCARELLA: [Laughs] How long were you married? Are you still married?
KERN: No, I was married about nine or 10 years. I did not realize how much she did until we weren’t married and I had to do everything. I was like, “Fuck.”
VACCARELLA: It’s nice that you realize it though. I feel like a lot of men don’t realize how much their woman does for them.