Cody Critcheloe


First things first! It’s SSION, pronounced “shun,” as in mission, fission, ambition—all apt words to describe the gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art that is Cody Critcheloe and the queer punk/performance/art band he invented ten years back as a high school student in Lewisport, Kentucky. In the time since then, SSION has released 4 full-length records, toured extensively throughout the United States, and enjoyed cult status among fans and music writers who have lauded Critcheloe as everything from Out magazine’s Hottest Artist of the Year to “Prince’s love child”i to the “one true master” of “high-concept sleaze pop.”ii Despite gushy reviews from tastmaking music blogs, indie magazines, and the mainstream press, SSION has largely (and only until now, one hopes) escaped the attention of the contemporary art world and critical art press. Here’s why, I suspect: SSION is more fun than we think art should be. Critcheloe’s songs are catchy, not abstract, and his visuals and live shows are crafted to appeal to more than an art-going crowd. SSION could easily cross over to become a pop phenomenon—a potentiaity (or prophecy) which, in a stroke of self-reflexive genius, Critcheloe has already written into the narrative arc of his work to date. The story of SSION is a raucous, louched up, camp parody of Critcheloe’s own life, in which a small-town punk kid hooked on doughnuts and pizza follows his dreams with razor focus to emerge as a svelte, smoky-eyed pop star embraced by adoring crowds. And here, it seems, is the catch. While the annals of art and film give us plenty of examples to draw on for theorizing the artist’s alter ego (Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy) the image-obsessed dandy (Warhol, Hirst, Koons, etc.) the high-camp auteur (Waters, Jack Smith, and recently, Ryan Trecartin) and the concept band (Yoko Ono, Tracy and The Plastics) the discourse is less prescribed for an artist and musician who straddles all of these genres while aspiring to create work that actually is pop in the broadest and most populist sense of the word.

SSION’s first feature-length film, BOY, affords a fresh opportunity to consider the band’s work in the context of popular media and within the discourses of contemporary art. To situate the work in this way is to necessarily highlight a degree of fluidity, criticality and complexity in the work that far exceeds the typical coming-of-age movie or arena concert experience.

BOY brings together nine separately shot but jointly conceived music videos for SSION’s 2007 record Fool’s Gold. The movie opens with an animated sketch of the teenage Critcheloe hanging out and smoking cigarettes with his female muse and imaginary best friend known only as The Woman (played by Shannon Michalski). A detour on the pair’s afternoon drive delivers them to the Church of Satan, where, oozing youthful ennui and amused by the idea of a grand Eternity, Critcheloe gamely signs over his soul by charging a fifty-dollar initiation fee to his mother’s debit card.

The title BOY, we soon realize, is offered with a wink: Critcheloe’s work is as avid in its excavation and bending of female archetypes as it is dedicated to Critcheloe’s own journey, which can’t be separated from the intensely powerful influences of the women around him. As in earlier works, the character of Critcheloe’s mother is treated with equal parts sentimentality and scorn. (A graphite drawing accompanying the Fool’s Gold album depicts Critcheloe’s mother with pleading eyes and a blank field where her mouth would be.) In BOY, Critcheloe’s choice to join forces with the Dark Prince kicks off a delightfully genderfucked Oedipal battle. An otherwise absent father figure is ghosted by the coy queen who plays Critcheloe’s “Ma,” and who willingly submits to Critcheloe’s taunts and recriminations for a youth lived with one foot shoved in the closet.“I only walk like a fag cuz of all of my blisters,” Critcheloe snarls, “and I only fuck girls cuz you and dad never gave me a sister.That’s what I did…that’s what I do…that’s who I am...that’s what I choose.”iii

Writing about women in Andy Warhol’s films, Jennifer Doyle notes how “many of the most significant gay male artists of the twentieth century frequently put women in their work, not only as iconic placeholders for an idealized, deconstructed, or camp version of femininity but as crucial allies in the attempt to make a livable life out of a world organized against the minority sexual subject.”iv BOY invokes this strategy with a generational twist: in the twenty-first century, Critcheloe and The Woman blaze trails for each other, with Critcheloe going so far as to yield his total project—fame, career, control—to The Woman by the end of the movie. Even if we read this move as somewhat suspect (could BOY really be a feminist movie?) it is difficult to imagine Andy Warhol making a film about gifting the Factory to Valerie Solanas.

The boys in BOY can’t be overlooked, of course, and there are plenty of them in variations to suit and stimulate most any kind of gaze. In “Street Jizz” they figure as waifish urchins and bottoms in tighty whities partying on Critcheloe’s bed, which has eyeballs for bedposts and a headboard significantly emblazoned with the letters R.I.P. As the young Critcheloe comes further into his own, he’s backed by a band of classic punks, and later, by a group of stoic cave guys whose long beards and loincloths contrast sharply with Critcheloe’s tonsure-like do. “It feels real,” Critcheloe intones over their orgiastic brawl in a bonfire, “when all the dudes cry…or at least try…I think I’m gonna cry…I really wanna cry….”v

Whenever a big, glassy crocodile tear does roll down Critcheloe’s porcelain cheek, he flicks it off, despite the Woman’s betrayal in “Warm Glove” and a total female takeover in “Bullshit.” Critcheloe’s character is nothing if not resilient, and after being wheeled off in a chair by the Fortune Teller (played by DeDe DeVille) at the end of “Bullshit,” he sheds his mermaid tail to rise to full fame and glory with a concert performance of the song “Clown.” Feted by confetti and roses, the energized pop star seems unstoppable until in the midst of his next song, “Fear Us,” he is confronted by The Woman, who has undergone a parallel transformation from carefree youth to hard-edged power broker and celebrity in her own right.

The pleasure of SSION’s excesses, and thus the satisfaction of spectatorship, tends to accumulate in details which Critcheloe has a way of making look off-handed. In actuality, SSION couldn’t exist without the dozens of collaborators who move in and out of the group’s various frames of production as costume designers, musicians, set painters, camera operators, photographers, and so on. Likewise, SSION’s hilarity and skillful manipulation of signs don’t come from just one voice, but from a cadre of artists (mostly under age 30) for whom the legacies of Woodstock, Stonewall, Waters, the Cockettes, early MTV, AIDS, Punk, Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” to drugs campaign, “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” “Roseanne,” Nowhere, Wild at Heart, etc. are living texts, to be appropriated and overwritten alongside and Courtney Love’s Twitter feed. The fact that many of these collaborators are too young to remember what the onset of the AIDS crisis, for example, felt like, means that they are free to remix it in whatever way they wish. The burden of history isn’t lifted or swept under the rug in this scenario: rather the rug is snapped up, chopped up, and reconfigured into an “omni-sexual”vi survival parka replete with spandex pockets, belts, convertible hoods—everything a globe-trotting pop star and his entourage need to survive the next great culture war or apocalypse.

BOY is SSION’s most ambitious project to date, but already the band is at work on a new record and a new set of projects. At the time of this writing, it remains to be seen what will happen to Critcheloe’s character, to The Woman, and to her fearsome backing band, Waiting to Exhale. Will Critcheloe ultimately reclaim the power he’s ceded to his fierce heroine and shadow? Is there much time left for The Woman? Or will Critcheloe remain in a state of expertly played Warholian affect, a “gay/punk Forrest Gump” apparently content to let the golden confetti blow where it may? Only time and Critcheloe will tell.

Stacy Switzer
Artistic Director
Grand Arts
August 2009

iBoy George, <<http: //>>, Summer 2009.
ii Jessica Hopper, “SSION has come a long, long way,” Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2009.
iiiSSION, “Ah Ma,” Fool’s Gold, 2007.
iv Jennifer Doyle, Sex Objects: Art and the Dialectics of Desire (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 75.
v SSION, “A Wolve’s Eye,” Fool’s Gold, 2007.
vi Ari Fish quoted in Alice Thorson, “The Break-Out Artists,” Kansas City Star, July 26, 2009.

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The Pitch's Wayward Blog on BOY Premiere: Jason Harper's Review: BOY by SSION
Wayward Blog on the Grand Arts Opening: Jason Harper's SSION Snapshots: BOY opening at Grand Arts
KCUR Preview: SSION's Film: "BOY" by Laura Spencer
KCUR Web Extra: Cody Critcheloe on the WOMAN by Laura Spencer
Read Alice Thorson's Review of "BOY"

Cody, SSION and Grand Arts would like to thank the following people for their generous support and collaboration:
Alan Anderson, Liz Armstrong, Rita Bacon, Balanca’s Pyro Room, Beth Barden, Gaurav Bashyakarla, Bill Belzer, Bigstereo, Michael Bowles, Drew Bolton, Nate Boyce, Paul Brannon, Broadway Cafe, Chadwick Brooks, Dustin Buck, Jamie Burkart, Duncan Busser, Charlotte Street Foundation, Vice Cooler, Scott Cramer, Helen Crans, CSS, Mike Dalena, Roy Daniels, DeDe DeVille, Kyle Devine, Mo Dickens, Stephanie Dixon, Meg Doll, John Dretzka, Patrick Dunn, Zac Eubanks, The Faint, Madeline Farrell,  Fischerspooner, Ari Fish, Danny Fischer, Laura Frank, Kelly Gazlay, Boy George,  Glass Candy, Gnarly Enterprises, The Gossip, Michael Grassmeyer, Gravy Train!!!!, Kate Hackman, Jason Harper, Aaron Hawn, Chase Hawkins, Brian Hicks, Matthew Huff, David Hughes, Seth Johnson, Bojan Jovanovic, Kansas City Art Institute, Justin Kelly, Lisa Kettlewell, Craig Klein, Jon Kraft, Kurt Lane, Jeppe Laursen, Ryan Lawrence, Colin Leipelt, Beniah Leuschke, Brandon Loyd, Dustin Maberry, Gabriel Macmacha, Erica Mahinay, Jonny Makeup, Megan Mantia, Natalie Mayers, Ron McGee and Late Night Theater, Shannon Michalski, J. Ashley Miller, Kris and Gary Miller, Misshapes, Moose Kimball, Gary Noland, Peggy Noland, Spencer Product, Derek Palmer, Jared Panick, Alex Penney, Tara Perkins, Dan Persechini, Erica Peterson, Pictureplane, The Pistol, Julie Potratz, Brock Potucek, Patrick Priddy, The Record Bar, Albert J. Redwine, Leone Anne Reeves, Gerard Rodriguez, Rachel Rolon, Emily Roysdon, Andrew Rushing, Jori Sackin, Kevin Schowengordt, Jeremy Scott, Kansas City Scottish Rite Temple, Henry Self, Christopher Shively, Ascot J. Smith, Mark Southerland, Casey Spooner, Venus Starr, A.L. Steiner, Shannon Stubbs, Larry T, Tabatha Terry, Wick Thomas, Tilly and the Wall, Jaymz Todd, David Toro, Zach Van Benthusen, Jace Van Benthusen, Loran & Jane Van Benthusen, Jaimie Warren, Colin Welsh, Vern Warner, Chase Williams, David Wilson, YJ’s Snack Bar, Lynus Young, Nick Zinner, Anna Zimmerman, and everyone who showed up and participated in the making of this movie, along with ALL of Cody’s brothers and sisters!!