Linda Mary Montano:

Portrait of the Artist as a Shapeshifting Chameleon

Kathy Brew
August 11th, 2021
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My Last Performance - I'm Dying!

Video by Linda Mary Montano, edited by Tobe Carey, photo by Tobe Carey

KB: Since this is connected to the San Francisco Art Institute Artists/Alumni newsletter, let’s start off framing it somewhat site-specifically in San Francisco. Tell us when you were living there, and any impact it had on you and your art practice.

 

LMM: I lived in San Francisco from 1971-75, at which time I was married to the photographer Mitchell Payne. I then moved to Encinitas, and lived with the composer, Pauline Oliveros. During that time, I taught Performance Art at SFAI.  Karen Finley was one of my most memorable students!!

And all I can say is that the minute I entered the Art Institute, I felt stars in my eyes—I felt great joy whenever I entered the Chestnut Street building. Having lived in convents and Zen centers and Tibetan centers and ashrams, I felt that the Art Institute was like an art church that I loved and needed and wanted, and will always treasure.

 

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Mitchell’s Death, collage, Linda Mary Montano.

© Linda Mary Montano

KB: While there, you did many interesting performances. Was that where “the chickens” first started?

 

LMM: No—I presented nine live chickens in three huge cages for my MFA degree in Wisconsin. It was years afterwards, that I became Chicken Woman and my husband became Chicken Man. Chicken Woman sat and danced outside on the streets, and also lay in chicken beds as live art performances. 

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Left: Chicken Dance. Art in Everyday Life, San Francisco, Linda Mary Montano,

Photo: Mitchell Payne, published by Astro Artz, 1981.Photo copy from SFMOMA.

Right: Chicken Dance, Linda Mary Montano, photo by Jennifer Zackin © Linda Mary Montano

LMM: For another Art-Institute-era performance I walked for three hours on a treadmill in front of the building while wearing a device that I had made, which opened my mouth as I talked, telling the story of my life.  

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The Story of My Life

Art in Everyday Life, Linda Mary Montano, published by Astro Artz, 1981.

Photo by Mitchell Payne, copy from SFMOMA.

 

LMM: My teeth were stained purple to repeat what a dentist had “done” to me. The dentist had me chew a pill that stained any unbrushed teeth the color purple. It was embarrassing, so I cured that trauma by imbibing one of those pills and publicly showing everyone how dirty my teeth were. I took back my power and “unembarrassed myself” via Art. Isn’t performance a wonderful healing modality? 

The moral of the story is: performance for me is medicine; performance for me is healing. I was a selective mute as a child—I never talked. My family were not talkers, so I learned through performance and acting and acting out how to communicate my needs, my terror, my trauma and my unhappiness—self-designed Art Therapy. 

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Drawing by Linda Mary Montano.

© Linda Mary Montano

KB: Tom Marioni was one of the artists at SFAI with whom you established a friendship and did collaborations. I saw something you did with Tom Marioni. 

 

LMM: Yes, that was a handcuff piece we did in his studio loft. And just to segue, I would like to mention Bonnie Sherk* here who was in San Francisco at the time, and was creating The Farm, which was an actual working country farm in the city. She was doing sitting meditations on the freeway underpass with her pig—her pet pig. So, it was a very, very incredibly inclusive— female inclusive—time for me. I saw that the men were allowing women to perform and to be seen, men such as Tom Marioni, Howard Fried and Terry Fox let Barbara Smith, Bonnie Sherk, me—and many other women artists—share the limelight. It was wonderful.

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Handcuff: Linda Mary Montano and Tom Marioni

Art in Everyday Life, Linda Mary Montano, published by Astro Artz, 1981.

Photo by Minnette Lehmann, copy from SFMOMA.

KB: I’m trying to remember how I first met you. Was it during Seven Years of Living Art at the New Museum or at the Art Institute? It goes so far back. You have a long history of being a guest and a Visiting Artist at the Art Institute after you moved from San Francisco. You would stay in the on-campus artist apartment.

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Poster of Seven Years of Living Art.

Show curated by Carolyn Eyler, Director of Exhibitions and Programs, Photo by Annie Sprinkle

LMM: Yes, I was really insistent with whoever was running the programs there that they invite me to teach and perform. I just knew I belonged there in the “church.” I lived in that underground room quite a few times; they called it “the bunker.” It was right underneath the school; it was fabulous. You could walk to get food to bring back and then teach upstairs. Later on, when I begged to come back, they placed me in a nearby hotel. It was within walking distance, but it wasn’t as much fun as the bunker. I had many, many visits to SFAI.

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The Bunker Door in SFAI’s backyard meadow.

Photo by Annie Reiniger-Holleb

KB: You’ve already cited the handcuffed performance with Tom Marioni, and many probably know of your year-long performance with Tehching Hsieh. How did endurance become such an important part of your practice

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Tehching Hsieh, Art/Life One Year Performance 1983-1984, New York.

© 1984 Tehching Hsieh, Linda Mary Montano.

Courtesy of the artists and Sean Kelly, New York.

LMM: I think it was inspired by Catholicism, by a penitential inner drive. There was the good, the bad, and the ugly about endurance for me. It was a subtle form of S&M punishment; I positively knew that I was only going to get the emotional-psychological-theological goodies if I did things for a longer duration. The goodies meaning a cessation of ideation, a cessation of my own particular neuroses and nervousness. I learned about meditation, not necessarily from a Catholic “you’re bad” positioning, but from an Eastern “you’re good” perspective and I wanted to practice that knowledge publicly in my art. The way to be good was to be quiet and sit still. So, I incorporated Eastern meditation techniques into my work. I sat as Chicken Woman, or I danced, and everything lasted for many hours. Art time morphed clock time for me. 

The Time Art of Linda Mary Montano.

Video by Linda Mary Montano, edited by Tobe Carey

KB: In Seven Years of Living Art (Read more from Art in America) you sat in a room of a particular color for each year, listening to a particular tone. 

LMM: That’s right. I’m in love with performance—it’s a lifesaver. It’s like: don’t be incarcerated or instituted into rehab. Making art has kept me out of so many places that would not have been comfortable in terms of the maintenance and adjusting of my mental health.

KB: Let’s talk about some of the more current things that have been going on with your work. Tell us about the show you recently had at the Dorsky Museum at SUNY New Paltz, which was amazing. It’s even more timely now and hopefully the show can travel. 

LMM: As a performance artist, I do what’s up for me. Going towards 80 years old, what’s up for me is nursing homes and death. Old age, sickness and death are really up for me. But they’re up for everybody. It’s Covid time; it’s death time; it’s end of the world time. 

 

This has leveled the playing field. We are all performance artists because we are performing surviving through an incredible downfall of the system—every system: political, mental, theological, social, personal and physiological. I see the show at the Dorsky as a mini-retrospective and my last retrospective. I made a vow to do NO MORE! (Read more about The Art/Life HospitalHudson Valley OneLynn Herring)

Living Art Dying Art.

Video by Linda Mary Montano, edited by Tobe Carey

LMM: The personal art door is locked, the key is lost. I really have the feeling of “no more,” you know, no more desire. A few years ago for the Dorsky show, I rehearsed my own death. In a way, it’s not the last taboo. Covid has uncovered the endgame and brought it to light. It is no longer taboo. Death is a non-reactive word on crossword puzzles; it’s no longer hidden.

My Last Performance - I'm Dying!

Video by Linda Mary Montano, edited by Tobe Carey

KB: It’s on the front burner.

 

LMM: (Laughs) At the opening and the closing of the show, I lay in a real coffin—which I’ve always wanted to do.

 

Carolee Schneemann, a friend of both of ours, who was also living in the Hudson Valley, attended the opening. While I was there in the coffin, she leaned over and whispered to me, “I’m next.” And sadly, less than two months later, this became true. 

KB: You had shared an email with me that she sent you after attending the opening. This is part of that email:

 

“Oh dearest Linda….. I was very gratified and touched by your coffin installation. It’s the new avant-garde to absorb the death of so many friends and colleagues. So, I felt—there you are in that imagined coffin—this is very avant garde! That you have the crazy courage to present us with our fear, our dread.” 

She was so right! The exhibition and elements from it were ahead of the current moment. And the exhibit would become particularly important and timely with the pandemic and so many people facing and dealing with death. I wish the show could still travel.

 

LMM: That would be nice…. I also showed videos, I showed drawings from Fourteen Years of Living Art

I also made seven dolls, which are really seven babies that I never had. And getting back to the whole thesis, being that art is so generous because you can get what you don’t have via your practice: you can fix what you didn’t do. And I got to fix never having been breast-fed, having almost died as an infant, and having eating disorders by having a beautiful nurse feed me mother’s milk—real mother’s milk and goat’s milk. 

Amanda Heidel, Nurse, Feeding Linda Mary Montano

Video by Cornelia Seckel

The Art/Life Hospital at the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, SUNY New Paltz, NY, January 23-April 14, 2019

LMM: At birth I was allergic to cow’s milk so I was fed goat’s milk. And in the performance, I gave a healing to myself via this nurse-surrogate mother, feeding me from two different baby bottles—one with mother’s milk and one with goat’s milk. The highlight was when I got out of the coffin—almost scooped out because I was exhausted from dying— they played Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love, very loudly. 

Addicted To Love (Official Music Video).

Video by Robert Palmer

LMM: What I loved about it was that people were so happy to see me. But it was not me. People were happy because they witnessed a resurrection and an afterlife, and they learned—or actually felt internally—that energy never dies. We die, energy doesn’t. Memories don’t die, love doesn’t die. I’m getting into Hallmark cards here!! And people that I normally don’t clap and laugh with were clapping and laughing when they saw me and they danced with me. So that was the highlight, the teaching. What is the teaching of each piece that we do? What is the teaching of our life work? What is our vocation teaching us? 

 

So now I’m cleaning the house, I’m clearing it of stored art. Otherwise it’s all going to go into a dumpster when I die or go to the nursing home. 

 

I want to have the sculptures of crucifixes and a hairy Mary Magdalene I made in Italy go into a chapel that I will design for a permanent site someplace. 

 

KB: The Fales Library, at NYU, has acquired a lot of your archive. There was an interesting panel a few years ago to celebrate the opening of your archives there. I was happy to participate along with Karen Finley, Martha Wilson and Linda Weintraub. They have a lot of your material there.

LMM: Oh, man. And I feel very happy about that because I have a deep mother instinct. And not having had children, my work is my child. This is where I do my breast-feeding, through Fales. I also trained as a missionary at Maryknoll for two years, so I have that missionary Catholic, Mother Teresa martyr instinct. This resonates in me as I am giving it all away. And giving the ideas away. And giving the art away. My secrets are all out there. Everything is up for grabs. So, whoever wants to—not that anyone ever will—but they can research my work at Fales. Then as I go toward nothing, which is to leave the body, I want to practice nothingness and rehearse that by giving away and letting go of all the stuff in the house, all the art, everything. Amen. That will be the end. 

Linda Mary Montano blessing as Mother Teresa, assisted by angela dews Photo Tony Whitfield
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Linda Mary Montano blessing as Mother Teresa.

Photo by Tony Whitfield

KB: You just cited Mother Teresa, and I was also thinking about the night at the Fales discussion when you took on another persona that you sometimes take on, Bob Dylan. Talk about some of these characters that you embody.

 

LMM: They were born in 1975. I mean, I think they were actually born in childhood, being called Sarah Bernhardt by my dad. But in 1975 I was under incredible psychological pressure. Instead of going to an institution for rehab, I divided myself into seven different personas and interviewed them each on video, me to me-as-them. I created all these very wonderful, upbeat personas.

Learning to Talk...

Video by Linda Mary Montano

LMM: Except in the 1990s I made an alcoholic version of myself, which I think is my favorite video. It’s a very difficult video; I’m seven versions of myself drunk. I titled it Seven Stages of Intoxication. I did this in order to talk about my own addictions and cultural addictions as art. 

Seven Stages of Intoxication

Video by Linda Mary Montano

LMM: In the 2000s, I evolved from seeing myself as a fairy-tale character, to seeing myself as psychologically damaged, to seeing myself as real people. It started with Mother Teresa. I look like her and became her performatively. I was trying on people-that-I-wanted-to-be, in order to be like them. I really admired her incessant need to nurture and mother. And then another need was wanting to sing. That is really my hidden agenda—my true, true love—which I hid from. My mom sang in my dad’s band and my dad played trumpet and drums and also sang in that band. As a result, I shied away from performing like them.  

 

By becoming Bob Dylan, I was training myself and giving myself permission to sing. In the last eight years I have sung a lot—plus I look exactly like Bob. 

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Linda Mary Montano as Bob Dylan, 1989.

Photo by Annie Sprinkle

LMM: The third person I became was this upstate-NY, real, honest-to-god hippie, Paul McMahon. You’re not going to find too many authentic hippies these days in Woodstock, but he’s here and he’s real and he’s a songwriter. I was somehow also able to look like him. I accompanied him on one of his songs and then left the stage. So, I can be two men and one woman as art. That makes me ecstatic. 

 

I jumped from fairy-tale Linda in the Learning to Talk video to the alcoholic in Seven Stages of Intoxication to these three real people—Mother Teresa, Bob Dylan, and Paul McMahon, the hippie. But then God said, “Guess what, Linda. You are nothing.” So that’s my fourth incarnation. That’s where I am now. I’m worn out of this need to be a person. And I love it. It’s wonderful. It’s preparation for death. Amen.

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Linda Mary Montano (left wearing white hat) performing as Paul McMahon with Paul McMahon.

Photos by Kathy Brew

Who is the Real Linda Mary Montano?

Video by Linda Mary Montano, edited by Tobe Carey

KB: But you are way more than nothing, Linda!

Talk a bit about the chapel idea so others can know about it.

 

LMM: Because I am nothing, I guess this is like reverse psychology. Now I’m a business woman drumming up trade and trying to get someone interested in buying my crucifixes to build a chapel for them in a public site—two crucifixes: a head of Jesus and a wonderful Mary Magdalene. I actually have enough to probably do three chapel sites. So, if anyone is up for it, give me a ring. 

SCULPTURES

Video by Linda Mary Montano, edited by Tobe Carey

KB: In an ideal world, where would you like them to be?

 

LMM: Storm King, upstate New York. And there’s a place called Franconia in Minnesota that might be interested. And it would be wonderful if a chapel could happen in Europe. Or Beijing or South America. Another place upstate called Art Omi. It should be a place that’s not going to go away. But that’s very, very tricky because as the fires advance, as the coasts dissolve, everything’s going to go. And then disease. Where in the world is anything going to stay permanently?

 

KB: Ultimately what does stay permanently?

 

LMM: That’s a beautiful ending Kathy. DUST TO DUST. You’ve made me feel good, you’ve made me feel thoughtful and you’ve made my heart happy. Thank you very much. 

To connect back to when I first met Linda, I was living in San Francisco when she presented two iterations of Seven Years of Living Art: Yellow/Green in the Emanuel Walter and Atholl McBean Galleries. Following is a review of that exhibition that I wrote for Shift Magazine.

------Kathy Brew

 

Click LEFT/RIGHT to read the review:

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SHIFT , no.2, 1988.

Linda Mary Montano review by Kathy Brew, provided by Jeff Gunderson.

Bonnie Sherk had just died the week that this interview took place and so Linda was remembering her at this time.

 

Kathy Brew is an award-winning filmmaker and artist/writer/curator/educator who spent 14 years in the Bay Area but returned to her hometown, NYC, in 1994. She worked at SFAI on two separate occasions – as Director of Public Relations and Publications from 

1984-85 and then as Humanities Department Manager in 1990-91. She currently teaches in the MFA Art Practice department at the School of Visual Arts and most recently served as Guest Curator in MoMA’s film department from 2016-2020. Her documentary, DESIGN IS ONE, has been screened and broadcast internationally, and her very first video, MIXED MESSAGES, created while living in San Francisco, is available on Kanopy, was featured in the 2020 International Film Festival Rotterdam, and is in the catalog of the Simone de Beauvor Audiovisual Center in Paris. Her most recent film, FOLLOWING THE THREAD, about indigenous weaving communities in the Sacred Valley of Peru, was recently completed with support from a Fulbright Scholar grant, and has been picked up by Documentary Educational Resources for distribution.