Holly Hughes is a trash-talking liberal artist with too many dogs

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When out comedian Holly Hughes needs centering, she turns to the pack of dogs that shares her Ann Arbor, Mich., home. She credits them with bringing sanity to her world.

“Dogs do as much work in contemporary urban culture as they ever did in history; it’s just different work,” says Hughes, who also teaches at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. “It’s the work of loving us, now that we are sheep adrift toward the dark edges, and bringing us back toward the center.”

Hughes explores dogs and the dog subculture in her current solo work “The Dog and Pony Show (bring your own pony)”, which she’ll perform five times from July 13 to 21 at Paddy’s Pub, 2339 N. Murray Ave., Milwaukee. Theatre Gigante is sponsoring the performances.

Hughes’ show draws on her experience in the dog show world, a subculture she found in middle age. It is every bit as “strange” as the subculture she normally inhabits, she says.

“I do think of the parallels between the queerness of the dog world and the queerness of the gay world,” she says. “Both are about people who love the ‘wrong’ thing too much.”

Hughes knows well whereof she speaks. The Saginaw, Mich., native moved to New York City in 1979 to become a feminist painter. She found the sexually charged lesbian subculture of the day liberating, and it galvanized her career both as an artist and performer.

“I wanted to be larger than life, and sex is about life; it’s at the very heart,” Hughes says. “I wanted to create a theatrical language about women’s sexuality that wasn’t sanitized, that had sequins and humor and darkness.”

Hughes became one of the first students at the New York Feminist Art Institute and honed her comedic performances at Women’s One World Café (aka the WOW Café) in New York’s East Village. Her mix of social and political satire has earned her critical acclaim and not a little infamy. Despite receiving seven prior grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, in 1990 she became one of the “NEA Four.” Hughes, along with gay performance artist Tim Miller, actor John Fleck and performance artist Karen Finley, were denied NEA funding for their work due to its sexual content, which Congress decried as pornographic.

The four artists successfully sued NEA, and in 1993 they were awarded amounts equal to the grant money. However, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the ruling in 1998, and the NEA was pressured by Congress to stop funding individual artists.

But Hughes, author of the 1983 breakthrough work “Well of Horniness,” wasn’t even slowed down by the notoriety. She continued writing, performing, painting and teaching. She then authored two books – “Clit Notes: A Sapphic Sampler” and “O Solo Homo: The New Queer Performance.”

Hughes contends that gay artists as “outsiders” have a lot to contribute to mainstream America, as well as to their cultural peers.

“Outsiders have a perspective that enables you to see the seams, the contradictions and complications of life (that) those on the inside often miss,” Hughes says.

“Part of gay culture is a kind of humor and irony, the language of camp, and you don’t find many gay people who don’t enjoy it,” she adds.

But whether inside or out of the mainstream, Hughes knows that humor is a product of suffering, not joy. Some of the best humorists have the darkest vision, she says.

“Humor is fueled by darkness, often by anger. It’s a catharsis, it’s looking into the void. I think the reason Woody Allen loves Ingmar Bergman is that he is, at heart, as dark and existential as Bergman, but it comes out in a different voice.”

Hughes is sometimes confused with other famous women with the same name, including another painter, whose work she likes, and the author of young adult mystery novels that involve horses (her favorite of the is “Hoofbeats of Danger”).

“I want to be that Holly Hughes,” she says.

But one namesake with whom she does not want to be associated is the Holly Hughes who is a prominent member of Michigan’s Republican Party.

“I am very disappointed that there is this big Republican Holly Hughes,” she says. “The rest of my life is going to be about making everyone think she’s a big lesbian, trash-talking liberal with too many dogs.”

On stage

“The Dog and Pony Show (bring your own pony)” will be performed five times July 13-21 at Paddy’s Pub, 2339 N. Murray Ave., Milwaukee. Make reservations at 414- 961-6119.

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