The artist’s installation “xoxo, Darlene” is a love letter to the teen bedroom he never had.
“Do we want ‘Lady Marmalade’ Christina or Teen People drawing Christina? These are the questions,” artist Nick Alciati asks himself as he stands in front of a bubblegum pink wall next to a twin bed whose frame is painted gold. Scattered over the bed’s fluffy white comforter are piles of pages torn from magazines, images of 2000s-era teen pop goddesses posed perfectly innocent-but-not-so-innocent. Alongside them are drawings Alciati made as a child of these same pop princesses. “When all my guy friends wanted to be with these girls, I wanted to be them,” he says.
Nick Alciati is in the process of assembling his installation “xoxo, Darlene” at the Paradice Palase gallery in Brooklyn. A basement apartment converted into an art gallery, the space is mostly only open on the weekends but tonight artists are installing a show called “It Just Sort of Happens One Day,” dedicated to exploring the idea of home. Alciati will choose from the images on the bed to make a collage on this bubblegum pink wall—painted in a color he found at Home Depot brilliantly called “Summer Crush”—and assemble what is essentially a reimagining of what he wishes his childhood bedroom would have looked like, complete with posters of himself in drag as his very own teen pop songstress alter ego, the eponymous Darlene. Also adorning the room are Britney Spears figurines, a stereo spraypainted gold, a cross from his childhood bedroom he has since adorned with pearls (“If your stepfather finds out…” his mother said), a row of CDs including TLC’s Fanmail and Mariah Carey’s Butterfly, and more accoutrements one might find in the bedroom of a young teen girl.
In addition to the “young teen girl” items, however, Nick Alciati sprinkles relics of his own life, specifically photos from his childhood, like one of him and his brother wearing ties and dress shirts drinking beers. The personal influences are just as important as the pop influences in the installation, Alciati says. With both, there’s a balance of worlds, of having the audience float with their pop unicorns but come back down to earth when they remember this room is based on a real person’s desires and challenges.
“The whole girl in her bedroom singing into a hairbrush [trope], I did that but with the door locked because I had these fantasies in my head, as most girls did in their adolescence, that I couldn’t really express,” Alciati says. Growing up Catholic in Syracuse, New York, Nick Alciati was encouraged to ‘masculinize’ his behavior–his mom made him join the football team, for example, something he didn’t have interest in doing. “Xoxo, Darlene” is a microcosm of Alciati’s alternative universe where Darlene is a pop star who represents his daydreams from the time, and by bringing her to life he empowers himself to take back all of those moments of shame, he says. Posters on the wall of the installation feature Alciati in drag as Darlene—inspired, he says, by “Miss Britney Jean Spears”—an All-American coquette in a white dress, a pinup in tiny jean shorts, a beach babe in a bathing suit, the same kinds of promo posters icons of pop past posed for. Music videos of Alciati as Darlene sometimes accompany the installation, set to tunes of songs like Britney’s “Everytime” or Ashanti’s “Rock Wit U.”
Nick Alciati has no reservations about revealing his traditionally masculine features as Darlene, either—his arms and stomach and legs all dusted with tell-tale hair no traditional pop confection would be allowed to have. But for Alciati, this is a way to acknowledge that even the most fanciful life is possibly not worth attaining. “I couldn’t have that fantasy then [and] I can have it now, but I can never really have that full fantasy,” he says. “it’s important for me to have that relate in a way that we all have these fantasies that we project on ourselves. But if you try and reach that perfect level you’re never gonna get there and you’re gonna end up disappointed.”
Alciati’s very personal project takes on a universality not just in this way, that which addresses a separation from the pursuit of perfection, but also one which allows the viewer to understand the themes underlying the installation, those which willed it into existence: isolation, discomfort, sadness, bewilderment, curiosity, and hope. Also at the project’s core are the study of gender dynamics, the American pop culture sensibility and obsession with celebrity, the value our society places on both the the “virgin” and “whore” tropes and how it affects young people’s development, and the value of self-reflection.
The latter is perhaps most influential on Nick Alciati, who finds that “xoxo, Darlene” and being in drag as Darlene gave him a new perspective with which to view himself and his relationships to his own gender identity and sexuality. “It’s been an amazing progression and therapy for me in a lot of ways. I found, I didn’t know it was happening at first, but I’ve become a lot more comfortable in myself and addressing myself genderwise,” he says. “I’m a lot more confident through it and I didn’t know it was happening…I’m really excited to do it because without it I wouldn’t be here.” Alciati now also occasionally performs or goes out in drag as Nikki, who he feels is not so much an alter ego as Darlene is, but rather is an extension of himself. Nikki has hair that matches his own closer in color, highlighted cheekbones, an arched brow, and she’s an exercise in an authenticity he feels Darlene was never designed to have. He doesn’t feel like he’s hiding anymore, that he’s allowing a part of himself to live where he hadn’t before, that he’s being his authentic self in and out of whatever wigs he’s wearing at any given time. Because, as he says, if you feel confident with a wig on then why wouldn’t you feel confident without it?
“I had to lock my door when I was singing into a brush but I probably could have done it out loud,” he says.