Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Suzanne Bocanegra stayed at her grandparents’ farm in La Grange, Texas, every other weekend and during the summers. Despite the frequency of her visits, she had no idea that across the street was a brothel, the Chicken Ranch. The establishment operated from 1905 to 1973, and soon after its closure was immortalized on stage and screen as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.
“I saw that it was busy, that there were cars going down there all the time,” said the New York City artist whose work has been noted by The New Yorker, the New York Times, ArtForum, and Art in America. Her father told her it was a bar and her mother made vague references to parties, but Bocanegra — who is now a critically acclaimed artist — only found out the truth when a friend’s mother mentioned it. She tells this story in Farmhouse/Whorehouse, an expansive artist talk starring the actress Lili Taylor (Six Feet Under, Household Saints). The talk incorporates memoir and forays into cultural criticism about the American back-to-the-land movement and French Impressionism.
“When I got older and started studying art history, I found out that a lot of the women in Impressionist paintings were whores and prostitutes,” she said. At the time, Bocanegra was also enamored of hippie-fueled romantic ideas about farm life, despite her mother’s depiction of growing up on a farm as decidedly unglamorous.
Farmhouse/Whorehouse is Bocanegra’s third installment of memoir-based artist talks utilizing well-known actors. She worked previously with Taylor on multiple projects, including Bodycast and Poorly Watched Girls. Frances McDormand and Paul Lazar have also appeared in other productions. In performance, Bocanegra sits onstage and feeds lines to the actor through an earpiece so that the creative process isn’t hidden from the audience. She works with actors, instead of reading the piece herself, because, she said, they are better at conveying emotional range than she is.
“They know how to get a laugh if they want a laugh; they know how to make it sad if it’s supposed to be sad. These are things I don’t have any training in,” she said.
SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta) presents Farmhouse/Whorehouse at 5 p.m. on Sunday, July 21. Admission is $10 at the door (discounts available). Bocanegra also gives a free performance in the SITE Santa Fe galleries with composer David Lang at 2 p.m. on Saturday, July 20, in connection with her installation, Dialogue of the Carmelites, which is included in the SITE exhibition Bel Canto. For more information, call 505-989-1199 or go to tinyurl.com/y6a953qu.