It was movie night at the Museum of Arts & Design in Manhattan, and the costume designer Machine Dazzle was ready for his entrance.
The selection was the 1980 roller-disco fantasy “Xanadu,” and he had draped his 6-foot-5 frame in a shiny take on Olivia Newton-John’s purple Grecian goddess look, accessorized with pastel-rainbow pumps, sequined legwarmers and a Venetian-style ONJ mask on a stick.
The movie, of course, was a mess — but the kind of wildly colorful, overstuffed, yes-to-everything mess that could have roller-skated right into his own work.
“How many different ideas can find their way into a costume?” Dazzle asked the audience, plenty of whom came in their own homemade light-up headdresses, sparkly jackets and legwarmers. “A lot. If you don’t believe me, go upstairs.”
“Upstairs” meant the museum’s fourth and fifth floors, where “Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle,” on view through Feb. 19, is currently offering perhaps the city’s most glittery, tinselly, witty display of bling this holiday season.
The show, Dazzle’s first solo exhibition, brings together more than 80 costumes and other artifacts, from self-worn creations from his beginnings in the 90s downtown experimental drag scene to his outrageously extravagant costumes for Taylor Mac’s epic “24-Decade History of Popular Music,” which was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize.
It’s a summing up, but also a bit of a pivot for Dazzle, who turns 50 on Dec. 30. Lately, he said, he’s been broadening his possibilities, “slowly moving uptown” — and not just because there’s currently a 30-foot photograph of him in rainbow-spangled drag on the museum’s facade, looking up Central Park West (or as he put it, “shooting lasers” at the nearby Trump International Hotel & Tower).
This month, he designed and performed in “Bassline Fabulous,” a fanciful staging of Bach’s Goldberg Variations with the Grammy-winning Catalyst Quartet in a Versailles-themed gallery at the Metropolitan Museum (where his character, among many other things, constructed an elaborate topiary garden from ingenious props pulled from under the covers of a giant bed, and at one point did battle with a giant bottle of Elmer’s glue). Next up: costumes for Rameau’s “Io” with the Washington-based Opera Lafayette in the spring.
“I love there’s this shift into classical,” Dazzle said. “It makes me want to dive into it more.”
Before the commission, he said, he’d never heard the Goldberg Variations, but then he listened to them every day for months. “Music inspires me more than anything visual,” he said. “When I hear music, I see shapes.”
Chatting in his studio on the top floor of the museum known as MAD, the evening before the “Bassline Fabulous” dress rehearsal, Dazzle — dressed in paint-splattered jumpsuit and sneakers, his Medusa-like head of dark curls tucked into a knit hat — came off as both knowing exactly what he was doing but also a bit hard-pressed to describe his indeterminate position in the intergalactic space between the art, theater and drag worlds.
“It’s taken me years to describe what I am, what I’ve been my whole life,” he said. “I’m an emotionally driven, instinct-based conceptual artist in the role of costume designer” — he paused ever so slightly — “most of the time.”
If the exhibition floors are a dazzling parade of exquisitely detailed looks, the studio is unabashed chaos, crammed with bits and pieces of costumes from previous projects. On a dressmaker’s dummy, there was his not quite finished Louis XIV-ish costume for “Bassline Fabulous,” including a bondage-tinged cage of ruched elastic over a lace caftan that had been pulled through the holes.
“You get these weird blob shapes, which are kind of oozing,” he said. “You don’t want to lose the body, but there can also be sculpture.”
Nearby was a neck corset, a pair of size 15 period shoes awaiting their blue-sky-and-clouds trompe l’oeil paint job, and a pile of cloth flowers in “weird Barbie flesh tones” set to be incorporated into a headdress. And, on the table, his sewing machine: a basic $250 Singer from Michael’s, the arts and crafts emporium.
“I use a sewing machine the way I use a hammer,” Dazzle said. “I’m not a fine tailor. What I do with a sewing machine is attach two things together. It’s sort of like civilized glue.”
“Civilized glue” — or maybe Krazy Glue? — might be an alternate title for the exhibition, which showcases the way his work bonds not just wildly disparate elements but trash and glamour, metaphor and materiality, emotion and intellect.
“I love wearing ideas,” Dazzle said. “You can make something that’s really beautiful but gets boring after five minutes onstage. I like giving the audience some work to do. I want them to ask, ‘Why the hell is he wearing an apple pie on his head?’”
The show was assembled by Elissa Auther, the museum’s chief curator. She’d seen photographs of Dazzle’s costumes for “A 24-Decade History of Popular Music,” a 24-hour-long queer retelling of American history from 1776 to the present through songs of the time. “I thought I’d be lucky if I could find 10 costumes available,” she said.
Instead, she was surprised by the profusion of material that came out of Dazzle’s studio, his apartment and friends’ basements. The title “queer maximalism” was her idea — and one meant to challenge aesthetic hierarchies.
“In the art world, these kinds of maximalist styles are viewed as stylistic embarrassment, lacking in rigor or meaning,” Auther said. “But Machine really, really brilliantly demonstrates it as an embodied aesthetic category. These surface effects are really political effects of resilience and survival.”
Dazzle, whose name is Matthew Flower, was born in 1972, and spent his early childhood in Houston, where his father worked as an engineer in the energy sector. He was always into crafting, and movies like “Grease” and “Xanadu.” On his 10th birthday, he was enchanted by a trip to “The Nutcracker,” which involved not just elaborate costumes but children like himself onstage.
“I thought, ‘This is what I want to do! Look, there it is!’” he said. “But then I got depressed, since I was so far away from that. I didn’t come from a cultured place. I had to find it for myself.”
When he was 11, the family moved even farther from Xanadu, to Idaho Falls, Idaho. In 1994, after art school at the University of Colorado, he bought the proverbial one-way ticket to New York City. (In his suitcase was a bag full of milk tops that said “HOMO,” for “homogenized,” collected from a favorite cafe in Boulder, which he later fashioned into a kind of chain-mail breastplate included in the show.)
He worked a series of day jobs, including a 15-year stint as a costume jewelry designer. (In his studio, he pointed out one of the first pieces he made in the early 2000s, for a friend: a choker made of a piece of windshield retrieved from a burned-out car on the Brooklyn waterfront.) At night, he was a regular at venues like Exit Art, a performance-oriented gallery, and small downtown queer clubs like the Cock, the Slide and the Pyramid Club.
He began making costumes for the Dazzle Dancers, a Solid Gold-style dance troupe formed in 1996 (represented in the show by writhing mannequins in barely-there costumes and a video for their raunchy cover of the theme from “The Love Boat,” which introduces them as “a naked sensation” that had “come to heal a broken nation”). A friend called him a “dancing machine,” and it stuck.
He also began making costumes for downtown performers like Julie Atlas Muz, Justin Vivian Bond and Mac, who in 2004 invited the Dazzle Dancers to participate in “Live Patriot Acts: Patriots Gone Wild!,” a “political vaudeville” that parodied the Republican National Convention.
“I had my own rougher aesthetic, and Machine had a similar take on things,” Mac recalled. “It was about making a trash bag beautiful, and not so much about making something that was already beautiful beautiful.”
“His costumes are always metaphors for something,” Mac continued. “With everyone else, if you say the costume is a cat, it’s a cat. But he would make a costume of what cats make you feel like.”
They are also, Mac ventured, “a storage of pain.” “It’s a flooding of all the emotions and things a little queer kid wasn’t allowed to express, growing up in the time we did,” Mac said.
Dazzle made what became nearly 100 costumes for “The Lily’s Revenge,” Mac’s six-hour, 40-performer play staged in 2019 at HERE Arts Center in Manhattan. It’s represented at the museum by a single flower headdress. But MAD’s entire fifth floor is dedicated to Dazzle’s dozens of costumes for “A 24-Decade of Popular Music,” including the companion costumes he made for himself. (For those who missed it, there’s a sizzle reel in the gallery, and an HBO documentary in the works.)
Dazzle summed up what he calls his “recipe” for Mac’s show: a silhouette informed by what people wore at the time, but layered with references to inventions, technological and social change, and collective emotions. Take his costume for 1856-1866: a shredded military jacket on top of a skeletal hoop skirt made from barbed wire and strings of … sausage?
“It was the Civil War, so there’s loneliness, dead people, sadness, winning, losing,” Dazzle said. “But also barbed wire, which was invented at the time. And hot dogs! I read in a couple places that the American hot dog was invented in this time, by German immigrants.”
Representing the 1960s, there’s a Jackie Kennedy pink suit painted with Roy Lichtenstein dots, backed with giant “wings” of Pop-Art hands pointing like guns. For the AIDs era, there’s a robe made of cassette tapes, topped by a many-headed mushroom-cloud-like death mask.
It was in 2016, during the performances leading up to the one-time-only, 24-hour marathon show at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, that Dazzle got the courage to quit his day job.
“I’m Capricorn, Virgo rising — very responsible, practical, realistic,” he said. “I was really scared, but I decided to take the leap and follow my heart.”
The show highlights some work with new collaborators, including his costumes for “Once Within a Time,” a 50-minute wordless art film by Godfrey Reggio (“Koyaanisqatsi”), which had its premiere last October at the Santa Fe International Film Festival. (One oversize mannequin wears the mud-cloth shaman number worn by Mike Tyson, who plays a character called the Mentor.)
There’s also a moving suite of costumes for “Treasure,” his 2019 indie-rock cabaret piece about his relationship with his mother, who died soon after he moved to New York. (An album version was released in October.)
And Dazzle is also working with Mac on a new, large-scale piece, “The Bark of Millions,” a suite of 54 original songs inspired by queer figures throughout history, written by Mac and the composer Matt Ray. At a recent preview concert at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Dazzle — who also sings in the ensemble — wore a jumpsuit and “a large poncho.” But this time, both he and Mac decided to trade their usual extravagant footwear for some maximal minimalism.
“Being barefoot onstage is very punk,” Dazzle said. “It’s raw and it’s real and it’s kind of witchy.”
Queer Maximalism x Machine Dazzle
Through Feb. 19, Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, Manhattan, (212) 299-7777; madmuseum.org.