NY TIMES T MAGAZINE
OCTOBER 30, 2015

Revisiting One Musician’s Spooky Spirit, via Art

Clockwise from top: a recent work by Niagara; the 1978 Destroy All Monsters album cover; Niagara in 2009 and 1976; Destroy All Monsters art, 1979. CreditNiagara portrait: Christine Taylor

Clockwise from top: a recent work by Niagara; the 1978 Destroy All Monsters album cover; Niagara in 2009 and 1976; Destroy All Monsters art, 1979. CreditNiagara portrait: Christine Taylor

“It seemed like a good way to communicate, instead of painting,” Niagara says of Destroy All Monsters, the ’70s and ’80s noise rock band she formed with Cary Loren, Mike Kelley and Jim Shaw at the University of Michigan in 1974. Since DAM, she has continued to appear on stage — as recently as 2010, with the Australian band the Hitmen. But now she’s focused on painting — haunted, Old Hollywood-inspired heroines. Her work is “by way of Lichtenstein meets Warhol, jumping off love comics, except hers are tough-talking dames,” says Shaw, whose own work is on view now at the New Museum in his exhibition “The End is Here.”

When Kelley first met Niagara at Michigan orientation, he was taken with her personal style and tiny, dark drawings, so different from the hippie leanings of the time. She recalls that he asked her, “Do you sing?” She said no, and Kelley, whose Superman-influenced show just ended at Hauser & Wirth, said, “Okay, we’ll start a band.” They practiced once, with cans and pets’ squeeze toys as instruments, before playing an impromptu show at a comic-book factory. And they went on to become an underground phenomenon, with artsy gig flyers created on Xerox machines. It wasn’t until Kelley and Shaw left the band in 1976 to attend graduate school at CalArts that it became well known due to the addition of Ron Asheton (Iggy & the Stooges) and Mike Davis (MC5). By then, Niagara’s signature aesthetic was well-established: striped hair with bangs above heavily lined eyes (and a detached stare), bra tops and fishnets hugging her lithe figure, and an air of feminist defiance (as opposed to come-hither appeal). “I wasn’t trying to be sexy and dance sexy; it was the opposite of that,” Niagara says. “My own sleepwalking version.” Her “you bore me” goddess vibes have heavily influenced female singers ever since. And perhaps not surprisingly, Niagara shows up in Kim Gordon’s recently published memoir, “Girl in a Band.”