Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Art attack: Lex Vaughn’s man-made delirium

Her Peanut Brittle is a crunchy delight

TUNE INTO WEZY. Prolific troublemaker Lex Vaughn resurrects her Peanut Brittle persona with a wild and wacky performance piece that looks and sounds like a ham radio broadcast. Credit: (Glenn Mackay)

Who can resist melted butter and sugar loaded with roasted nuts? It’s a sweet, crunchy delight that guarantees a visit to the dentist. Peanut Brittle, known for its sugar high and inevitable crashes, is no longer just an edible indulgence. Peanut Brittle is the persona of gal about town Lex Vaughn, who promises a first-class treat in her upcoming show called WEZY, upstairs at the Katharine Mulherin gallery.

Vaughn’s Peanut Brittle is a transient character comprised of a “dash of dreams and nostalgia.” Similar to Vaughn herself, Peanut Brittle is socially adept and loaded with charisma. The live performance isn’t a lip-synching drag act, it’s a world you enter complete with a set and homemade props. It is a character-based installation built on plenty of research. Peanut is an older fellow with a heart of gold who loves live radio. Peanut’s golden time has long since past and his old-time attributes of chivalry and storytelling are played out in contemporary Toronto. Punks, hipsters, 905ers and queers have come to know this character as an extension of family.

Peanut Brittle has done shows in a variety of spaces throughout Toronto from the closing of the Toolbox with Kids On TV to a Gladstone fundraiser with Baby Jane Lipschitz. Why resurrect Peanut Brittle? “The west end is full of men like PB,” says Vaughn. “There is a mutual attraction — they’re nearing the end of their lives and they wear their good times and bad times on their sleeves. Older men have always been open with me, I think because my androgyny and boyishness is unthreatening.”

The empathy Vaughn has for these men emanates through Peanut Brittle. PB isn’t creepy, in fact he is a lovable, delightful character who has more on his mind than what’s down your pants. PB absolutely appreciates a pretty lady and dapper lad but sexuality isn’t the main course on his plate. Unlike more traditional drag king performances where sexuality and youth are paramount, Vaughn is interested in lounge acts like Marty and Elayne at the Dresden Room in Los Angeles or New York lounge darlings Kiki and Herb, where connecting with the audience is paramount. Vaughn says she wants audiences “participating rather than passively viewing,” and finds that connection “to be just as sexy” as more traditional drag.

Peanut Brittle’s WEZY is a live radio show that will be amplified onto Queen St W. It’ll be recorded, but it’s not an actual broadcast. The show features musical guests, records, mystery shows, tons of crazy jingles and old-fashioned advertisements. The gallery will be turned into a radio station, complete with a homemade transistor, walls covered with QSL cards — a kind of radio station calling card — pictures and a gorgeous old microphone that could make anyone’s voice sound velvety smooth. Throughout the run, artist multiples deftly created by Vaughn will be for sale varying in price from $10 to $500. If you are the type of person who generally isn’t into performance art or is nervous about interacting with performers, this is an excellent opportunity to transgress because Peanut Brittle’s primary goal is to create an approachable atmosphere. PB is nonthreatening and funny as hell. We witness his successes and failures. The world has somehow let him down: He had money and then lost it; he had friends who have died. But these all-too-human aspects pale in the face of PB’s overwhelming, infectious positivity.

Much of Vaughn’s work is playful, affable, whether she’s banging the drums of Toronto’s favourite cult band The Hidden Cameras or playing the skins with Final Fantasy or making videos. Vaughn is preoccupied with smart silliness. “Why bother making serious art?” asks Vaughn. “I feel like it’s my duty to play into things. I just don’t want to look back and say I was fucking bored. There’s so much to enjoy. I’m reacting to life in wartime, to façades, to uptightness. Humourlessness is a crime.”

Her other projects restate Vaughn’s high spirits. Currently out on newsstands is JD’s Lesbian Utopia, the calendar by JD Samson (of Le Tigre) where a bunch of dykes, including Vaughn, hit the road to visit homo-friendly campsites across the US south. Glossy pictures of girls drinking beer, chillin’ in the hot tub and tumbling out of the RV are sexy as all get out. Vaughn, along with writing/ sketch partner David Tomlinson, is also workshopping a new play Near To Where You Are with a public reading planned for May at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. It’s about a musical brother and sister duo in their final days, perhaps suggesting the likes of Donny and Marie or The Carpenters or even The White Stripes. But that’s not all.

Filmmaker John Cameron Mitchell, the genius responsible for Hedwig And The Angry Inch, recently finished the film entitled Short Bus about pansexuality in contemporary New York that is slated to premiere at Cannes. Vaughn gleefully says they had “tons of live sex — that’s not porn because it really embraces the awkwardness of sex.” There was no real script, demanding rigorous improvisation from the cast. Improv is nothing new to Vaughn, who honed her skills with the Second City touring troupe. Her Peanut Brittle character is 90 percent based on “being in the moment.”

Adlibbing and interrupting public space with antics of unabashed joy has been part of an ongoing series of dance interventions called Doppelganger created by Vaughn and go-go boy extraordinaire John Caffery. Vaughn says that they “dance in the most bland of spaces, tearing up the streets and subways of Toronto.” In a video screened at last year’s Inside Out film fest, the dancing duo cut up the rug in goofy leotards while commuters at the St Patrick subway station desperately tried to ignore them. “It’s pretty funny,” she says, “and all about disturbing the public state of numb.”

Dancing their way to the top, Vaughn and Caffery also star in the new Lesbians On Ecstasy video for “Parachute Clubbing.” Look for the pair as gay zombie clone killers this spring — no doubt another knee-slapper of hilarity.

The list of projects that Vaughn is involved in is mind-blowing. The level of energy and assertiveness it takes to invent and reinvent such a breadth of interdisciplinary work is staggering. Vaughn’s social skills and graces are, of course, part of it. What is interesting about Peanut Brittle is that he seems connected to an opposite side of Vaughn, the side that needs quiet time. “I am professionally social. It is just what I do.

“But as I get older I can’t do the constant barrage. I look for peace. Isolation is part of my recharging. Peanut Brittle is the only thing that keeps me focussed.”