Warhol Factory and Roger Corman Film Vet Mary Woronov Paints 'Imaginary Reality'
The artist and former actress starred in 'Rock 'n' Roll High School' and 'Hollywood Boulevard.'
Mary Woronov casts a pretty ordinary shadow. Slinking around in shiny purple Doc Martens and a formfitting shirt with her name on it, she doesn’t much resemble the infamous characters she played in cult cinema for over 45 years. She’s a painter now — well, she always has been, but she’s only a painter now. With her black dog on a red leash sitting nearby, she greeted guest after guest at the late July opening of her painting exhibition (which will offer a special "evening of words and narrations" Aug. 20 and recently was extended through Sept. 3) at The Lodge, a two-room East Hollywood gallery in a building where legendary L.A. artist Ed Ruscha used to paint. THR spoke to a few people who didn’t seem to realize the indelible mark Woronov’s career has made on art and film.
Woronov and Ruscha at The Lodge
Her paintings often touch on banal moments, painted in evocatively bold colors: people having sex; scenes of loss and abandonment. Asked if the paintings are populated by people from her past — characters from the days of Warhol when she was in Chelsea Girls and danced backup for the Velvet Underground; oddballs from her time as an actress (usually playing a nasty villain) in Roger Corman’s midnight movies — Woronov retorts, “Absolutely not; they’re all imaginary. I can’t paint from reality…. I’ve tried. A long time ago when I needed money, people asked me to paint them, but I can’t.”
Hence the name of the exhibition: Imaginary Reality. “It’s a picture and it’s there, so it’s real!" she said. "But actually it comes from whatever your brain wants. I love that. I have people pointing at the figures in the paintings, and saying, ‘This person is married,’ or ‘This person hates that person.’ ”
Allan Arkush — himself a legend from the Corman school of low-budget filmmaking — stood in front of a painting called Family. He recalled how he met Woronov, and how she ended up in his films Rock ’n’ Roll High School and Hollywood Boulevard. “I’ve known Mary since ’74 or ’75 when she was in Death Race 2000, which Paul Bartel directed,” he told THR. “We would hang out together at a place on Las Palmas and Santa Monica. That’s when I realized she had been in Chelsea Girls. I thought, ‘Wait a minute, she has the same sensibilities as I do. That’s when we were in the midst of Corman’s world. That was around when Jonathan Demme was making Caged Heat, and John Cale [from the Velvet Underground] did the soundtrack for that, so there was a lot of people in common.”
Arkush is an avid collector of Woronov’s art. “I’ve been following her painting for years,” he said. “I’ve got about five or six of them. She has this one called Darby Crash Going to the Bathroom to Throw Up that I love. And I have a big one in by bedroom called Second Line Dancers.”
Woronov laughed when she heard Arkush’s title for the painting. “That wasn’t what I was thinking,” she said. “A painting’ll mean a lot to me and I’ll know exactly what it is, and then people put their own story to it. It was a girl who is overdosing and these little punkers are standing there, and one of them is trying to help her, and all the girls look like the boys, and the boys look like girls.”
Woronov, who also is the author of a memoir and three novels, still has a fondness for the punk rock scene that she wandered into when she moved to Los Angeles after leaving New York and Warhol’s Factory behind. “I come from New York, and I danced with the Velvets, so I know rock ’n’ roll, strong enough to hate Bob Dylan. When I came to L.A., there was something so magical about the movement. Every kid had a garage band. The first early paintings I did were all punk rock. I was in love with the Starwood [club in Hollywood]; I did so many paintings of the Starwood.”
What she doesn’t have any qualms about is quitting the movie business. The last film she starred in was a 2012 Corman film called Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader, and she said it wasn’t such a good experience. “Frankly, I come from the Theatre of the Ridiculous — Ronnie Tavel, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol. We did wild stuff beyond the Living Theatre. We did gay when gay wasn’t allowed; nudity and nudity wasn’t allowed. When I came to L.A., Corman — of all people — let me do what I wanted. That’s the kind of theater I like. The movies these days are so locked down. You have to do what you’re told. All of that great excitement is dead.”
Though she’s no longer an actress, Woronov already has cemented herself as a bona fide historical figure — a hero to many. Francesca Di Amico and Claudia Unger, who are co-producing a documentary called Mary Woronov: Cult Queen, were at the opening. “In her whole career, she’s always been a part of someone else’s narrative, from Warhol to Corman. Being an artist was a way to control her narrative," said Di Amico. "Her fans may not know she existed in another realm. She has fans who are delicate art boys, Bakersfield cowboys, and Rock ’n’ Roll High School punk fans.”
None of those figures from Woronov’s past showed up at the opening. “They’re all dead,” she said. “They’re either really, really rich in New York or they’re really dead.”