The Renegade

Billy X. Curmano, performance artist and provocateur, doesn’t care much for the conventional wisdom that says artists must live in a large city. He may have grown up in Milwaukee and spent time in the East Village and other urban centers of art, but ultimately he decided to make his base of operations a picturesque corner of rural southeastern Minnesota. From there, he plans extravagant performance pieces and publishes wry, pun-filled newsletters, all of which dare the audience to face a fundamental question: “What the hell is art, anyway?”

Curmano’s work also challenges the idea that grand adventure is the exclusive right of those who can afford it. Billionaires might be traveling around the world in balloons and paying to get towed up Mount Everest, but they’ve got nothing on Billy Curmano. He decided it’d be an eye-opening performance project to swim the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to New Orleans, an undertaking he accomplished over eleven summers, landing in the Big Easy on “Billy X. Curmano Day,” 1997, thus culminating Swimmin’ the River, his best-known and most grandly scaled performance.

“I like the idea of getting out to different audiences and doing work that intrigues them, whether they understand it as art or not. I like tweaking them,” Curmano says on the phone. When we talk, he’s in the midst of a massive move from his studio space in Rushford, which suffered extensive damage during the Winona-area floods last summer. “I think about it the way I think about homosexuality—if someone’s secure in their sexuality, they aren’t homophobic. I feel secure enough about my work that I like to get a response from the audience, but if it’s not the right response, I don’t mind. If you’re doing work just to please other people, you’re not getting at the root of your soul as an artist.”

An overview of Curmano’s career indicates that, for all of his wide-ranging work, he has indeed stayed true to his roots. The twin poles of his work have always been to raise perceptions and have a little fun. These aims are evident from his early anti-Vietnam war installations at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he trained as a sculptor; his forty-day “performance fast” in the Mojave during the Y2K freak-out; and his Buried Alive project, in which he spent three days entombed near Winona in an effort to bring art to the dead. For that matter, his Swimmin’ the River project managed to make an environmentalist statement, an individualist argument, and a decade of entertaining summers all at once.

“The Coast Guard came after me just past St. Louis,” he recalls, thinking about one of the most intense days of the swim. “It was a really tough run through a major shipping center, about one-hundred miles with coastline and barges. I yelled at them, ‘I’m okay, fellas, thanks for checking.’ Through the megaphones, they yelled back, ‘It doesn’t work like that.’”

Despite losing his studio to the floods, the move has provided Curmano with new opportunities (including the offer of a dehumidifier from FEMA). His new space is a complex that includes a personal studio; a home for his New X Art Ensemble, which features a rotating cast of musicians; and performance and gallery space that can serve as an alternative to destinations in the Cities. The Ensemble performs frequently both at home and in the Twin Cities, and Curmano is also working on other projects like an annual “Anti-Shakespeare Festival” to run in conjunction with Winona’s Shakespeare Festival; the first, two years ago, ended with Curmano having to canoe around an island looking for campers that had spent the night. And he continues to shoot videos, craft sculptures, and design sets for his performance work. Overall, his tendency to mix the ephemeral with the lasting allows him to shift freely between performance and visual art. For a guy dedicated to flouting art-world “rules,” Curmano is serious about his dedication to leaving something of himself behind through his work. “As I began working … the term ‘traditional artist’ doesn’t really apply, but I made objects,” Curmano recalls. “The sculpture department at my college didn’t take real kindly to performance art. It wasn’t heavy enough. But one professor I had, he once told me, ‘Billy, we were always proud of you, because you didn’t lose sight of the object.’ And I haven’t.”

A portrait of the artist on the last day of a forty-day performance fast in the Mojave desert

 

 


Two pieces related to Curmano’s magnum opus, Swimmin’ the River: Aqua/Terra, from 1993 (bottom); and from 1994, Still Swimmin’, a lithograph with a vial of water from Lake Itasca (top)