She calls herself Colette. No, not the famous French writer but a 31-year-old environmental artist with a flair for self-promotion who uses her own body, the streets, shop windows and the loft she rents in downtown New York as landscapes for her art. It was Colette who painted personal hieroglyphics on her nude torso with Kool-Aid and eye makeup on the beach in Jamaica, who slept in the window of a Fifth Avenue bookstore dressed like a Victorian rag doll, who, with satin veiling and World War I parachute silk, transformed her apartment (above) into a dreamlike grotto. (Even her TV set is swaddled.) “I create landscapes and become part of them,” she says plaintively, as if expecting to be misunderstood. “Details like last names aren’t pertinent to an artist like me.”
Some critics take an irreverent view of her art even though it has been displayed in both the Museum of Modern Art and the downtown Whitney. “What she is doing is perfectly legitimate, perfectly passé and totally harmless,” says one. Colette retorts, “The power of my work is being there and experiencing it.” She would duplicate her spectacular living room for a client for $25,000—no takers yet.
For defacing public streets with drawings of noses and lips or squiggles of pastel paint, she has been arrested more than half a dozen times. On her right hand is tattooed an arrangement of pink and blue dots and curvy dashes that she translates as “deadly feminine.”
This past winter Colette staged Ripping Myself Off at New York’s Victoria Falls boutique, in which she portrayed a figure titled Justine (for Justice) who was “raped” by a male model representing the commercial world. “I have had boyfriends go into design and take all my ideas,” she complains peevishly. “I did dresses of parachute material in 1970 and then they turned up everywhere. Even the Victorian look, which is all over the place now, I did first. My friends say, ‘Colette, you should be so happy influencing people.’ But everybody’s making money off my ideas.”
Colette was born in Tunisia, where she remembers scribbling on walls as a child, the daughter of an architect, Joseph Marcel Suid. Her family moved to Nice when she was 4, then to Passaic, N.J. She graduated in 1968 with a degree in art education from William Paterson College. “I never really felt part of my family,” she says now. “From the beginning I felt different from everybody. We had an Arab maid and I used to cling to her. They called me the Bedouin because I didn’t put shoes on. I’m sure North Africa has influenced my work.”
Colette’s desire now is to create a permanent room for a museum. “My work has always been destroyed,” she says. “I would like to do something more lasting. I have given the world free art. But people are used to paying for trash.”