"Ladies and gentlemen, we are all beautiful…"

David Hoyle, Gay Icons at the National Portrait Gallery, London, 11 September 2009

Given David Hoyle’s considerable body of work (to say nothing of his fearsome reputation), the untitled work that he presented at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) might have seemed a slight one. In the context of an evening’s entertainment to celebrate the gallery’s current Gay Icons show, the Manchester-based Hoyle was one of many artists providing entertainment to the invited guests. And yet, it is the entire notion of entertainment – a pleasant pastime, a diversionary tactic? – that Hoyle questions. His work, from the days of the his most iconoclastic creation, The Divine David (mid-1990s-2000) onwards, is an art form thoroughly rooted in the social and political and is all the more humane for it.

Hoyle’s appearance at the NPG was deceptively simple. He was there, with a long black dress and his trademark melting make-up (applied always in a excessive fashion), in appearance a cross between a wraith and a society hostess. He milled about, hermetically involved in his own demeanour – holding a glass, exchanging a few pleasantries, walking, being attentive. This was a performance about performance. At times he paraded a poster of Sid Vicious about, perhaps as a way of pointing to the way that the media goads on, and then sanitises, revolt. You could say that he installed doubt in the midst of the celebrations and turned its guests into a mass of J Alfred Prufrocks. This was as elegant and poised as Franko B’s harrowing one-to-one works of live art or of Marina Abramovic’s economical works of attention.

But Hoyle is also a clown, and as is the way of great clowns, there is an equal measure of sadness and hilarity in what he does. His exit from the party – and perhaps, from life – was performed on the gallery’s escalator. He went up. And then came down again. Then up. And down. Like a bouncing Tosca, it was a refusal to lie down and die. Sad-sounding cocktail music played in the background. Guests either watched him or they didn’t. This was a performance made in full knowledge of its peripheral status. It was a beautifully observed sequence of movements.

And there to the heart of the ambivalence. David Hoyle’s art work – and it takes many forms, from performance at clubs such as Duckie, to painting, writing and video – has always addressed the tension between individuality and the crowd. He understands the lure of the crowd, and he is sympathetic to the difficulties of being alone, in the sense that aloneness needs to be tolerated and negotiated as a pre-condition for any creative act. He has always been an outspoken critic of the clubs and marketing strategies that create a herd out of gay and lesbian people. One imagines that Hoyle has his own ideas on being the gay icon he undoubtedly is. To take a vintage line from The Divine David: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are all beautiful – unt we are all going to die.”

"Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree…"

Bette Bourne and Mark Ravenhill, a film inspired by A Life in Three Acts, 2009

I once asked Matthew Glamorre, the brilliant, beautiful boy behind Smashing! and so much else, why he had stopped dressing up. Matthew, I should say, was capable of making leigh Bowery look ordinary. It was simple, he said: that the level of violence he felt necessary to maintain the act was to high a price. It wasn’t that Matthew ever went around hitting people, but he had to anticipate that others might want to hit him. I was with Matthew once one night in Soho when we hit came upon a street brawl – alone, I would have turned back. Matthew seized my arm and walked me confidently and quickly and very safely through the mayhem.

That wasn’t an aside, but an acknowledgment of the importance of the work, the simple work of being done by actor Bette Bourne, son of Stoke Newington and uncrowned queen of Notting Hill. He has just finished A Life in Three Acts with playwright Mark Ravenhill at the Soho Theatre. This scripted conversation took in growing up gay in Hackney, discovering Soho by following Quentin Crisp in the street, the radical drag troupe Bloolips and more. Now in his 70s, it’d be a mistake to see Bette as a twinkly granny, a stately homo. “You think it’s easy to wear lipstick in the street? Just you try.”

He’s a tough cookie.