“Declaration of GWAR” at the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU, 2018. GWAR has been nominated for two Grammy awards, and had their costumes acquired by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Museum and the Valentine Museum. Photo by Terry Brown.
By the 1980s, VCUarts had become the artistic nerve center of Richmond. The preceding decade saw the relaunch of the Anderson Gallery (which had become a library in the late ’30s) as a vestibule for international art, the beginning of Dean Murry DePillars’s tenure, and the growth of the school to be the third largest of its kind in the U.S.
As the school’s influence spread, so did its reputation as alumni achieved professional recognition. The buzzing independent music scene attracted many young artists, designers and performers who infused avant-garde sensibilities into rock, punk, metal and hip hop.
One of VCUarts’ more notorious exports is GWAR, a thrash metal band known for their elaborate and grotesque stage shows. With a mix of abrasive guitars and outrageous costumes, GWAR’s performances are famous for their social satire, live mutilations of props that resemble celebrities, and spraying fake bodily fluids on the audience.
The project began in 1984, when then-painting student Dave Brockie (BFA ’86) met fellow VCU students Hunter Jackson (BFA ’82) and Chuck Varga at the deserted Richmond Dairy plant. That’s where Jackson and Varga had created a production space called “The Slave Pit,” where they were in building props and costumes for a film they were making. Soon after, Jackson began creating props for Death Piggy, Brockie’s hardcore punk bank.
Image from Commonwealth Times, September 1987 (Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries).
But Brockie had another idea. Inspired by the imaginative film costumes at the production studio, he created a joke band of barbaric extraterrestrials who performed bloody sacrifices on stage. When Brockie’s band opened for Death Piggy, the response was undeniable. Death Piggy was shelved and GWAR was born.
Since GWAR’s 1988 debut album Hell-O!, the band has become a cult phenomenon. They’ve released 13 studio albums, been nominated for two Grammy awards, and had their costumes acquired by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Grammy Museum and Richmond’s Valentine museum. But the band’s notoriety and Dada-esque irreverence has always been their calling card. In the 1990s, though they were banned from performing in Richmond, they appeared in-character on Joan Rivers and Jerry Springer, and were a favorite of Beavis and Butt-Head. For a time, Brockie’s character Oderus Urungus was even an“intergalactic correspondent” on Fox News.
As an artist collective, GWAR has remained a force in Richmond. Though Brockie passed away in 2014, the group has carried his legacy on by hosting the annual GWAR-B-Q festival, opening the tasteful GWARbar restaurant, and participating in the ICA’s opening exhibition “Declaration.”
2018 marks 90 years of creative daring at VCUarts. To mark this occasion, VCUarts is spending this school year reflecting on our shared history and envisioning how we can continue to pave the way for creative practice in the 21st century and beyond. Visit the VCUarts 90th Anniversary website to learn more about the many stories that have shaped our school, and to share memories of your own.