Panty Raider

It’s Valentine’s Day, and Peregrine Honig is spreading the love. In a picture window at her Fahrenheit Gallery in the West Bottoms, white lights and soot-stained aluminum letters spell out MOTEL against a red-velvet backdrop.

Earlier tonight, men cruising the deserted streets for prostitutes stopped and pressed the buzzer. Honig sent them away. She isn’t running a no-tell motel. She’s hosting her seventh annual Valentine’s Day art installation in a two-story brick building that, since the 1860s, has been a saloon, a juke joint and a country-western bar.

Artists Chris Devlin and Heather Scorcha Minga have transformed it into the Stagger Inn Motel, where “deals are made and graves are laid.”

In the softly lit dance hall, real bamboo trees, transplanted from someone’s backyard, sprout from the tile floor. On a stage up front, Greg Meise, a tuxedoed lounge singer in black sunglasses, plays a piano and serenades the crowd. A white-haired couple moves slowly on the empty dance floor.

Boxes of Boulevard beer line the bar. A hundred or so people stroll about, perusing the evening’s art — five eerie motel rooms tucked into corners. In one, a bedspread with a Haitian voodoo symbol drapes the bed. Above that, a painting depicts a ghostly, winged woman with an O-shaped mouth hovering above a praying man.

In another room hang two paintings of the “Jimmy Brothers.” In one, a menacing teen-age Jimmy, his arm in a sling, holds a rock in his free hand. In the other, a different Jimmy scowls and thrusts his crotch forward in a macho stance.

People wearing headphones stand respectfully before each piece, listening to an audiotape prepared by the artists.

I’m Jimmy,” snarls a voice on the tape, “and I’m every fucking bad motherfucker you’ve ever met. I’ll throw this rock at you. I’ll set your shit on fire. I’ll steal your car. I’ll fucking eat your food while you’re at work. I’ll fuck you up.

“Please move to the next room.”

The guests, all of them there by special invitation of the artists, step carefully from artwork to artwork, careful not to track mud on the rugs or muss the pillows. Honig, who has been flitting about with a wineglass in her hand, plops down on a bed to rest.

Honig is a petite woman with short, curly brown hair and blue eyes. She’s wearing a cream-colored Mexican dress with big, orange flowers on it. Buckled around her waist is a wide pink garter belt from the 1950s, which looks more like a champion wrestling belt than an item of dainty lingerie.

Honig can’t go longer than a minute without someone rushing up to hug her. Nearly everyone here knows who she is. Honig’s controversial drawings and paintings of young girls and women have been exhibited all over town. She’s had art shows in major galleries around the world.

When Honig was 23, New York’s famed Whitney Museum bought her Ovubet (26 Girls with Sweet Centers) — a suite of drawings on vintage paper doilies depicting prepubescent girls and their sexual awakening. Ovubet is part of the Whitney’s permanent collection, along with the work of such renowned artists as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol.

Right now, however, Honig isn’t concerned with fame. “We’re in the most industrial section of the city, and it’s Valentine’s Day, and look at all the people,” she says. Art students, bohemians and business executives fill the space. Rain is pouring down, and the old building’s restrooms have flooded; still, Honig’s mood is anything but dampened. By evening’s end, 200 people will have come to her annual soiree. “This is like the prom everybody wishes they’d had.”

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At 26, Honig is widely perceived to be one of the city’s most talented artists. Now she’s in a position to help her colleagues. Being in her good graces could lead an artist to exhibitions at the Fahrenheit as well as major gallery contacts and invitations to national shows.

These days, Honig doesn’t have much trouble making friends.

Honig has been in Kansas City for nine years, and for much of that time, being the young darling of Kansas City’s art community came at a cost.

People who don’t know Honig have gossiped about her to her face. She’s been interrogated by people demanding to know whether her art springs from an abusive childhood. At the very least, she’s been called a relentless self-promoter — an insult in overly polite Kansas City.

Nonetheless, her work ultimately ended up in the Whitney because Melissa Rountree, curator for Hallmark Cards’ fine-art collection, was a fan. In 1998 Rountree introduced Honig to Jack Lemon, the founder of Landfall Press, a publisher of contemporary fine art in Chicago, who later began representing Honig. At the Navy Pier art show in Chicago in 1999, Lemon tells the Pitch, he sought out David Kiehl, a curator for the Whitney.

“I dragged David Kiehl over there and showed him Peregrine’s work,” Lemon says. “I told him it should be part of his collection. That’s my job.” Lemon’s marketing efforts paid off. The Whitney bought a print of Ovubet, one of 25 sets of hand-painted prints that Landfall Press had published from Honig’s original etchings on copper plates.

Yale University Art Gallery and the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., each bought a set of Ovubet, too. Barbara Bloemink, the former director of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, bought one for her private collection.

In the corporate world, Honig’s work has been shown at the H&R Block Artspace, Shaw Hofstra & Associates and UMB Bank. But not everyone appreciates drawings of little girls who are beginning to understand their sexuality.

Despite Rountree’s appreciation of Honig’s work, it doesn’t hang alongside that of more than 100 other Kansas City artists in Hallmark’s 3,100-piece fine-art collection.

“We don’t have much figurative work,” Rountree explains. “Peregrine’s work is small in size, and it’s not always appropriate for a corporate collection.”

“Hallmark doesn’t buy things with pubic hair or nipples,” Honig quips. She says her art is a humorous look at young girls’ bumpy transition into womanhood.

Awfulbet consists of 26 line drawings of preteen girls — most of them clad only in panties — on brown-paper lunch sacks. Like the Ovubet suite, each drawing corresponds to a letter in the alphabet, with handwritten rhymes scrawled beneath.

“C is for Claire passed out on the floor” — that’s the text beneath a drawing of a blonde with pink nipples and white underwear sprawled on the ground. There’s “D is for Dina who wouldn’t eat anymore,” a panties-wearing girl pushing away her plate. In one drawing, a young girl bends over a toilet: “E is for Emma throwing up dinner.” Tears fall down another girl’s face: “F is for Faye who prayed to be thinner.”

Honig says she’s seen women break down and sob over Awfulbet. Then they’ll ask her if she has an eating disorder or whether she was sexually abused.

Men, meanwhile, seem to have strong reactions to parts of Ovubet, especially “N is for Nora who liked it on top,” a drawing of a nearly naked little girl straddling the pole of a hobbyhorse. Honig says men also squirm at “O is for Olivia who asked him to stop,” with a tiny pair of hands drawn in the bottom-right corner.

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“The main objections I get are from men. It makes people uncomfortable to see something that is presented to them in such a way that shows they’re not the only ones thinking about that.” Fathers get nervous when their prepubescent girls start thinking about sex, she says.

“It’s one thing to see someone being brutally abused, but it’s another thing to see your daughter putting on makeup in the bathroom, and she looks a lot like your wife when you first met her,” Honig says. “All of a sudden, someone who has been a child in your life takes on characteristics of someone who is already sexual.”

People project their own issues onto her work, Honig says. The Olivia character begged someone to stop — that could refer to a rape. Or the character could be responding to innocent tickling or teasing. “All it is is two hands saying ‘no,'” Honig says of the drawing.

Three years ago, the Charlotte Street Fund, a Greater Kansas City Community Foundation program that awards grants to six local artists every year, gave Honig $4,500. She could do whatever she wanted with the money.

Honig ventured to the Shady Lady Lounge, a strip club a couple of miles east of downtown Kansas City. There, she drank cocktails, paid for table dances and bought drinks for the strippers so they would talk with her about their lives.

Around the same time, Honig mingled with sorority girls in the Delta Zeta sorority at William Jewell College in Liberty. She found that sorority girls and strippers aren’t so different from one another.

“In every arena is a hierarchy,” Honig says. “Women talk about each other in every social structure.” A college girl whispers disparaging remarks about her sorority sisters’ clothes; a stripper berates a fellow dancer who forgot to remove the price sticker from her stiletto-heeled boot. And they were all little girls once.

Next, Honig painted a series of watercolors based on hardcore pornographic photographs from skin magazines she bought at highway gas stations. Honig portrayed the spent-looking women in provocative poses, regressing to what she imagined they might have looked like as young girls.

But some high-society types involved with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation might be surprised to see where Honig’s work has ended up.

A friend of Honig’s searching for her art online once found it on a Web site called Butterfly Kisses, which displayed a photograph of a little girl sitting on a woman’s lap. The woman and child gazed into each other’s eyes.

“At first I thought it kind of looked like a Christian help site,” Honig recalls. “Then I saw it was dedicated to older women who are attracted to young girls and women attracted to their daughters.” Honig says her work isn’t based on that kind of attraction. But, she says, “If that is what you’re seeking out, [my art] can illustrate being attracted to early puberty, even in yourself.”

“Princess Charming,” Honig’s drawing of a person with an exposed set of male and female genitals lounging on a sofa with a gentleman suitor, ended up on xxx.competitions.com, a porn site dedicated to hermaphrodites and teen-age girls. Her work shows up just beneath an ad for the Strap-on Teens Web site, in which a long-haired, big-breasted blonde licks the tip of a gargantuan dildo.

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Beneath the crude photograph, a caption reads “Hermaphrodites in Art — the work of Peregrine Honig.”

“Peregrine Honig is my sort of artist!” raves a blurb.

We live in a place of free speech, Honig says. People will interpret her art as they see it.

“People will project sex onto a can of Coke,” she says.

At the same time, she knows that some viewers struggle to understand what she’s doing.

“I think people want an easy explanation, like, ‘I’m a feminist’ or ‘I have an eating disorder,'” Honig says. “I wasn’t sexually abused, and I don’t have an eating disorder. I’ve had to deal with assholes in my life, and I’ve had to talk my way out of shitty situations, but I haven’t been raped against the wall by a stranger. If I had, my work would probably be a lot different than it is.”

Still, it’s not as if Honig’s childhood was ordinary. When she was three years old and living in San Francisco, her parents gave Honig a sketchbook. The child’s scribblings (she shunned crayons, preferring to draw with a pencil or pen) quickly surpassed those of her toddler peers.

Honig’s faces were attached to bodies, complete with fingers and feet. Her female figures carried grinning fetuses inside their bellies. She drew breasts with nipples. Little Peregrine sketched a baby attached to a placenta and dangling between two spread legs.

These strange renderings captured the attention of Constance Milbrath, a child psychologist who is now a professor in the psychiatry department at the University of California-San Francisco and a senior researcher in that university’s division of adolescent medicine.

Back in 1979, Milbrath had already studied several talented children for a research project she planned to publish. Milbrath found her newest prodigy in Honig, a reserved child who seemed content to sit and draw all day long.

Milbrath had met Jordan Honig, Peregrine’s father, on a visit to Project Artaud, an artists’ colony in San Francisco’s Mission District. He showed his daughter’s sketchbooks to Milbrath and encouraged her to study his talented daughter.

“Peregrine’s dad was trying to be an artist, and her mother was also a free spirit,” Milbrath recalls. “She was very much into letting Peregrine explore her art on her own.” Milbrath visited every few months, from the time Honig was two-and-a-half until she was fourteen, studying the drawings and directing her to draw more. Peregrine was polite and happy, extremely bright and articulate.

“She was definitely highly talented,” says Milbrath, who documented her findings in Patterns of Artistic Development in Children: Comparative Studies of Talent, published by Cambridge University Press in 1998. “Peregrine was using line in a very different way than other kids her age.”

Whereas less talented children shaded in the spaces for people’s clothing in their drawings, Honig drew folds in the fabric. The faces on her figures conveyed emotion. Other children copied drawings they’d seen in storybooks, but Honig created her own. At age four, she drew a figure of a whimsical girl wearing a skirt of leaves and playing a harp. She sketched a couple of female fairy-tale figures, princesses with flowing hair and billowy hats, reaching out to touch each other’s fingertips as they floated on the page.

Growing up near Castro Street in the 1980s, Honig had plenty of visual stimulation. Gay men openly expressed their affection for each other just outside the window of the family’s house. At Project Artaud, the mood was live and let live. There was Big Ken, an aging porn star whose claim to fame had been his ability to give himself a blow job. And there was J.P., who had bought a generator at an Army auction and climbed in the bathtub with it to perform bizarre experiments that frequently blew fuses in the old building. Moonies congregated across the street in Jackhammer Park.

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“I think most of the kids raised there had to be institutionalized,” Honig says. “It’s not that anything terrible happened to them. They were just raised too freely.”

Honig’s parents divorced when she was three. As she grew older, she fought with her mother, from whom she is now estranged.

“My mother was pretty verbally abusive to me,” Honig says. “She had a horrible temper. I knew I was going to have to leave early.”

By the time she graduated from high school, Honig had won a commission from the Mission Cultural Center to paint a mural at the de Young Museum in San Francisco. One of her paintings had won the National Congressional Award. She’d been accepted at several art schools on the East Coast. She chose to attend the Kansas City Art Institute, which had awarded her a partial scholarship.

At seventeen, Honig moved into a dorm in Kansas City.

“Peregrine was kind of out there,” recalls Lester Goldman, professor of painting at the Art Institute. “She tended to tweak the gender and sex content in her work in a way that was provocative.”

Honig challenged the acceptable gender roles and what was considered permissible in society. Her erotic imagery of young girls had a sexual edge to it and spurred classroom discussions. Honig was outspoken and made sure she got the attention she believed she deserved.

“If I didn’t recognize the kind of work she was doing, she would make sure I saw it,” Goldman says. “She hobnobbed with visiting artists and made sure they knew her work.”

Honig frequented the Bluebird Café and the Corner Restaurant, where she ran into national artists who dined there while they were in town. She was relentless in her efforts to meet the artists she admired.

When Aspen, Colorado-based Pam Joseph, a renowned sculptor and painter whose work portrays strong, sexual, contemporary women, had a show at the Dolphin Gallery, Honig asked gallery owner John O’Brien if she could meet the artist after the opening. Joseph would be busy later, he told her, at an invitation-only reception.

Later that night, Honig and two other art students pulled up in an old Honda Civic at the Brookside home of Richard Hollander, a prominent art collector. The girls peered through the numerous windows at the Art Institute professors and administrators and art collectors drinking wine inside.

They knocked on the door. A guest invited them in.

Honig chatted with gallery owner and Art Institute instructor Jim Leedy. The host soon booted the intruders from the party, but not before Honig had met Joseph.

“It was her last night in town,” Honig says. “I was determined to meet her. I’m still in contact with her.”

Honig’s brashness was one way of questioning the protocol at the expensive art school. In her junior year, Honig and three other female students, tired of feeling belittled by male instructors and students, started their own sorority, Theta Alpha Omega.

“We got sick of hearing, ‘Oh, you make girl art,'” says Ellen Greene, one of the sorority’s founding members. “People don’t say, ‘Jackson Pollack made guy art.’ It’s just considered art.”

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The women of Theta Alpha Omega vowed to show everyone just how girlie they could get. They wore tiaras and Girl Scout sashes that they’d fashioned themselves. They held a dance and invited freshman girls to join them during rush week. They drew a picture of a female Japanese superhero with Theta Alpha Omega underwear and plastered fliers for their renegade sorority around the campus.

“We were making fun of girlie organizations but also embracing them as women,” Greene recalls. She says their sorority poked fun at the idea that women were “non-arty” at an institution that embraced the stereotype of the tortured, self-absorbed male artist. Theta Alpha Omega blended the images of the riot grrl and the sorority girl in an artistic performance.

“We played with the idea of who is in and who is out, which the art world plays with every day,” Greene says. “We were just saying, ‘Wake up. You’re in a predominantly white art school. All of you have had privileged lives. How dare you think you’re part of some kind of counterculture?'”

Not everyone got the joke, however. A backlash ensued.

Anonymous dissenters defaced posters of Theta Alpha Omega’s superhero mascot. “This is exclusive bullshit!” someone scrawled. “Cunts!” scribbled someone else.

The sorority girls persevered, putting on a show at the Art Institute’s Student Art Gallery. But the sorority disbanded after another show, Heaven’s not Inclusive, at the OPIE gallery during Honig’s senior year. She was selling enough of her work to support herself and had grown disenchanted with her education.

“At art school, most of the students had gone there to figure out if they were artists,” Honig says. “They hadn’t been good at anything else.” The Art Institute played favorites with people who planned to go on to graduate school, she says, but that wasn’t her path. Sitting in class only distracted her from making art.

In 1998, Honig left her studies.

By then, there were plenty of places around town that wanted to show Honig’s work. She had shows at nine local galleries during 1998 and 1999. Honig was one of ten artists included in Perspective Kansas City at Johnson County Community College, curated by Raphael Rubinstein, senior editor at Art in America magazine in New York.

After the Whitney bought Ovubet in 1999, there seemed to be no end to Honig’s success. The Byron C. Cohen gallery began representing her, and Honig exhibited her work in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle and Portland, Oregon. She tapped the European market, with exhibitions in Amsterdam and Cologne.

Regina Hackett, a reviewer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, called Honig’s work “extraordinary” and compared her to Egon Schiele, the Austrian expressionist painter who was imprisoned for “obscenity” in 1912. Hackett likened the disturbing couplets beneath Honig’s drawings to those of “A Dr. Seuss who sometimes suffers from Kafkaesque despair.”

But Honig wasn’t influenced by Dr. Seuss as much as by Edward Gorey, author and illustrator of Amphigorey, a book of rhyming dark humor for children. Honig was also influenced by Schiele’s art, she says, as well as that of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and photographer Sally Mann.

At 23, Honig was one of the youngest artists in the Whitney’s permanent collection. Major collectors here snatched up the work of the potentially famous artist.

When Byron Cohen met Honig four years ago, she was “kind of wild,” he recalls.

“She was young, and she had that air about her, that way of talking that was conceited,” he says. “She was a little brat.”

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Success had gone to Honig’s head, he says. “She was a real pain in the ass.”

Honig remembers one night at Dave’s Stagecoach Inn in Westport, when a tipsy art student sidled up to her. He gestured toward a poster she’d drawn that was tacked to a wall. “Everybody buys into her shit,” he sneered.

“I thought it was real funny,” Honig says. “He thought he could start up a conversation by talking shit about me, and it was me.”

“Peregrine was raised to believe that an artist is a special person, and she’s always conducted herself as a special person,” says David Ford, an artist and a 2001 Charlotte Street Fund winner. Ford owns Y.J.’s Snack Bar in the Crossroads District, a hangout popular among artists, writers and musicians. When Honig’s career took off, Ford says, Honig sometimes snapped her fingers for faster service.

“When you’re 23 years old and you just got bought by the Whitney, your head’s got to go there,” Ford says.

Honig didn’t have time to worry about whether everybody liked her. She spent her days drawing constantly, occasionally selling some commercial artwork to make ends meet. Some weeks, she had plenty of money, and other times didn’t know where she would get her next $20.

But Honig has been good at getting noticed at art openings and parties, at pressing the flesh, at hugging instead of shaking hands, Ford says.

She exudes sexuality while seeming as childlike and playful as the young girls in her drawings, and both men and women gravitate toward her.

“Sex sells, and Peregrine plays that card very knowingly, both in her professional presence and her art,” Ford says. “At a party, they’re probably going to talk to Peregrine more than they are me. She uses her breasts to get to the door. Her art has a very titillating quality. It springs directly from her, and that makes it authentic.”

Such networking doesn’t come easily for some artists, Ford says. A few envy the ease with which Honig can do it. He admires her work but thinks she needs to branch out.

“There are times when I’ve questioned whether she’s exploiting preadolescent nudity,” Ford says. “It’s a big genre, and it’s a very taboo genre. She’s [raising] provocative and interesting questions, so those are the questions she’s doing over and over.”

Honig’s artistic questions have paid off. Today, prices for her work at Cohen’s gallery range from $700 for a 14-inch-by-13-inch watercolor on paper to $2,500 each for the 60-inch-by-48-inch oil paintings in her series of pinup girls. Honig still has lean times, but she’s able to support herself by making art.

She doesn’t deny that she may have kicked a few people in the head along the way.

“I’m pretty aggressive. I try not to be, but I like to get things done. If people think I’m temperamental, which I probably am, that’s fine. If people think I’m a total goofball, that’s fine.”

Honig doesn’t have to pursue the galleries much anymore. They often call her with invitations to be in their shows. Now that she isn’t broke and hungry all the time, Honig says, she is able to help other local artists get their work noticed.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon, and Honig is standing in a cloud of dust at the Fahrenheit Gallery. She’s wearing paint-splattered pants and multiple sweaters, and she’s strapped a white surgical mask across her face. A man teeters atop a ladder, ripping down 14-foot wooden beams from the rickety ceiling.

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Most people in town assume that Honig owns the building that houses her gallery. In fact, Jordan Honig (now an engineer living in Colorado) owns the building. He and Honig split the mortgage and the utilities.

Honig says a lot of people romanticize her life; she has held only one job since she’s lived here, working for a month as a halfhearted waitress at the Bluebird Café. “People think I sit around and draw all day. In their minds, they see an artist with this open space, this palette, this naked woman.” However, she says, “I’m the manager of this building, and it’s a lot of fucking work.”

Honig regularly rents out the downstairs space for dances, film festivals, fashion shows and other events, but people sometimes back out at the last minute. “These are people my age,” Honig says. “I don’t want to make them pay a deposit.” When out-of-town artists blow off their shows without calling, the gallery sits empty for a month.

Adjacent to the gallery area is Honig’s small apartment, where she lives with her boyfriend of two years, Mark Southerland, a saxophonist with the band Malachy Papers.

Huge windows face north, affording a view of downtown Kansas City, Kansas. Southerland’s collection of hundreds of 8-track tapes fills a 12-foot-high shelf against one wall. Stacks of unwashed dinner plates and glasses overflow from the kitchen sink and counter. Sheets and blankets are wadded into a huge ball on the bed.

Honig’s drawings are everywhere — hanging on the wall, spread about the floor, scattered on a large table next to her computer. She doesn’t have time to clean. There is art to be made, shows to be scheduled and a $1,100 gas bill to be paid.

This is a place where she can live cheaply while making her art, Honig says, and it’s her goal to do everything she can to put Kansas City artists on the map.

Each month, she offers her gallery space free to artists, earning a commission for herself on any work they sell. In December, Honig loaded a van with the work of ten artists and drove to Chicago’s Stray Show, a national art fair for younger, smaller galleries.

Major collectors and gallery owners attend the four-day Stray Show, held in a 37,000-square-foot warehouse in Chicago’s Goose Island industrial corridor. Back in 1998, Davin Watne of the Dirt Gallery had taken Honig’s work to the fair, resulting in contacts she still maintains. Honig wanted to offer local artists the same opportunity. So last November, she sent invitations to twenty artists she admired. She offered to take their work to Chicago for a $70 fee to offset rental costs for the van and the booth. Honig would take a 30 percent commission from the pieces that sold.

By the end of November, twelve artists had agreed to the deal. Honig designed an invitation and sent it to fifty curators in the Chicago area. She sold four of the artists’ pieces. One of the artists, Jay Norton, sold two pieces at the show and two later from a contact he’d made there.

“Peregrine was very professional about the whole thing and really careful about handling my work,” Norton says, adding that Honig and Watne are the only local gallery owners who make a point of getting the work of emerging Kansas City artists into national shows. “It makes you want to get back in your studio and continue working.”

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Jennifer Field, whose work Honig took to Chicago, says Honig is an egalitarian who likes to help other artists succeed. “Peregrine is very feminine and very masculine in terms of getting things done,” Field says. “That’s threatening to a lot of people, because she has to make decisions about who to support. People who haven’t been supported may have a problem with that. Her only detractors are people who are prepared to dislike her because she’s successful. People are prepared to dislike successful, powerful women.”

“A lot of Kansas City artists may perceive Peregrine as being self-centered, but it’s not justified,” Watne says. “In order to be a successful artist, you have to promote yourself constantly, even if it’s shameless self-promotion. No one else is going to do it for you. Peregrine makes a living off her artwork. She’s pretty, and she’s successful, and that’s a deadly combination.”

But it’s been a long time since she’s snapped her fingers for service at Y.J.’s, Ford says.

“Now, Peregrine has learned how to treat people who aren’t necessarily artists as being important people.” If Honig is impatient at times, it’s because she’s got a lot going on and takes her work seriously, he says. “She sets her schedule, and other people have to get in line with it. That’s how you get things done. She’s like the bull in the China closet, but then she goes back to sweep it up.”

Behind Y.J.’s counter is Heather Scorcha Minga, one of the artists from Honig’s Valentine’s Day installation. Honig gave her and Chris Devlin complete artistic freedom for their show, she says.

“A lot of galleries don’t want to run the risk that [the show] isn’t completely stylized with wine and beer and a white wall lit up beautifully,” Scorcha Minga says. “She gave us the keys to her place and totally trusted us 100 percent.”

Honig has grown up, Cohen says. As artists go, she is easier to work with than most.

“Today Peregrine is a better artist, a better thinker,” he says. “She relates better with people.” He’s known plenty of less talented artists in New York who succeed because they know how to promote themselves. Honig is only doing what artists need to do, he says.

“It’s like the movie business,” Cohen says. “You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.”

For Honig, now is the right time for more underwear. Last month, Honig and actress Corrie Van Ausdal opened Birdies, an underwear store next door to Y.J.’s. A couple of months earlier, the women had pooled their cash and gone on a shopping spree. They browsed at Re-runs, buying unworn vintage lingerie. An antique dealer in the River Market donated more unused items. They hit the sales at Dillard’s. A friend advised them on how to get a business license.

Now panties with birds silk-screened on the front and boxer shorts adorned with hand-drawn robots hang on the wall near bikinis sporting Honig’s drawing of a frenetic-looking kitty. There’s a thong with “WWJD” painted across the crotch.

“When the economy goes to hell and the country goes to war, women focus on underwear,” Honig says. Birdies will be a “social study,” she says, of who buys underwear in troubled times. She sees her new retail venture as just a natural progression of her art.

On a recent Saturday night at the Cup and Saucer in the River Market, a raven-haired woman with blood-red lips gyrates onstage in a pair of “Love Gun” panties — black underwear with a drawing of a silver pistol shooting a red heart from the barrel.

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It’s a Live Pantie Auction. The hundred or so people are young and boisterous, packed into the small bar so tightly that it’s impossible to walk from one end to the other.

Tonight the Love Gun panties sell for $50, much higher than what they go for at Birdies. The Cup and Saucer has donated the space, and the artists who’ve drawn and painted their designs on Birdies’ underwear did it for free. Actress and director Missy Koonce has volunteered her time as auctioneer (though by evening’s end, she’ll leave with a pair of her own as payment). The auction’s proceeds will go toward printing and marketing costs for Birdies, says Honig, who will later decline to disclose how much money she and Van Ausdal raised.

“You’re getting some cheap-ass fine art here,” Koonce booms, and bidders’ hands go up in the air. A skinny male model unbuttons his shirt and dances seductively in a pair of Honig’s robot boxer shorts. “Panties aren’t just for ladies anymore,” Koonce says. “You, too, can look fit and wonderful.”

The boxers sell for a piddling $25. It’s the panties people really want. There are the “Liza” panties, which someone buys for $70. Someone snatches up the “Jolita” low-riders for $80.

Nearly a dozen pairs have been auctioned off before Koonce makes her final call. “Last chance for some artsy-fartsy panties!”

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