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Exhibition Essay: Jaimie Warren

Jaimie Warren
You Are So Beautiful in the Face

June 5–October 3, 2009

 

 


Left: Jaimie Warren, Untitled (Self Portrait, Red and Flowers, Tokyo), 2007; chromogenic print, 30 x 40 inches; Courtesy of the artist

Oh, identity! We know all about that: it is our core personhood, the embodiment of our absolute uniqueness, the way our personality has evolved to let us honestly present ourselves to one another, rooted in our specific history, no two alike. Or is it? What if identity is just a succession of roles we take up, mini-fictions we are ceaselessly tinkering with, more habitual than stable? What if self is multiple and not singular? What if personhood is just some amalgamation of characters we adopt to protect ourselves and can barely keep the lid on? What if the customer I am when I am chatting with my barista were to meet the teacher my students see every week, or what if Yood in love were suddenly to switch places with Yood meeting with his tax preparator? And what if recognizing this multiplicity of self were not some crisis in postmodernity (two’s company, one’s a crowd), but a platform for really letting identity go wild, celebrating the Sybil that is embedded in every one of us? What if we were all like Jaimie Warren?

Because Jaimie Warren is like identity getting a good goosing, personhood on steroids. She calls her largest series of photographs to date Self Portraits, but I’m not having any of that—maybe Selves Portraits, though. She is present in each and every one, usually brassy, up-tempo, a character and sometimes a caricature in search of a narrative, explosive, like all Mardi Gras, all the time. You get the sense of sheer exhiliratory frenzy in much of her work, existence writ large, and effusiveness über alles. Personality—even if differing and contradictory ones!—explodes from Warren’s images, whether she immerses you in a field of face or pulls you into a constructed but exaggerated fiction that always rings stunningly true. Her innate likeability is important in this; Warren has a comfort level in her face and body and always gazes toward the camera with command and assuredness.

Inevitably, Warren is compared to Cindy Sherman (b. 1954), that other incredible chameleon in contemporary art, another person who superbly displays herself in endless character roles, a consummate actress who finally tells us a great deal about who we are but very little about who she is, except that she is extremely smart. (One definition of a postmodern celebrity is someone who shamelessly exhibits him- or herself while revealing nothing.) But there are differences: Sherman, more than twenty-five years older than Warren, is still seduced by the modernist concept of the artist as expert performer, by a kind of internal craftspersonship, each photograph the residue of systematic planning and orchestration, carefully composed and constructed, somehow staged and reeking with high production values and the hallowed processes of Art. Warren on the other hand, offers all of this on the fly, so to speak, as if we are catching not a stilled theatrical performance, but life as she and her friends prefer to live it—ebullient, Baroque, chaotic, impetuous, extreme twenty-somethings on the rampage, with a kind of life-velocity that is infectious. If Cindy Sherman is Meryl Streep or Lee Miller, then Jaimie Warren is Cyndi Lauper or Phyllis Diller (that latter retro grouping no accident, as there is a vague sepia feeling to a lot of Warren’s work, that sense of cibachromes starting to curl and brown a bit at the edges, a 1970s kind of groovy flip). Costumes, wigs, face painting (if personhood is malleable and changeling, why not race and ethnicity as well, or is this more an exaggeration of the principles of facial adornment and cultural traditions of women’s beautification?), and more—all collude in images that extend but never supplant palpability. It is no surprise that Warren also created and regularly performs with Whoop Dee Doo, an insurrective and motley group of entertainers, functioning as a latter-day commedia dell’arte.

I believe in every Jaimie Warren I encounter (unless, of course, I were to meet the “real” one). I have seen these women out of the corner of my eye, swept up in their own world, with me, a voyeur, catching a glimpse of a fully realized drama that will only be over for me when I turn away. Some are surprisingly staid and delicate, much truer than truth, vulnerable and poignant, but most have that gleeful release that only happens when two good friends look at one another, a momentary collusive intimacy that can only become permanent when one of them is holding a camera. Part of what will undoubtedly remain the early-twenty-first-century aura of Warren’s work is that she is among the first generation of artists who have really known nothing other than digital photography. Older artists such as Sherman who employed film had built-in psychological governors: film costs money, processing requires time and money, there was a significant delay between taking a photograph and being able to see what you had done. But digital photography is immediate and pretty much complete, the way impatient contemporary culture likes it, everything all at once. The person holding the camera in these self-portraits isn’t Jaimie Warren, however. Even she can’t be in two places at once. Her role as “creator” of these images happens later, in selecting which images to print. Here instead we see Warren as subject, as performer perhaps literally being shot from the hip of a trusted friend. These images, all of them, are so democratic with formats so similar—all are printed precisely the same size, all are articulated horizontally—that we turn from one to another (and I intend this as a compliment) as if watching a slide show on Flickr, enjoying one while anticipating the inevitable next, a stream of imagery that will wash over us whether we are passive or active.

While taking pictures of oneself might be a satisfactory pursuit for Cindy Sherman for more than thirty years, it is not enough for Jaimie Warren. There is just so much stuff in life, so many interesting things everywhere you look, so much happening all at once, especially if you are as relentlessly an accelerated human being as Warren certainly is. I like to imagine her as pure pedal to the metal, stalking our world with an extraordinary aperture to the racing pulse of life, giddy with delight at finding so many things that are funny, and radiating with the feverish pulse of the human comedy. The world may not be endless desire but it can certainly be endless play, and Warren’s sympathy for its tender absurdities is of the highest order. She has those perfect instincts for when the world suddenly reveals itself, whether in an oozy and excessive mess of barbeque chicken or the mugging faces of gleeful children, in the delight of a somewhat shrink-wrapped friend or the irresistible excess of an oversize slice of treacly cake. Like Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968), another artist who seems to have a digital camera as a permanent appendage of his body, Warren possesses an inexhaustible appetite for every genre of life and in the aggregate provides a fresh and yet intense overview of the ceaseless possibilities and quickened energies of contemporary youth culture.

Oh, identity! Jaimie Warren’s work seems to argue that identity is so important that everyone should have at least a dozen, that the personal is polyphonic, that diversity begins with self. Role-playing becomes either overt or covert, her work suggests, and since you in Kansas City or me in Chicago are probably going to be photographed, whether we know it or not, many times today, we might as well give some thought to the possibilities of giving them a good show. We need always to be ready for our close-up, and Warren’s project offers the realization that even if self is now some constellation of fragments, each one of them can be perfect and complete in and of itself. God must love Jaimie Warren, because He or She made so many of them.

James Yood

James Yood teaches art history at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and directs its New Arts Journalism program. He is Chicago correspondent to Artforum and Art on Paper, and writes regularly for Aperture and GLASS magazines.