Jaimie Warren is by no means the first – or the best – artist to embrace self-portraiture as an artistic methodology, but she certainly looks to be having the most fun doing it. An uneven selection of forty-two of her droll, scrappy photographs constituted “Don’t You Feel Better,” her recent solo debut at Higher Pictures; the title, like the exhibition, betrayed a cathartic impulse at once frustrating and entirely refreshing.
Warren’s work invokes a lineage of other female self-portraitists, most obviously Cindy Sherman and Nikki S. Lee. Whereas Lee, however, often dresses to pass – as stereotyped figures or subcultural archetypes – Warren primps to fail; whether made up as a scaly carny (Untitled [Self Portrait, Smoking Mermaid], 2006) or a sleepy, sultry girl on a plane (Untitled [Self Portrait, Tupac], 2006), she is everywhere, always herself. If Sherman and Lee are character actors, Warren is a vaudeville expressionist.
One particularly emblematic image, Untitled (Slef Portrait, Decoration Girls, Tokyo), 2007, which show Warren standing miserably apart from a gaggle of teenage Harajuku girls, seems a send-up of Lee’s “Projects,” 1997-2001, in which the Korean-born artist poses amid generic social groups, attempting to masquerade as one of their own. Warren’s goofy juxtaposition of her own face amid a messy display of Halloween masks in the two Untitled (Self Portrait, Mask) photographs, both 2007, could be a stab at Sherman’s abjection pictures; her garish Untitled (Self Portrait, Blue Mexican), 2007, a flamboyant riff on Martin Parr’s series “Common Sense,” 1995-99. Warren’s Normal Girl photographs, in which she gleefully dons “normal” outfits and flourishes a fake French manicure, also gesture toward parody. But that such pictures were hung amid other, less obviously satirical ones suggests that the artist considers such examples of “criticality” as instances taken from a broader array of quasi-documentary snapshots rather than as discrete bodies of work.
Tackling the history of pictures with a quotidian joie de vivre, these photographs rub shoulders with critique but stop short of any programmatic declarations. A more succinct exhibition could have made a more convincing statement, but this one’s rather indiscriminate arrangement of pictures, by turns insipid and inspired, is arguably more compelling. What, the viewer wonders, might be the reference of theoretical underpinning of Untitled (Self Portrait, Black Cat), 2007, in which Warren, sporting sunglasses and a grin, pokes her face through the cutout head of a painted feline? Surely one could be found, but does it matter? Seen through Warren’s lens, such questions seem pretentious and vaguely embarrassing. Don’t you feel better?
Warren’s haphazard deployment of artifice and irony speaks to a certain established, perhaps uniquely American, code of authenticity. Why are we not surprised to find that Warren, based in Kansas City, Missouri, has her own wildly inclusive, kid-friendly, traveling variety troupe (called Whoop Dee Doo) that features an outrageous cast of oddball characters? Of course she has a fun-loving rock band that played the night of the exhibition’s opening, and of course the police arrived shortly into the set to bust up the party. She is Jack Smith by way of the B-52s and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. Her originality has precedents. If Warren had never been born, John Waters would have invented her. Or so, perhaps, she’d like us to think; she is an earnest student of camp.
Contrived and yet wholly authentic, Warren’s images seem representative of a period in which cameras have become principal facilitators of self-presentation. Once can’t help but imagine her works among the vast corpus of self-portraits free-floating around the Internet; a few Jaimie Warrens might make this world of Tila Tequilas and lonelygirl15s more interesting.
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