New york, nyAmerican Medium
November 1 – December 15, 2018
When I enter American Medium, the small artist-run gallery on a Chelsea block studded with blue-chip behemoths, Travis Fitzgerald, one of the three owners, is sitting behind the reception desk, alone. He tells me to take a turn of Jaimie Warren’s solo show One Moment in Time (2018) first and then he will walk through it with me. I go in and stand over a sculpture made of cumulous bags of trash, empty Solo cups, dried leaves and other refuse, studying the urine-yellow dregs of potassium carbonate inside a Cup Noodle, when suddenly the art moves, scaring me. When I regain my composure, I see a human face amidst the rubbish and recyclables. Fitzgerald tricked me. Warren has been inside the work all this time.
Warren’s sculpture-cum-costume is modeled after Marjory the Trash Heap, a character on the Muppets spinoff Fraggle Rock. Warren says she stayed in costume for the opening the night before, and will wear it again for a performance she has planned in the space later that month. An instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” engineered by Warren and her collaborator Matt Roche, plays on the gallery’s sound system. Warren loves Stevie Wonder. She’s designing the upcoming performance as a tribute to him, toying with the idea of eulogy. “I know it’s weird,” Warren says—at sixty-eight, Wonder is very much alive—but her concern is disarmingly earnest. She is still shaken by the deaths of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bowie, and George Michael, all of whom she idolized in the same way she does Wonder.
At the back of the gallery, as if facing off with Marjory, stands a battalion of mixed-media puppet-monsters inspired by a presence that is decidedly more lowbrow: the Instagram account @shitgardens. Warren dons a pair of bespoke orange gloves and slips behind an enormous pickle-colored daisy to show me what it can do. Under a nose and eyes composed of Matisse-like lines, her hands and fingers emerge from the flower’s pie-hole mouth and gyrate like a series of tangerine tongues. The entire sculpture comes to life and she moves on to a fish-like hedge with spiny teeth and googly eyes. There’s a different pair of gloves for this one, which Warren slides on to work the puppet while she tells me more about the performance. She’s enlisted twenty three actors from ages fourteen to fifty, who will embody the motley cast of characters Warren has created for the space.
Identity and identification are critical to Warren’s project. She is simpatico with the outré, the demonized, the taboo. When she is not making her own art, she and Roche travel the country as the collective Whoop Dee Doo, which engages underserved youth in the performance-based installation that is part and parcel of her art. On a TV monitor mounted to one of the gallery walls, a quirky video interpretation of Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” made with high-school students in Alaska is running. In it, Warren plays an anthropomorphized rock. That kids relate to her is unsurprising. She is not afraid to act childlike, and much of the success of her art is due to her aversion to the rarefied. She does not want the pressure of being collected to influence her process.
But she is also human, and indifference has its limits. Most of her other installations have had to have been destroyed after closing. These were composed onsite, rapidly, giving them a slapdash edge that Warren usually likes. One Moment in Time is different. With the exception of Marjory, its components were constructed elsewhere, granting Warren more time to attend to them. Preservation has also been taken into account.
As she puts it, “I’m trying to up my game a little bit on the materials and the way I present stuff, to have it look a little less like I made this with my ten-year-old cousin. Although I do love that look.”
Technically, Shitgardens Wall of Scary Plants (2018) could be split into individual pieces and sold: the plant-puppets already have the hanging hardware. And there are paintings, too, though these—laser-cut from wood board fit to the contours of the pop culture icons and B-horror movie characters Warren sketches in her notebook—are not the strong-suit of the exhibition.
The paintings are the only ones that Warren has ever shown, because they’re the only ones she’s ever done. Arranged in a series of tableaux entitled “You Take My Breath Away,” 1, 2, and 3 (2018), they originated as studies for her other work and may have been better off left that way. At best, the paintings hint at potential. At worst, they come across like enlarged Tattly-tattoos, novelties that lack intention. It may be that Warren’s work craves the third dimension, or that it craves Warren. Unlike her paintings, her photographs are all self-portraits, which work because her own exuberant personality is infectious. This energy is absent from the tableaux.
Before I leave, I tell Warren that her art has made me happy in a way I have not felt for a long time. She is not surprised: a lot of people comment on the joy inherent in her work. “I think with the performance you’ll feel that tenfold. I feel confident in saying that. I was tearing up yesterday thinking about it in a coffee shop as I was finalizing the whole layout, listening to the music, being like this is gonna be crazy.” Here, I have to disagree, because Warren’s work is overwhelming, eccentric, outside the bounds of the normal, but it is not crazy. In fact, Warren performs carnivalesque realities no less insane than our own. If anything, her art is an emollient, softening the hard-edged nature of everyday life.
Nina Wolpow is a writer in New York. She is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her nonfiction work has been published by Vox, Refinery29, BuzzFeed, Teen Vogue, Rolling Stone, and Bon Appétit.