Cameron Jamie: Suburban Apocalypse as Theater
David Bowie said he decided to become a rock star in order to leave his native suburban neighborhood. Matt Groening became a cartoon star by turning his suburbia experience into The Simpsons. Once standing for the utopia of a peaceful life, it has become the site of a zombie apocalypse (witness the comedy film Shaun of the Dead (2004)). Now Cameron Jamie’s observations on suburban desperation make for good theater also in contemporary art.
Since his international breakthrough in the exhibition Let’s Entertain (Au-délá du spectacle) at Centre Pompidou, Paris in 2000, an array of his works has been under review by some of the major art venues back home. His video works Spook House (1997-2000), BB(2000), Kranky Klaus(2002-3) and more recently JO (2004), featuring music by Japanese musician Keiji Haino, are on view at this year’s version of the Whitney Biennial under the banner title ‘Day for Night’(through May 28th). The Wrong Gallery – a prankish exhibition project launched by curators Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick, who also organized the 2006 edition of the Berlin Biennale 4, includes Cameron Jamie in its talent roster. Now his most comprehensive solo show in America is to be mounted this summer (July 16th-October 18th) at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.
Cameron Jamie was a suburban kid trapped in a sleepy working-class neighborhood in southern California. He describes his childhood in his hometown, San Fernando Valley, as something like a mental confinement. Thanks to the Northridge earthquake, he was able to escape from suburbia in 1994, eventually into Paris, France, ‘the city’ of culture and sophistication and surely a nice place to work on clearing his suburban childhood backlog. But then dreary suburbia is everywhere, even in Paris.
There are backyard wrestlers, Austrian mountainfolk in their traditional pre–Christmas „Perchten“ dance and French Neo-Nazis as seen through the eyes of a home video ethnographer in search of the odd. Primitive are the others, we learn from Cameron Jamie, and they are now no longer in remote continents, as was the case with 19th century colonialists, but in our own backyard. While the likes of Picasso found the ‘primitive’ an inspiration for artistic renewal, here we get to see oddities mainly for their oddity-value, and one of them is Jamie himself: in his self-portrayal video The New Life (1996), the artist disguises himself as a wrestler dressed in long Johns and a self-made mask and engages in some clumsy two-some action with a Michael Jackson look-alike.
Cameron Jamie’s drawings are self-portraits to his statement that his “inside had died and what had been buried come out as zombies.” He doesn´t do all of his zombie drawings by himself though. In the Maps and Composite Actions series, produced in 2003, he collaborated with Dutch graphic artist Erik Wielaert, who illustrated scenes which have been vocally described by the artist. Dressed up as Dracula with a large comforter, he is depicted as a lonesome poseur in a large black cape and white socks in a bizarre LA taxi scene. In Composite Action 2, Dracula is roaming in the suburban night street on a white horse, perhaps inspired by horrid images of Rip Van Winkle in The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow. Composite Action 3 depicts a scene in a 24-hour supermarket, where the artist enters as a limping hunchback Dracula and spooks late evening shoppers.
His drawings are linked to his videos and performances. Inspired by images of goats, devil masks, and spilt gut, there are remote resemblances to the Graffiti Art of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the expressive scribbles by Art Brut master Jean Dubuffet, or occasionally to Cy Twombly. Some of more recent drawings from 2004-2005 have taken on more in the manner of stream-of-consciousness sketches consisting of thin continuous lines with no distinguishable beginning or end. Doodles used to be preparatory scribbles for the creative mind. But for Jamie drawings are annotations to his videotapes that suburbs are indeed odd and folk rituals are primitive.
*This article originally appeared in Contemporary21 no. 83 (Special issue on Drawing, 2006).