Forever in Character: An Interview With Jaimie Warren

For the uninitiated, walking into the current show at The Hole gallery might be shocking and confusing, but give it a second and you’ll start smiling. Jaimie Warren’s brightly painted and Papier-mâché’d world of self-portraits and recreated celebrity internet memes is, on the surface, bizarre and silly (and maybe a little gross), but behind the both literal and figural masks are real ideas about fame, pop culture, art, and social mores. Take for example, her recreation of Fra Angelico’s High Altarpiece of San Domenico in Fiesole, a massive religious Renaissance painting Jaimie remade on video in a Kansas City gymnasium with what seems like hundreds of her friends dressed as her, her mother’s, and her grandmother’s favorite celebrities, singing along to Dionne Warwick’s “That’s What Friends Are For” off-key (which makes it that much better). You gotta see it to believe it. Because she approaches art from such an interesting and new perspective, her work may sometimes have the feel of outsider art, yet it’s anything but. Jaimie takes this silliness seriously, working unrelentingly with a smile on her face, and her art is the most fun I’ve had in a gallery all year. It closes May 4th, so hurry!

Christian Storm: Hey Jaimie, the show looks amazing! I was blown away the full Fra Angelico piece. I remember seeing it when it was only one frame. How long did that take you? 
Jaimie Warren: Thanks, Christian! The first frame you saw in last year’s VICE Photo Issue, which you edited, and that’s where the whole thing started. I was so incredibly lucky to have VICE‘s support to help me make that piece. It was such an ambitious project, compared to all of my prior work, with over 200 characters in the end. We handmade almost all of the costumes and wigs, and we also shot it not only as photographs, but as a 5-channel music video where all of the characters come to life! I had so much help in making the work, including a lot of my collaborators from the variety show I co-direct, Whoop Dee Doo. Lee Heinemann, Lindsey Griffith, Sara Haug, and several others helped create all of the costumes and wigs, and Matt Roche created a 5-channel audio masterpiece. Where as when you guys got it, it was a static single frame, the full piece is shown as a music video at the Hole, which is a really crazy way to see it. 

In total, it was five shoots and took a little over four months to complete. It was crazy to orchestrate all of these people, but it was made in Kansas City, which has a truly fantastic and supportive arts community, and this piece is pretty reflective of that.
What was the impetus to place it in the construct of classical piece of art, like a Renaissance painting? I know you tend to look towards pop culture for inspiration and influence more than to pure highbrow fine art, yet this sits squarely within an art historical context.
Well, in 2012 I started re-making all of these found Photoshopped images and re-creating them as self-portraits without using Photoshop. I would find them in these strange online contests that are sort of aimed at people who are bored at work. The outcome is often disturbing and/or incredible. I did about a dozen remakes of images where people altered images from art history, like placing Santa Claus in an ancient Egyptian painting or Yoda in a Bouguereau, or painting sexy bikinis on abstract women in a Picasso, so it stemmed from that. This remake of a 15th Century Fra Angelico painting is the first time I tried my own hand at it and created a parody composition on my own instead of using one I found. In the middle panel is myself as Missy Elliot in her giant infamous inflated garbage bag costume replacing the Christ figure dressed in all white. The outer panels have all of my favorite male celebs (including seventeen Michael Jacksons), and the 2nd and 4th panel celebs were chosen by my Mom and Grandma.

Other than it being a very nice gesture, why did you decide to include your mother and grandmother in the choosing of celebrities?
When I was first given the offer to do the project, I was visiting my family in Wisconsin, and though family visits can sometimes be excruciating, this time was more fun than most because I spent most of the time hanging out at my parent’s biker bar, which is in a Milwaukee suburb and my sister is the manager. Hanging out at the bar is fun, but usually when I’m home, they put me to work and are super stressed out about the Friday night fish fry or something like that. My grandpa had just passed away, though, so I was spending an abnormally large amount of time with my grandma, and it made me want to find out more about her when she was a kid. I coaxed her to make a list of all of her favorite celebs, and it conjured up some pretty cool stories. Same thing happened with my Mom. It’s weird how it’s so hard to imagine your parents, or especially your grandparents, as ever being young. But everything came together when my Grandma told me she loved Jennifer Lopez because of American Idol. When you are mixing J-Lo with Groucho Marx, Liberace and Raggedy Ann, things start to look really good and creepy!

Oh, man, that is a bizarre crew. At what point in your career did you realize that your obsession with celebrity culture and with the Internet could be mined for artistic expression? Was there a conscious moment when you said, “Hell yeah, I’m going to recreate these celebrity memes, and damn it, it’s art too!”
[Laughs] Yes, I think there were a few moments like that. I had been taking self-portraits for about ten years, sort of awkwardly inserting myself into different subcultures, and always making weird costumes and wanting to create nonsensical scenarios, and then on top of that, I was co-directing Whoop Dee Doo, working with African dance troupes and Civil War re-enactors and drag queens and Tibetan drummers and high schoolers. I think that years of doing that, paired with getting awarded a free studio space in Kansas City and being asked to have a really large-scale exhibition all prompted a new way of working. I had never focused on a real studio practice, but I had been pulling together weird Internet images for years, and it all just clicked. I have been working on it non-stop ever since, and now I want the work to continue to get bigger, better and weirder!
Unlike most art that deals with the Internet now-a-days, stuff that views the web sardonically from a perch above, your work shows an honesty and a respect for your subjects and for the web users (going so far as to include the screen names of the original image creators). How do you think you achieve that lack of irony? Is it a deliberate decision you make?
Even though it’s obvious that I am doing these with a sense of humor, I definitely want to give credit to the people that made the original pairings and puns and Photoshop work. I genuinely think ideas like “Tuna Turner” and “Chicken Tikka MaSalvador Dali” are totally genius and I want to make sure people know that I am not the creative genius that came up with that stuff. I would be a total jerk if I acted like those were my ideas. Also, there are a gazillion of these images to choose from, and I am always picking the ones I recreate because I have some sort of personal connection to the subject. Usually, I’m picking celebrities that I have great admiration for, so these are like little homages to people that I am really infatuated with.


Does art on (and about) the Internet versus art in a white-walled gallery, and its translation from one to the other, ever come into your mind? What do you think happens, if anything, when you move things from the Internet into the physical gallery space? 
Although I am sure there are many opinions on this, my hope and intention is that making art about the web and bringing it to a gallery makes the work even more appealing and accessible to both an art and non-art audience. I think it amps up the humor in the show, but it also makes it easy to digest and relate to. I think it’s fantastic to think that in the show open right now, an 80-year-old woman can see Betty Boop and a 13-year-old can see a re-made .gif from a gore-y horror movie. I am always a bit conflicted about art spaces and where to exhibit the work because of where the source imagery is derived from, but I also really take what I am making very seriously and it means a lot to me. Because of the humor and DIY look to the work, and because of all of the issues it may bring up – from internet and pop culture to gender, race, drag, celebrity, and so on, I feel like it is a good context to be placed in so that people can really consider the thought and time put into each piece.

That makes a lot of sense. The gallery space usually promotes a thoughtfulness about the stuff inside, so it forces people to not just laugh about your work, but to think about it too. Ok, last question: I’ve always wondered: with all these elaborate sets, is your house/studio a constant psychedelic messy utopia?
It is indeed! Besides becoming somewhat of a hoarder – if you look closely you can often see certain props, wigs and costumes being reused or re-appropriated in more than one photo- there is always the weirdest collection of items on my desk at one time. I often take a picture of it because it’s so funny. Like bouquets of fake flowers, pixi stix, a hat and wig for the guitarist Slash, carpet padding, tapioca pudding, a Freddy Krueger glove, a RuPaul wig and some fake poop. All with Jon and Kate Plus 8 playing in the background! 

Christian Storm is a photo editor and creative professional located in New York City.

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