Review

Girls Gone Wild

Marnie Weber: Sing Me a Western Song
Patrick Painter Inc., East and West Galleries
Santa Monica, CA
Kristina Newhouse
Marnie Weber, A Western Song, Installation view, East Gallery, 2007.

Marnie Weber, A Western Song, Installation view, East Gallery, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.

In her first show at Patrick Painter, Los Angeles-based artist Marnie Weber presented new large-scale photo collages, sculptures, film stills, and A Western Song (2007), a 24:22 minute film based upon the narrative of her ongoing series, The Spirit Girls. Making their debut two years earlier in a solo show entitled Ghost Love at Rosamund Felsen Gallery, the Spirit Girls are the specters of five adolescents, killed in their prime, who come back to the real world to “express things they weren’t able to express” while they were alive.1 These young heroines have been channeled by members of Weber’s alt-rock band, The SpiritGirls (Weber, Dani Tull, Tamara Sussman, Debbie Spinelli, and Tanya Haden), who gave a live performance in character at a screening of A Western Song at the Hammer Museum’s Billy Wilder Auditorium on May 25, 2007. A new music CD entitled Forever Free (2007) accompanied the multimedia exhibition.

In the development of the Spirit Girl characters, Weber was inspired by the emergence of the Spiritualist movement in mid-19th Century America. Spiritualists believe that the dead survive as spirits and can be spoken to with the help of a medium. The most sensational early practitioners were the Fox Sisters of Hydesville, New York. In 1848, at the ages 11 and 15 respectively, Kate and Margaretta Fox began to hear the dead, who communicated with them through a system of mysterious knocking and popping sounds. Their first visitor, “Mr. Split-foot,” was said to rap out Morse-like codes with his cloven hoof.2 Once their mother had cracked the code of their numerous otherworldly interlocutors, the girls took their show on the road. In 1849, these “wild talents” (a term used to describe young boys and girls with occult powers)3gave their first large-scale public performance at a meeting hall in Rochester. By 1850, the notorious showman P.T. Barnum put the Fox Sisters on display in his museum.

The mediumistic activities of these teenaged “spirit rappers” heralded a new era of flim-flam that would be marked by overt sexual titillation. The Fox Sisters were followed by a bevy of young women who developed a wide array of new acts, from leading seances and ejaculating copious amounts of “ectoplasm” (a substance which looked suspiciously like cotton wool) from various orifices to summoning apparitions that could be touched (and, moreover, groped).4 At many psychical events, the medium would be bound with knotted cords purportedly to thwart trickery. To further assure audiences that the medium had nothing up any of her sleeves, the impresario would often claim the young woman had been thoroughly searched, including inspection of her vagina and rectum.5

Weber evoked some of the unwholesome elements of a 19th century sideshow at Patrick Painter. Her exhibition was broken out into two distinct installations. In the East Gallery, a darkened screening area had been set up for the film, A Western Song. Viewers were encouraged to sit on hay bales that faced a rough-hewn wood framed screen. The screen was flanked by spooky mannequins who were dressed in the costumes of some of the film’s unsavory characters. Bright and cheery by comparison, the West Gallery was ringed by fairy tale-tinged allegorical photo collages that chronicled the recent adventures of the Spirit Girls. At the center of the gallery was a full sized encampment of white-sheeted “ghost-clowns” loafing around on hay bales in funny hats and floppy shoes. Surrounding the ghost-clowns were sculptures of “spirit animals,” many in the undignified trappings of circus acts. The spirit animals were a motley lot, made uncanny because they had been fabricated from foam-cast taxidermy molds and been deprived of such endearing features as fur, toes, eyelids, and ears.

In one corner of the West Gallery a life scale sculpture of a brown bear stood upright upon a rolling circus platform. The Spirit Bear (2007) wore a breastplate with the likeness of the Lead Spirit Girl. Patently labia-like folds at the nexus of the bear’s lower legs suggested its gender is female.

Bears are recurring characters in Weber’s artwork that may allude to the ancient roots of her particular brand of storytelling. The bear was sacred to the Greek goddess Artemis, a formidable maiden-huntress attended by wood nymphs. Daughter of Zeus and sister of Apollo, Artemis represents a later manifestation of the Cretan “Lady of the Wild Things.”6 She has been characterized by Jungians as being close to the “wild, early nature of man.”7As an archetype, Artemis is ruler of those powers that “…still take on animal form in our dreams–the ‘outside’ of the world of culture and consciousness.”8

As might be expected from a creature of the unconscious, the actions of Artemis are sometimes benevolent, sometimes brutal. In the case of the gullible nymph Callisto, raped and impregnated by Zeus, Artemis exacts punishment on her attendant by transforming her into a bear. In one version of the myth, at the prompting of jealous Hera, Artemis then sets a pack of hunting dogs upon Callisto but Zeus takes pity on the nymph and sends her up to the heavens, where she becomes the constellation Ursa Major. In another Greek myth, when the princess Atalanta is abandoned in the wilderness at birth by her parents because she is not a boy, Artemis gives the baby girl to a she-bear to be suckled. Atalanta thrives and becomes herself a powerful maiden-huntress. Artemis may also be found in such Renaissance fairy tales as She-Bear by Giambattista Basile, although her identity is very much sublimated. In this precursor to Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin, the young princess Preziosa flees into the wilderness to escape the incestuous advances of her father and–having placed in her mouth a magical wooden stick given to her earlier by a protective servant/crone figure–is transformed into a bear.

A thematic element shared in all these stories of the she-bear is the notion of chastity as a great power and form of independence, while the loss of virginity represents a corresponding disempowerment from which a young woman may not recover. Escape from culture into the wilderness may provide temporary means for survival. The familiar fairy tales of Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm are chockablock with similar scenarios. There is, however, one caveat in all these stories: things do not bode well for the girl with unruly desires who loses her way and may not have the presence of mind to save herself. The woods are very, very dark.

Surely, Weber intends for her ghoulish heroines to be viewed as innocents. One of the identifying features of the Spirit Girls is their long, unbound hair. In fairy tales such as Rapunzel, maidenhair symbolizes maidenhead.9 In ancient Europe, free-flowing hair not only signified purity, but was also a symbol of wildness, naturalness, and even freedom–in the sense that one may be free from the conventions of society.10

Marnie Weber, Behind the Circus Tent, 2007.

Marnie Weber, Behind the Circus Tent, 2007. Collage on light jet print, 48 x 60 inches.tof the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.

The Spirit Girls are also identified by mid-20th century “Minnie Pearl” dresses, white gloves, mary janes with bobby socks, and straw boaters that put the “folk” back into folklore. By clothing the girls in this fashion, Weber is perhaps intimating that they are rubes as well as innocents. There are parallels between the countrified Spirit Girls and nymphs, the virginal water and woodland spirits of Greek mythology who always seem to get in a bad fix because of their naivete about the ways of the world. In the tradition of fairy tales and mythology, a question arises: Will Weber’s down-home ingenues possess the cunning to save themselves when put to the test?

The answer is found in A Western Song, a film about spiritual quest, loss of innocence, and (maybe) redemption. The character known as the Lead Spirit Girl (portrayed by Weber) breaks rank with the others, abandoning her rustic Airstream trailer to see the world. After witnessing a hallucinatory vision of herself as Ophelia drowned in a murky pond, she disappears. Soon the remaining Spirit Girls are compelled to search for their lost friend. When they arrive at a ghost town, the film cuts away to a Goth satyr with donkey ears who plays the musical saw while his cohort, who resembles a pervy older brother of Porky the Pig, accompanies him on banjo. The two dissuade the Spirit Girls from entering a saloon. Immediately thereafter, a rooster bursts through the saloon doors. This cock waggles and bobs awkwardly for a little while and then collapses, a coarse allusion to the mischief being made with the Lead Spirit Girl inside. In the following scene, an obviously sullied Lead Spirit Girl indulges in a drunken dance at the bar with her new spectral playmates, a tribe of ghost-clowns.

Marnie Weber, Harvest of Flowers, 2007.

Marnie Weber, Harvest of Flowers, 2007. Collage on light jet print, 48 x 60 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.

When the Lead Spirit Girl next appears, she has metamorphosed into a tawdry headliner in a candy-striped carnival tent. Held captive by the satyr and pig (joined by an equally creepy hobo clown), she is stripped to her undergarments, tarted up with clownish face-paint, and bound by flimsy ropes. A close-up of her woozy blue eyes betrays the madness that has apparently taken hold in her. Afterwards, she summons her own spirit, which arises to give a sinuous, Salome-like paranormal performance and then returns to her prostrate body.

Weber leaves open many questions in A Western Song. How much is the Lead Spirit Girl there of her own volition? Her captors make our skin crawl but do not come across as terribly threatening or powerful. The constraints that bind her to her circumstances must be as loose as the ropes they have used to tie her. One is left to ask: how much has been done to her and how much has she done to herself?

Marnie Weber, Airstream Dream, 2007.

Marnie Weber, Airstream Dream, 2007. Collage on light jet print, 40 x 50 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.

When she is ultimately rescued by the Spirit Girls, there is some confusion about her fate. At the end of A Western Song, the Spirit Girls transform themselves by donning animal helmets and then ritually purify their leader by laying flowers at her feet. A different story is told in the collage Afternoon at the Fair (2007), in which the Spirit Girls and the Spirit Bear mourn the dead girl lying on the ground, while a horse-drawn hearse waits nearby. Off in the distance, four ghost-clowns survey the tragedy perched upon clouds like an indifferent Holy Trinity plus one. The contradictions in Weber’s artwork, one might argue, imitate the pervasive narrative fluidity of traditional fairy tales, where details of a story can be changed to suit whatever needs or contingencies are presented.

Various forms of masquerade permeate fairy tales: the crossing of gender or species, the disguising of youth, beauty, or privilege. Masquerade provides benign and temporary conditions under which potentially volatile social hierarchies can be overturned within the rubric of play. In Weber’s exhibition, all the players are masked with the exception of the animals. This implies that none of them is what he or she appears to be, least of all the Spirit Girls. In a highly influential 1929 essay on the topic, psychologist Joan Riviere proposed that women sometimes put on a mask of “womanliness” to avert anxiety.11 Womanliness, she claimed, disguises masculine ambition and serves as a strategy to avert potential retribution should a woman be found in possession of masculinity, “…much as a thief will turn out his pockets and ask to be searched to prove that he has not stolen the goods.”12Making no distinction between what she calls “genuine womanliness” and a more perverse masquerade, Riviere insists that whether “…radical or superficial, they are the same thing,”13 suggesting that all women have worn the mask at some point.

In psychological masquerades involving transvestism, caricatures of masculinity and femininity are expressed as fantastically perverse strategies that make “…evident and manifest one gender stereotype as a way of keeping hidden other gender stereotypes that are felt to be shameful or frightening.”14Homeovestism–the dressing up in the clothes of a same-sex person–has been called a “rather perverse” perversion.15 Just as a female transvestite who dresses like a man may be hiding her feminine longings behind masculinity, a female homeovestite may act or dress in a stereotypically “womanly” fashion because she is unsure of her femininity and afraid to openly acknowledge her masculine strivings.16 As the Lead Spirit Girl, Weber plays a pure bud of youth, plucked at her dewy prime and gone bad. The notion of homeovestism provides insight that Weber perceives her character as neither pure in the first place nor bad in the second–distinctions she both hides in plain view and flaunts with defiance.

Marnie Weber, A Western Song, Installation view, West Gallery, 2007.

Marnie Weber, A Western Song, Installation view, West Gallery, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.

Girls are undoubtedly never as innocent as we like to pretend they are, something that the Surrealists, with their fantasy of the “femme-enfant,” seemed to appreciate fully. This “woman-child”–a wild creature simultaneously naive and sexually seductive–was held up as a tantalizing ideal of femininity. Not unlike the female medium of the previous century, the femme-enfant would act as a guide, leading male Surrealists into the highly sought realm of the unconscious. The epitome of the femme-enfant was Nadja, a beautiful clairvoyant and prostitute who haunted the streets of Paris. This free spirit enchanted Andre Breton, inspiring his thinly veiled autobiographical novel Nadja (1928) in which he developed the notion of “l’amour fou,” the love that transforms life and gives it meaning.17 Ultimately, Breton became impatient with her excesses and abandoned his mentally unstable muse. Not long after, poor Nadja strayed too far from reality in her hallucinatory perambulations and ended up institutionalized and alone. One could argue persuasively that in Sing Me a Western Song the Lead Spirit Girl is an incarnation of Nadja. (Now, would that make Breton the satyr, the pig, the clown, or all three?)

Marnie Weber, The Buffalo, 2007.

Marnie Weber, The Buffalo, 2007. Collage on light jet print, 50 x 40 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.

Will things continue to be dire for the Spirit Girls? If indeed they are back from the other side to express what they found inexpressible in their lifetimes, one wonders when they will become truly mad about their plight and shuck the innocent act. The time is clearly ripe. Their guardian, the Spirit Bear, proffers a menacing sword in her open, outstretched paws. When will the Spirit Girls take back possession of their power by snatching up the weapon and really going wild?

Kristina Newhouse is a contemporary art curator who lives in San Pedro.

Marnie Weber, A Western Song, Installation view, West Gallery, 2007.

Marnie Weber, A Western Song, Installation view, West Gallery, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.

Footnotes

  1. Doug Harvey, “Spirits rock among us: A studio visit with Marnie Weber,” LA Weekly,August 11, 2005, http:www.laweekly.com/index3, p. 1.
  2. Marina Warner, Phantasmagoria:Spirit Visions, Metaphors, and Media into the Twenty-first Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 222.
  3. Ibid., p. 221.
  4. In one notorious case, an apparition named “Katie King” (summoned by 15-year old Florence Cook) captivated the distinguished physicist and inventor William Crookes. At the time, the press ridiculed Crookes, an outspoken proponent of Spiritualism, for embracing Katie “…rather too warmly and too often in the dimness of the seance chamber.” See R.C. Finucane, Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 1996), p. 188.
  5. Ibid., p. 187.
  6. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, Volume I (London: The Folio Society, 2000), p. 88.
  7. Erich Neumann, The Great Mother: Analysis of the Archetype, translated by Ralph Manheim (Princeton, NJ: Bollingen Series/Princeton University Press, 1974), p. 277.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1995), p. 374.
  10. Charles H. Cosgrove, “A woman’s unbound hair in the Greco-Roman world, with special reference to the story of the ‘Sinful Woman’ in Luke 7:36-50,” Journal of Biblical Literature, v. 124, n. 4, p. 681. marnie weber, behind the circus tent, 2007. collage on light jet print, 48 x 60 inches. courtesy of the artist and patrick painter inc. marnie weber, Airstream Dream, 2007. collage on light jet print, 40 x 50 inches. courtesy of the artist and patrick painter inc. marnie weber,harvest of flowers, 2007. collage on light jet print, 48 x 60 inches. courtesy of the artist and patrick painter inc.
  11. Joan Riviere, “Womanliness as masquerade,” Psychoanalysis and Female Sexuality, edited by Dr. Hendrik M. Ruitenbeek (New Haven, Connecticut: College and University Press Services, Inc., 1966), p. 209.
  12. Ibid., p. 212.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Louise J. Kaplan, Female Perversions (New York: Anchor Books, 1991), p. 249.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., p. 251. Marnie Weber, A Western Song, installation view, west gallery, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc. Marnie Weber, A Western Song, installation view, east gallery, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Patrick Painter Inc.
  17. Dawn Ades, “Photography and the Surrealist Text,” L’Amour Fou: Photographyand Surrealism, issued in conjunction with an exhibition held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, September-November, 1985, organized by Rosalind Krauss and Jane Livingston (New York: Abbeville) marnie weber, The Buffalo, 2007. collage on light jet print, 50 x 40 inches. courtesy of the artist and patrick painter inc.
Further Reading