KRANKY KLAUS In this video, Jamie makes you feel you’ve witnessed a violent crime.
Cameron Jamie’s legend precedes him — like the tale of when he wrestled Michael Jackson. As the story goes, back in the mid ’90s, Jamie often spent his lunch hour outside the Hollywood Wax Museum watching a Michael Jackson impersonator. One day, Jamie asked him, “Hey, you want to wrestle?” And Michael Jackson said, “Sure.”
“Honest to God,” Jamie insists when he tells me about it at MIT’s List Visual Art Center, where the 37-year-old’s first American museum retrospective, organized by Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center, is on view through July 8.
In the resulting 1996 video, The New Life, they face off in Jamie’s Los Angeles apartment. Jamie resembles a scrawny version of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, wearing longjohns, a rubber novelty butt, and a creepy self-portrait mask that he commissioned from a wrestling-mask maker in Mexico. Punctuated by Jackson’s trademark squeals, their grappling, grunting, and panting has a sexual air. It nails our craving for connection with pop celebrities and the wondrous strangeness of “Wacko Jacko.” Underneath lurk questions of how we forge our identities — Jamie with his masked shenanigans, Jackson with surgery, and the look-alike impersonator with his act. Jamie recalls, “I asked him, ‘So is this like the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?’ He said, ‘No, not at all. I once had to do a striptease for a rich Saudi Arabian oil tycoon.’ ”
Jamie grew up in nowhereville Los Angeles suburbs, shuttling between divorced parents, hanging out in his bedroom playing records, and drawing. For fun he photographed spook houses and suburban front lawns turned into cemeteries for Halloween. He was fascinated with stunts and costumes and creature features, with the odd amateur rituals of America, with reimagining yourself into a more magical life. He plumbs something particularly LA, where divisions between mundane reality and fantasy become muddled because the region’s landscape appears regularly in films and television.
His early-’90s piece Untitled (Eight Portraits) got its start when he had a street artist draw his caricature with a Bart Simpson doll he’d found. He paid one artist after another to copy the image, so that the caricature evolves into a portrait of a mother and child in pastel, then oil, then pancake, then styrofoam, then painted photo. These artworks are godawful, and funny, and they embody a catchy idea: in our awkwardness and mistakes we find the messy root of our humanity.
“Cameron Jamie” surveys his photos, surreal drawings, and melting-face monoprints as well as commissioned masks and paintings. Serving for the most part as relics of actions and ideas, these don’t reward extended viewing. Where Jamie excels is in his documentary films, which are shown here in a continuous loop — set aside two hours to watch them all.