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Interview

February 6, 2008

Marnie Weber

Los Angeles-based artist Marnie Weber makes genre-defying work. Her flights of eccentric fancy are part costume drama, part opera, and part film and photography; but the organizing principle of her art is collage. Artkrush contributing editor Shana Nys Dambrot asked Weber for a peek behind the curtain and talked to the artist about her use of disparate sources, visual idioms, and experiences, and her love for the crafted object.

AK:  What was your first approach to collage?

MW:  My early years were spent making limited-edition records of my music, for which each cover was a different collage. I would do hundreds of these, using found paper materials and women cut out of men's skin magazines. I did three releases of a hundred records each. That was a real boot camp for collage-making; it honed my skills and taught me that collage isn't about throwing things together, but being specific about imagery and combining elements to create psychological metaphors. For me, it's also about storytelling and theatrical narrative. Those early collages, although interesting visually, lacked the operatic drama that I try to achieve now — but that was when I began to view all my other work as figuratively collaged together. The music was a lyrical, sort of arty pop, but since I was recording it myself at home on a reel-to-reel 8-track, I thought of it as a form of collage as well. My performances would feature props and costumes pieced together from thrift stores, homemade video backdrops, and music and absurdist spoken word between the characters. Collage was the perfect approach to express my homegrown, DIY sensibility.

I still try to carry on with that homemade aesthetic, even though I have assistants and the theatrical productions have gotten larger. When you look at the costumes, you can see the loving craftsmanship that goes into making them. That's also true with my collages. Every piece is hand cut and glued by me. Nothing is rephotographed or reprinted, so every collage is unique. The only print editions I do are stills from my films. I really want to show that the collages are labors of love, with that feeling of reverence that can only come across through the human touch.

AK:  When did you first become interested in using original photography as a major element of your collages?

MW:  I was first doing collages from found sources — scenes from old travel magazines, naked figures from skin magazines, animals from pet-raising booklets — and the landscapes and characters of my collages seemed really separate from those in the Super 8 films I was making. I had never thought of myself as a photographer, so it was a big leap to take my own photographs. I took a camera on location when I was shooting a desert film and shot some landscapes that I thought would make good backgrounds. I blew these images up — much larger than I had ever worked with before — and then collaged naked figures onto them. These figures developed into my costumed film characters. Now, the films and collages work together in unison; to me, the collages are like the mental dreamscapes the film characters inhabit.

AK:  How are constituent elements transformed by being recontextualized in collage?

MW:  For me, it's the juxtaposition of those elements that transforms their individual meanings. Objects juxtaposed together can create metaphors and tension that otherwise wouldn't have existed, very much like poetry. I like to think of it through the metaphor of actors onstage with props. For example, someone with, say, a broom; done properly in collage or onstage, the broom becomes a metaphor for that character's motives — depending on the mood and physical actions, it may sweep away what one thinks is unclean about oneself or demonstrate an obsessive need for control. In my collages, I like to combine props and costumes and stage sets to create some sort of psychological drama; otherwise the collage is just another pretty picture.

AK:  Can you talk about the meaning of iconography in your work — in particular the Sing Me a Western Song exhibition at Patrick Painter in Los Angeles last year?

MW:  The iconography I use usually starts with a specific narrative, from which I choose appropriate settings and characters. Western Song sprung from my interest in the spiritualist movement of the 1850s. Women were finally given a voice publicly on stage, but it was in the context of a sideshow performance — they were put on stage to channel the voices of spirits. I wanted the lead characters, the Spirit Girls, to become modern mediums for the movement. The spiritualist movement started on the East Coast, but I wanted to personalize it, and a western town seemed like the perfect setting for this to happen.

AK:  Your artistic cosmology is very broad, but certain threads run through — innocence, memory, the hand of the artist. Is there one concept that underlies everything else?

MW:  The main concept I work with is the idea of transformation; it's the foundation of all my films. Natural transformations are fascinating to me — the way the same tree photographed over different seasons can appear to be entirely different. Human transformations are just as important. My characters undergo transformations born from searching; they lose their innocence, they become stronger or weaker. As long as they change, I'm happy.

AK:  What are you working on now?

MW:  I'm finishing up a large installation called The Campfire Song; the destination isn't confirmed yet. It has the five Spirit Girls from Western Song sitting around a campfire with woodland creatures — a big, dirty bunny, a warthog, an owl, a crazy bear, and human trees. All the characters are costumes on mannequins, and they're listening to a single-edition record of my music, which is playing through various speakers with forest sound effects. I wanted to do a piece that expressed my reverence for a single piece of music and for the vinyl record as an object. Outside, I'll perform as an old lady holding the record in a rocking chair. It's a really elaborate presentation.

AK:  How does collage compare with other media, and how do you see your practice as a whole?

MW:  Photography, the stagecraft of the setups, sculptural work, music, and performance — these media are related through the overall narrative. I began to develop that concept during my years as a solo performer. I was the main character, going through transformations before an audience, and I learned to use props, costumes, and backdrop films to convey my ideas. To succeed, I would have to see, feel, or hear an emotional response from the audience. I still try to achieve that kind of connection in my collage and film work — it might be delayed, but I still hear about how people respond to the work, and that's fulfilling.

Marnie Weber's work will be featured in Patrick Painter Gallery's booth at the Armory Show in New York in March. She is currently working on two gallery shows for the fall, with a circus theme for Praz-Delavallade Gallery in Paris and a barnyard theme for Bernier/Eliades Gallery in Athens.

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