In a city known for its dreams, West Cypress is a street where people actually make things. There’s a tile showroom on the corner, at San Fernando, across from a discretely demarcated contract manufacturer of beauty supplies and cleaning products. The one-block stretch between San Fernando and the riverbed of train tracks that runs parallel to the 5 — this is west Glendale — is lined with low, windowless, brick and stucco buildings surrounded by small, tightly packed parking lots. There’s a machine shop, an auto-body repair, and an inauspiciously dingy outfit promising “Elegant Foam Design.” By midday, the street is a sea of double-parked delivery trucks, with mechanics, contractors and other workers assembling around their fenders to confer over matters sure to elude the likes of one who graduated with an art-history degree.
At the end of this block, just before the street right-angles into another, is an operation that would probably blend in with all the others, but for the hipsterish youth of those milling around its open garage door and the striking peculiarity of the objects scattered across its driveway: a female mannequin, for instance, which appears to be turning into a tree, with flesh of barklike foam and long, craggy fingers reaching skyward; a collection of hollow plastic noses, each about 3 feet long; and a clear resin cast of a human head, around the size of a small coffee table, whose notably bulbous backside distinguishes it, in shop parlance, as one of “the buttheads.”
This is ground zero of what the Weekly’s Doug Harvey once referred to as “the Jim Shaw/Marnie Weber extended utopian worker vortex”: a sprawling studio operation that, thanks to the mounting success of its two principals and the ravenous state of the art market, has swelled in recent years to contract with nearly two dozen assistants, half of them full-time. The 5,000-square-foot space is long and relatively narrow, with a sculpture shop toward the front, paintings in the back, and a cluster of smaller, enclosed rooms to the left: a rehearsal studio that doubles, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, as a yoga room; an administrative office; a long hallway lined with shelves of books and records; a tracing room; a costume room; and a playroom for Shaw and Weber’s 8-year-old daughter, Colette.
The artists, who’ve been married for 14 years, moved into the space in 2004, merging their operations (though not their work itself, which has always been mutually sympathetic but distinct) after years of working in separate wings of their own Eagle Rock home. Recently, Weber has opted to disengage herself, renting her own studio in Altadena, closer to both her principal costumer and Colette’s school, though the couple will continue to share the sculpture facilities and many of the same assistants.
“Marnie didn’t like the chaos too much,” Shaw explains when I ask him about the move. Weber’s decision is easy to understand, as I look around. There are nearly a dozen assistants in the studio on the first afternoon I visit, each engaged in a different project. The sculpture department is strewn with body parts (heads, noses, legs, ears and a massive set of testicles); stacks of canvases line many of the walls; and a room-size installation of tree girls and animals takes up much of the back corner, waiting to be photographed for an upcoming proposal. (The paintings and body parts are Shaw’s; the installation is Weber’s.) Several in-process canvases wait on easels nearby, alongside an interactive contraption known as the Body Organ (a massage table with blanket that functions like an electronic keyboard, generating music when a body beneath the blanket is being massaged). This, among scores of chairs, worktables, shelves, storage bins, tools, materials, and a table scattered with sodas and snacks. The assistants themselves have a calm, concentrated air, and, but for a low, steady drone of rock music, ?the atmosphere is actually fairly quiet. The clutter, however — a veritable universe of stuff held together, it seems, by only the faintest trace of organizational gravity — generates a noise of its own.
When asked if he enjoys the chaos himself, Shaw replies with some weariness, “Oh, not particularly. But, you know, what choice do I have? Chaos or nothing, I don’t know.”
The phenomenon of assistant-driven production is nothing new — the tradition of the atelier dates back centuries — nor is the scale of this operation unique. Mike Kelley currently employs around 17 people, and both Chris Burden and Paul McCarthy have large staffs. A strong market demands prodigious output from anyone who has reached these artists’ level of success, and the art-fair-dominated structure of today’s market ensures that that demand is all but perpetual. Whereas 10 years ago an artist may have had a period of months to prepare a complete body of work for an individual gallery show, today that artist is also expected to provide individual pieces for the gallery’s ongoing schedule of fairs. A few dozen additional highly skilled hands — nearly all of the Shaw/Weber assistants are artists themselves — make this kind of production possible. In today’s artistically heterogeneous climate, furthermore, diversification is a virtue, with traditional media affiliations typically trumped by concept-driven projects. A cadre of assistants expands an artist’s skill set exponentially, allowing that artist to move into realms far beyond his or her own technical capacities. Both Shaw and Weber, for instance, attribute their increasing incorporation of sculpture to the presence of assistants who were capable of building it better than they could.