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By Catherine Wagley
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By L.A. Weekly critics
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Though equal counterparts in the Shaw/Weber universe — Sussman, in Cromarty’s family metaphor, is “Marnie’s wife” and Cromarty is “Jim’s wife” — the two women have strikingly different demeanors, which says something about the individual climate surrounding each of their employers. Sussman, 31, is calm, levelheaded and reserved. On this particular day, she wears a cozy, slightly hippyish wool sweater and orders a vegetarian sandwich. Cromarty, a few years younger, wears heavy black eyeliner and hoop earrings the size of small saucers; she’s spirited and endearingly voluble, drinks coffee and smokes.
“You’ll kind of get pulled in,” Cromarty explains, finishing a yogurt parfait, “and then they’ll figure out that you can do other things, so either you end up doing both or more people come in, more baby sitters, and you move up another rung. Or you’re just one of Colette’s favorites, but Colette changes her mind a lot.”
At the time of my first visit to the studio, Weber is in Sweden installing a show. When I return the following week to meet with her, however, some aspect of the place seems to come into balance. An attractive, prepossessing woman in her late 40s, with long, straight hair, no-nonsense eyes and — in this environment, at least — the air of a pixie den mother, Weber describes herself as the operation’s “voice of reason,” the problem solver, the one people come to with their issues. And it’s easy to see why: She is calm, patient, affable and direct. She offers me water, tours me through her installation — there are spirit girls, tree girls, a bear costume, beavers, squirrels and a handful of other small animals, built up around frames ordered from taxidermy companies (though covered in paint, not fur) — and loads me with catalogs and CDs before I leave. When we talk, we sit on the floor of the costume room, face to face, and it feels a little like talking with a favorite aunt. Both Shaw and Weber are decidedly candid and unpretentious, but “she’s much more present,” as Cromarty put it. “He’s an avoider. He can tune out.”
If this ability to tune out — or perhaps to tune in and out at will — is part of what allows Shaw to function, even thrive, in this context, the inverse appears to be true for Weber. “It’s more stressful for me,” she says, “because I get more emotionally involved than he does in people’s lives and what’s going on. I couldn’t distance myself at the end of the day.” Under the new arrangement, she will work from her own studio with a smaller core crew — Sussman, Spector (who works on costumes), West (video) — and continue to rely on Salamone and the studio’s sculptural facilities, hiring additional hands on a project-to-project basis. In practical terms, however, the only real difference appears to be the new studio. (“It’s an old story,” she says, “everybody needs their own space.”) Her commitment to the operation — and the responsibility both she and Shaw are clearly cognizant of bearing — is unchanged. And it’s clear from the outset that this responsibility is something they both take seriously, for economic as well as artistic reasons.
“I realized early on,” Shaw tells me while pulling tape from a nose sconce, “that there was no chance my ideal world, in which art could be affordable to anybody, was going to happen. So I sort of made a pledge to myself that if I ever did become one of the successful artists, I would at least employ other artists, to be sure that some of the wealth was spread around.” And the wealth is growing: Shaw’s drawings now sell in the low five figures, his larger paintings close to six figures; his theatrical backdrops go for much more.
Weber admits that she is ambivalent about making people too comfortable (“I know that a lot of my lousy jobs are what propelled me further in life,” she says), but no one else seems to be complaining. “I’ve done the [starving artist] thing,” Cassidy tells me, taking a break from the Robert Williams gopher painting. “It fucking sucks. There’s no romance to it, trust me.”
Salamone, like Tull (and Shaw himself), spent time working in the film industry before coming to the studio, and considers this “better on all fronts.” Film production, he says, “is very hierarchical, whereas everyone who works here is an artist. We have some personality issues here but not like in an effects shop or, even worse, on a set, where there’s a real hierarchy — art directors yelling at set people, or costume people, whatever. That really doesn’t go on here, Jim and Marnie are so laid-back. I mean the only time you see Jim yelling, it’s at himself.”
Salamone is slender and dark-complexioned, with a quiet, industrious air. He’s making a sandwich as we talk, arranging cherry tomatoes and slices of cheese with the same care I’ve seen him treat everything that crossed this worktable over the time of my visit.
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