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Art Utopia

Marnie Weber

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.

What distinguishes this studio, it seems, from others of its ilk is an unusual degree of mutual respect. “Family” is a term that came up repeatedly in conversation with various assistants — not without ambivalence, to be sure (“a dysfunctional family,” one qualified, “kind of like if everybody got together for Thanksgiving, everybody would fight with each other”), but with a largely unwavering sense of allegiance. Shaw and Weber are, by all accounts, remarkably generous people — every assistant, it seemed, had some story to confirm it. They hire artists in need, they give raises, they offer sick leave, they encourage their artists to take time off for their own work (which Shaw and Weber often buy), they arrange introductions, they loan money, they help with vet bills for ailing stray cats. While they don’t provide benefits — all of their assistants are independent contractors — they offer on-site yoga and massage. In the words of Sarah Cromarty, the ebullient young painter who handles their “human resources” (all titles are somewhat loose) and the day-to-day organization of the studio, and who may be their biggest cheerleader, “They’re the most generous people you’ll ever meet on the face of the planet, the most supportive of artists, like, ever — ever, ever, ever.”

When I find Shaw, toward the back of the studio, he’s standing at one of the many large canvases stacked along the wall, painting a pair of disembodied, saucer-shaped eyes onto a field of expressionistic brush strokes. If the picture that comes to mind when you imagine the atelier of a successful artist is that of a raging ego, sauntering about with eagle eyes, sending imperfect creations crashing to the floor with a sweep of his arm and driving young acolytes to tears, now imagine the opposite: a quiet, modest, slightly awkward man with loose, wavy hair and piercing blue eyes who regards his surroundings with somewhat bewildered detachment, only as present, it seems, as he needs to be to divert collapse or confrontation, otherwise disappearing, like camouflage, into the work that surrounds him. He’s wearing two pairs of glasses when he turns to greet me, one balanced in front of the other, and removes the outermost pair but continues to paint through my clumsy introduction.

Before I have a chance to get my bearings, he is explaining that most of the work under way in the studio at the moment is intended for the second phase of a two-part exhibition at Metro Pictures Gallery in New York. (The first phase, “Dr. Goldfoot and His Bikini Bombs,” ran through December 22; the second opened January 4.) As is often the case in Shaw’s work, much of the imagery comes from his dreams: the buttheads, for instance, which will be filled with pink foam; the noses, some of which which will be mounted on the wall and illuminated from within like lamps; or a painting in progress at the back of the studio depicting a gopher eating noses that are growing in the ground, rendered in the style of Robert Williams.

“I’m trying to clean out my dream closet, so to speak,” he tells me.

On a conceptual level, the two shows represent a sort of exploration of his newfound clout, consisting primarily of works he could not have made, he says, without the large quantities of money he’s been generating in the past few years and a studio large enough to bring ideas to fruition quickly. The buttheads, for instance, would have been too costly. As for the “ab ex” eye painting: “It’s something I would think about before I did it, let’s put it that way,” he says. “This is more a question of whether it’s a good idea, or a good enough idea. Simply because I’ve got ideas doesn’t make them good enough.”

Over the course of the next hour, Shaw drifts around the studio, adding daubs of paint to the eyes (“Does that look like a teardrop or a goober?” he asks me), pulling masking tape from the noses, conferring with the two men who more or less run the painting department, Scott Cassidy and Ethan Ayer, about the canvas Ayer is stretching or the progression of the Robert Williams piece, which Cassidy is in the process of transferring to canvas. The growth of the operation, Shaw explains, is a relatively recent phenomenon: The first piece for which he employed a sizable group of assistants was an installation called The Donner Party, a large, circular table held up by 12 miniature covered wagons, set with 29 eclectic place settings and surrounded by a massive theatrical backdrop, that he began three or four years ago and showed at P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York last year. (“That was a lot about my misgivings about collaborating,” he says. “One of the themes was if [Judy Chicago’s] Dinner Party had gone awry and everybody had sort of worked on their own and ignored the artist in charge.”) Shortly thereafter, he launched into a series of murals too large for him to complete alone — he points to Cassidy and Ayer as pivotal to those works — and then began relying on others to help develop the sculpture projects, because “I realized my sculptural abilities were nowhere near my abilities to render stuff.” (Salvatore Salamone now manages the sculpture shop.)

“I think that he’s always kind of reaching or pushing into the different facets of the studio operation to find out what can be accomplished,” says Dani Tull, “and I imagine he’s usually pleasantly surprised.” An artist and musician who has worked for Shaw and Weber for a year and a half, but known them as friends for much longer, Tull is a compact, soft-spoken man in his early 40s. I meet with him in his own studio, in the basement of his Eagle Rock home, where he’s working on the audio component of a prime example: a performance held at the Hammer Museum in August in which Shaw and most of the studio team played a motley assortment of instruments, including many designed by Shaw himself. The Body Organ was there, played by Hannah Keefe (who does most of Shaw’s drawing in the studio) on the back of her boyfriend, Brian Randall (another assistant), as well as a five-necked, nautilus-shaped guitar, and a series of reed instruments fashioned from vacuum cleaners. The footage resembles a scene from some bizarre sacred/psychedelic rite, with the performers dressed in flowing robes and colorful projections rippling overhead — and, indeed, one significant strain in Shaw’s work over the past decade has been the development of a mock religion, called O-ism (“the feminist version of Mormonism,” as he once described it).

Music has always been a central component of Weber’s career, predating her work in collage or film: She’s released three solo albums, four with an art-rock band called the Party Boys (from 1981 to ’87), and one with her current band, the Spirit Girls. (The latter was an outgrowth of Weber’s 2005 rock opera by the same name, which, like her last two films, chronicled the adventures of a gaggle of young ghosts — members of a teenage girl band, killed in their prime — who roam the earth in nightgowns and eerie white masks.) Thanks in part to the presence of people like Tull, who’s had nearly as extensive a musical history as Weber, it’s becoming a prominent fixture in Shaw’s work as well. What he really wants to do, he says, is open a storefront church for noise music, where jam sessions could be open to the public.

“Something that’s just amazing about the studio,” Tull tells me, as we’re watching the Hammer performance footage, “is that this group of people is so multitalented. The people who work there have the skills that they’re employing at the studio — it may be sculpting, cast making, painting or drawing — but most have all these other talents as well, like music.”

The roster is indeed impressive. Tull, who’s been concentrating primarily on the studio’s musical needs — he performed on Shaw’s five-neck guitar, which he also fabricated, in the Metro Pictures booth at the Miami Basel Art Fair (a slow, hauntingly beautiful stream of sound, deliciously anomalous to the context); composed the score for Shaw’s new film The Hole; co-directed the Hammer performance; plays guitar in the Spirit Girls and co-produced their album — has also been exhibiting throughout the past two decades as a painter. Work from his current series of tie-dyed caveman paintings is featured in this year’s L.A. WeeklyBiennial (as are the Spirit Girls). Cromarty, who considers herself “a worker bee” at the studio (“I push myself into whatever area where I’m needed,” she says), appeared in the first Weekly biennial, in 2004, and was included, more recently, in L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight’s list of “45 Painters Under 45.” Cassidy, one of Shaw and Weber’s earliest assistants, is a classically trained painter with a solo show at the Schmidt Dean Gallery in Philadelphia through January. Christian Cummings, who built the Body Organ, is (along with his wife, Marie Johnston) part of a three-person show now at High Energy Constructs. Tamara Sussman, Weber’s first in command as well as the Spirit Girls’ bass player, is a text-based artist whose installations have appeared at the Colburn School, Beyond Baroque, and across the façade of Art Center’s Wind Tunnel building. Salamone, Claude Collins-Stracensky, Daniel Mendel-Black, Juliana Paciulli, Colin Roberts, Jill Spector, Ayer and Jennifer West are all artists whose names have appeared repeatedly around town (and elsewhere) in recent years, in solo and group shows. Sachi Yashimoto, who handles Shaw’s administration and plays violin in the Spirit Girls, is a classically trained violinist now immersed in Arabic music, and Keefe, Shaw’s doyenne of drawing, makes jewelry.

The hiring process, like most aspects of the studio’s operation, is largely organic, driven by connections, coincidence and word of mouth. Many assistants began as baby sitters, or caring for the artists’ dogs, until their skills found the right fit — as Sussman recounts when I meet her and Cromarty for lunch one afternoon around the corner from the studio. “I was a tomboy growing up,” she says, “and Colette [Shaw] really wanted to play with Barbies and I didn’t know how — I literally just didn’t even know how — so she was just kind of looking at me and Marnie was like, ‘Do you know Photoshop?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah! I totally know Photoshop!’ ”

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.

“Now it’s like I tell people what I do, and even to people who work in production, it’s kind of a crazy job, being like, yeah, I’m working on vagina bricks all day.” He holds up an example of what he means: a cast resin brick distinguished by a mound of fleshlike folds at one end — one of the dream objects. Shaw wants 15 or 20 by the opening of the Metro Pictures show, and each takes 24 hours in the mold, so Salamone will be working up to the wire. “But it’s funny,” he says, returning the brick to its pile. “It just becomes like a regular job.”