Spirits Rock Among Us

Photo by Max S. Gerber

The last time I visited Marnie Weber’s studio, we discussed techniques for channeling and recording the voices of the dead. “Yeah, I was working on that in the basement music studio,” the artist recalls. “I wasn’t channeling myself, it was that EVP [electromagnetic voice phenomenon] method, where it comes through the wires of the radio or phone.” Were the results successful? “Oh, yeah, and I’m going to put some on the Spirit Girls album. It won’t work so well in the musical, but I think on the album I’m going to go much further. The cover is a still from the DVD — it was just this interesting spontaneous picture, and it’s so beautiful. When things like that happen I sometimes really think that they’re around — these girls that I don’t know — and they’re sort of helping make this whole thing come together. Because it’s just got so much mystery; it’s got magic; it’s got the kind of thing that only happens beyond everyday life.” The “whole thing” Weber is referring to is a multivenue multimedia extravaganza — several years in the making — centered on the saga of five adolescent girl ghosts and their failed rock musical. “I thought of it as girls who were killed in their prime, and then they felt they wanted to come back and express things they weren’t able to express. And so they decide to put on this musical. But they’re so unaware of the way the world works that they find this abandoned opera house, and they put up posters all over town, and then nobody comes — because they’re dead, and nobody can see the posters — or them. But the animals can, because the animals have special intuitions, as we all know.” During that last studio visit, about a year ago, Weber’s place was a warren of Goth fairy-tale components — half-completed animal costumes, fantastic miniature dollhouse room sets, and photo-collage works in progress — and Weber was on the phone half the time, organizing the next day’s elaborate Super-8 film shoot. But today I have her undivided attention, and the scene is orderly and pristine: The faux-Photoshop work is stacked carefully around the room, ready to be moved out to Luckman Gallery for “From the Dust Room,” a survey of her last decade’s work, and to Rosamund Felsen Gallery for the exhibit of the new series — officially known as Ghost Love, The Spirit Girls. The Spirit Girls — which includes a suite of the large-scale handmade photocollages, sculptural props and costumes, elaborate miniature sets, and a Super-8 film (presented in its own theater), as well as a full-on rock opera and soundtrack album — continues Weber’s progression of incorporating more and more various media into her projects. Her first show at Felsen was made up of small-scale figurative photocollages situating decontextualized porn models frolicking in a variety of supersaturated Arizona Highways–style landscapes. “Now I use the backdrop paintings instead of those old heritage magazines,” Weber points out, “partly because the magazines are still in existence and I was a little scared of getting sued. I stopped using the porn because of Collette [Weber’s daughter with artist Jim Shaw]. I just couldn’t look at the porn anymore because of her. I kept thinking, ‘It’s too close: That’s somebody’s daughter.’” Her most recent work involves the production of elaborate landscapes and interiors using a grab-bag of dollhouse, modelmaking, and other existing or invented craft technologies. The final miniatures are photographed with a 4-by-5 camera and blown up to 40-by-50-inch prints. The artist then dresses herself or a model in costume and produces more carefully posed photographs, which are cut out by hand and incorporated into the illusionistic space of the blown-up dollhouse. “It turned out for the better, because now I’m doing work that’s more about me and not about ‘the figure.’ And when I ended up doing work about me, then it ended up being directly related to the music. Before it was collages over here, music over here, performance over there, but now everything’s one — and it’s great. Because you have to be really organized to keep doing that. This is a way of not being so organized.” Organized or not — and by any standards, juggling two extensive solo shows while simultaneously producing, directing and starring in a rock opera is fairly hardcore multitasking — Weber’s lo-fi Gesamtkunstwerk constitutes something of a full circle to her days as anything-but-an-artist. Raised in rural Connecticut and Taiwan by her New York–literati mom and could-have-been-an-artist art-historian dad, she developed a keen adolescent aversion to the high-art world. “I was raised [to believe] that if you’re not an artist, it’s a big failure. Because my dad really felt — he didn’t come out and say it except after a few drinks — that his life was a failure because he wasn’t an artist. So it was this weird twist, being raised by people who wanted you to be an artist because that was the pinnacle of success. The whole band thing was clearly a rebellion — ‘I’m not going to be an artist, I’m going to be in a rock & roll band.’” The band in question was the early-’80s art-rock group the Party Boys — a fixture on the downtown scene that put out several records on Independent Project Records, a label begun by Bruce Licher (of Savage Republic) at UCLA as an art experiment combining the use of obsolete letterpress printing technology and the surfeit of post-punk bands that didn’t quite fit into the Hollywood and hardcore punk camps. “Bruce was doing records as fine art. I had never thought of that, even though I had been really into the ’70s theatrical rock concerts, and I went and saw everybody — New York Dolls, Bowie, Alice Cooper, you name it. I did a lot of volunteer work at IPR, and after the band broke up, that’s when I decided to start putting on performances.”

When she started releasing solo records, Weber would create unique collages for the backs of the first 100 covers, and it was through this intense engagement that she developed her distinctively archetypal narrative approach to the medium and — eventually — came around to the fine-art world. For most of the ’90s, Weber kept several more or less different directions happening simultaneously, with glam-surrealist performances like Coquette Circus Girl (LACE 1993), gallery exhibits of luminous, dreamlike collages at Felsen and at New York’s Jessica Fredericks, cryptically narrative video works at various venues, and independently released music CDs of loopy, droning songs like “I’m Not a Bunny.” With The Spirit Girls’ double whammy of catch-all shows, culminating in the one-night-only performance of Songs That Never Die — a re-creation of the ghost teens’ opera-house extravaganza, featuring a full band performing a new set of songs in costume with digitally projected backdrops of the animated miniature sets — Weber seems to be simultaneously integrating all her different histories and putting a major chapter of her life to rest. This sense of finality pervades The Spirit Girls and has put off some audience members — apparently oblivious to the strong undercurrent of humor — as needlessly gloomy. But even the darker material that strikes some viewers as morbid seems to me curiously hopeful — the idea that death doesn’t mean you can’t continue taking care of business. “The whole thing about death is that it can be so misunderstood,” says the artist, “because it’s not a gruesome thing. The whole series is more about addressing what happens after you die, and the actual death isn’t that important in many ways. A lot of it has to do with the transition in the afterlife and this whole world that’s created that you don’t know about and where anything is possible.” FROM THE DUST ROOM | At the HARRIET & CHARLES LUCKMAN FINE ARTS COMPLEX, Cal State Los Angeles | September 6 through October 29. | Opening reception on Saturday, October 22, 6-8 p.m., followed by performance of THE SPIRIT GIRLS: Songs That Never Die GHOST LOVE, THE SPIRIT GIRLS | Rosamund Felsen Gallery, Bergamot Station B4, Santa Monica | September 9 through October 8.


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