Marnie Weber is haunted by the ghosts of her past creations.
The gaggle of perverse characters she’s invented over the last three decades always seems to creep back into her work, appearing first in performances and photographs and re-emerging, sometimes years later, in films and collages.
“In a Jungian sense, they’re all alter egos,” Weber says from her Eagle Rock home atop a hill overlooking the city. “I was making films as backing videos for the characters just to create some visual interest, and then at some point I realized that the films would stand on their own without performance, so that sort of launched me in a new direction.”
There’s Coquette the Circus Girl, the wide-eyed, pale-faced starlet who moved to Los Angeles to become an actress but ended up getting swept up in the underbelly of the porn industry. She made her stage debut in a performance in the 1980s and later became the subject of a Super 8 film, Weber’s first of many. Happy, an anthropomorphized flower who turned herself into a bunny only to realize she’d become prey for woodland predators, began as a film character and then became fodder for collages.
And then there’s The Spirit Girls, a female rock band that suffered a similarly tragic fate. Dreamed up by Weber as a response to the male-dominated prog-rock bands she loved as a teenager in the 1970s, The Spirit Girls were killed before they ever had a chance to become famous, condemning them to play forever as ghosts. Though the backstory is pure fiction, the band was very much real, playing gigs (for the living) around the world until Weber decided she’d finally had enough of them. She staged the lead singer’s funeral, attended solely by clowns made of mannequins, in an installation acquired by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2013.
The following year, actor-musician Jack Black prompted the band’s reunion — a kind of resurrection — for a gig at his annual comedy and music event, Festival Supreme. Even that wasn’t the last of The Spirit Girls. Like most of Weber’s alter egos, these still had more life in them, despite being dead at least twice over. The band, whose five members perform in white masks, long wigs and nightgowns that look as if they could’ve been costumes from The Exorcist, have a cameo in Weber’s latest project. Her most ambitious undertaking to date, The Day of Forevermore is a feature-length film about a young girl trying to escape from the farm where she lives with her alcoholic witch mother.
The movie, which screened at the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in September and runs as part of her solo exhibit “Chapel of the Moon” through Nov. 5 at Gavlak Gallery in Hollywood, is populated by monsters, goblins and animals, all costumed by Weber. But it’s also a human story — a deeply personal one with a sense of humor. “I had a teenage daughter and I began to feel like at times I was a witch, you know?” Weber says. “Not in a magical sense but in a disciplinarian sense.” She cast herself as the witch, Baba, a grotesque-looking old woman she says is not dissimilar to her own mother, and tapped her 17-year-old daughter to play the lead, Luna, a character she based on herself at that age.
Born in Connecticut, Weber moved to Manhattan Beach as a preteen and spent her teenage years performing in punk-rock bands like The Party Boys. Her father, an Eastern art historian and a scholar of spirit vessels — she credits him for her lifelong fascination with the afterlife — had gotten a job at USC and convinced her to enroll there after high school. She later transferred to UCLA, where she studied under the likes of Chris Burden. Though her work has been more widely embraced by Europeans, whom Weber says are more open to theatricality, it is the product of a lifetime spent in California. Her short films all were shot in the state, serving as a kind of visual travelogue from the Salton Sea to Leo Carrillo Beach to Mammoth Mountain.
The Day of Forevermore, her first scripted and largest-scale production, was shot on location at Zorthian Ranch, the Altadena artists compound and junkyard nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. The movie took three years to make on a $50,000 budget Weber scraped together from a family inheritance, and the crew was comprised almost entirely of former students, both from Otis College of Art & Design and CalArts’ high school program, where she taught filmmaking one summer. The movie feels, in many ways, like the culmination of decades of work spanning multiple genres — costume, sculpture, film, performance, music — and connecting the dots between old characters like The Spirit Girls and new ones like Baba and Luna.
But with its long, meditative shots and ambient music, sparse dialogue and ensemble cast of masked creatures in gothic tableaux, it’s not exactly the type of movie that mainstream audiences will flock to see — and even as an independent film, it’s a tough sell. Film festivals like Sundance saw it as too experimental; art galleries, meanwhile, have long viewed Weber’s work as too narrative, she says, leaving it in a kind of limbo between Hollywood and the fine-art world. “Narrative in itself was a dirty word in the art world for many years,” she says. “People didn’t want to talk about narrative. And I was like, ‘OK, why not?’”
That her work is difficult to categorize — let alone sell to art collectors — might explain why Weber hasn't achieved the level of recognition garnered by her contemporaries: artists like Cindy Sherman, Bruce Nauman, Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, all of whom worked in similar veins during the 1980s and ’90s. Weber, like Sherman, experimented with self-portraiture and invented her own personas for the camera. And like Kelley, Weber incorporated stuffed animals and designed album art for Sonic Youth in the 1990s. But once those artists became famous for their respective styles, Weber says she had to make a conscious decision to work in different ways.
“Cindy Sherman was so big and all-encompassing that you really had to be careful” that your work wouldn’t be considered a copy in any way, Weber says. “I think it’s important to be conscious of what other people are doing, even if you have to slightly skew your work. Believe me, I couldn’t use stuffed animals because of Mike [Kelley].” One of her earliest alter egos, Coquette the Circus Girl, is an exception: In self-portraits, the melancholic performer wears a white tutu and straddles a giant stuffed horse while staring blankly into the camera.
With the lifelong goal of making a feature film finally checked off her list, Weber’s had the time to get back to working solo. She spends her days holed up in her home studio with her two dogs making collages, and she still performs with her current band, F for Freak, knowing she’ll have to look for a teaching job again soon to help pay the bills. She’s also begun to purge herself of some of the mythical characters that have emerged again and again throughout her work — if only because she’s run out of physical space to store them all in her studio, where she keeps a wardrobe brimming with old costumes, masks and props that look like artifacts from the set of a vintage horror movie.
For a while, she kept Baba the witch propped up on a chair in her workspace to keep her company. She imagined that if there were spirits wandering around in search of a shell, they might see the giant masked prop and decide to inhabit it, reanimating the movie witch once more.
Weber performs at the closing of “Chapel of the Moon” on Sat., Nov. 5, 5-6 p.m. at Gavlak Los Angeles, 1034 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. gavlakgallery.com/exhibitions/marnie-weber-chapel-of-the-moon.