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While in high school, the artist Cameron Jamie used to go dumpster diving in trash bins behind local public schools with an older friend, a burgeoning cartoonist named Matt Groening. The two were on a mission to reveal the sinister reality behind their plastic, suburban, Southern California neighborhood. In the bins, at the end of the school year, they could find discarded notebooks and scraps of paper featuring violent drawings by delinquent children. Here it was, right in front of them — this is what was really happening. Behind the Leave it to Beaver façade, what actually existed was confirmed in these pieces of outsider art ephemera, a nightmare lurking just beneath the surface.
Although Groening and Jamie’s lives would eventually diverge — the former went on to alternative comics semi-fame before ascending to the pop culture pantheon with The Simpsons — their work would stay rooted in this traumatic break in the suburban real. Groening’s Life in Hell comics, which were syndicated in alternative weeklies across the country, took a satirical pose toward the reality of the suburban childhood home. Parents, teachers, classmates, and coworkers were presented as archetypes, reading from a script. The only way to make it through to the other side was to not listen and keep your head down. These comics, for the most part, were light-hearted, although occasionally real terror would jump out that spoke of things more frightening. In the final chapter of Childhood Is Hell, Groening draws Binky, the main character of these comics, curled in the corner of a room with the menacing shadow of his father hovering over him. “Did I say childhood was hell?” Binky says. “Gee, I don’t know what I could have possibly been thinking.”
It is in this unnerving moment that Jamie’s work begins. Currently on view at Gladstone Gallery, three of his short films — “BB” (1998–2000), “Kranky Klaus” (2002–03), and “Massage the History” (2007–09) — present the domestic space as something to be broken apart and rearranged. How each film achieves this is slightly different, but they are all engaged in turning the safety of home into something either dangerous or unseemly. He brings performative gestures — professional wrestling, ritualized dress-up, dry humping of furniture — into spaces that are imbued with artifice, and in the moment of collision they produce the same feeling as when Jeffrey, the main character of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, finds a severed ear in the woods of his white-picket-fence suburban town. What was once normal, a space of stability, has now become sinister.
You can see this same interest in the unsettling of familiar spaces in “Spook House” (2003), Jamie’s study of amateur haunted houses; “The Neotoma Tape” (1983–95), which collected moments the artist recorded from late-night public access television; and the Gothic series of photographs he produced with Mike Kelley (none of which are not included in the current show at Gladstone Gallery). Indeed, his work shares a striking similarity with artists such as Kelley, Paul McCarthy, and (at least the videos of) Raymond Pettibon, who similarly eroded definitions of performance in their work. Like Kelley and McCarthy, Jamie has roots in noise music, and has tapped the Melvins, Keiji Haino, and Sonic Youth — whose various members have also collaborated with Pettibon and Kelley on different projects — to score his films. The music adds to the uneasiness of what you’re watching.
The unsettling soundtrack is most notable in “Kranky Klaus,” perhaps Jamie’s most terrifying film. What’s ostensibly a filmed record of the Krampus ritual in Austria — a pre-Christian tradition where men in furry costumes (think Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things, but much scarier) go door-to-door and terrorize families, accompanied by a Saint Nicholas-like figure who is supposed to ward them off — becomes an exercise in the limits of objectivity. As the camera follows the costumed men from home to home, with the droning tones of the Melvins pumping on the soundtrack, each performance becomes more like a home invasion, with ever-increasing violence. Kids begin to cry, visibly shaking; the costumed men aggressively start fights with both men and women. The more you watch the more you feel uncomfortable. At what point did this move from a performance to a real document of cruelty? And what is the role of the recorder, the artist behind the camera, who is watching this unfold?
Jamie’s work exists in this borderland between the real and the imaginary, like a surfer riding a wave that at any second is about to break. In “BB,” his camera documents an adolescent wrestling match in all its amateur theatrics: an audience has gathered around a small, poorly constructed ring in a suburban Los Angeles backyard — did the neighbors realize what was happening next door? — complete with a referee and fake championship belt. Each wrestler takes this very seriously, adorned with specialized face paint and their own versions of stage choreography. But this is anything from the polished product you see on television. Jamie allows his camera to move with relative glee alongside the wrestlers, capturing with childlike wonder the transformation of the suburban home into a space of excitement. (Jamie, it should be noted, is a longtime wrestling fan, and has incorporated the sport into various projects, including his own awkward bouts held inside living rooms.) As bodies flail and fluids spray, again accompanied by the music of the Melvins — specifically, the opening of their sludge-rock masterpiece Lysol (1992) — a sense of dread starts to develop from the clumsy reenactments. As one of the teenage wrestlers climbs onto the roof of the home to do a risky flip into the ring, a real fear can be felt; this is absurd but also unsafe. One minute you’re watching with joy, and the next you’re nervous that what you’ve been watching has been a ruse. What you thought was a performance turned out to be something more precarious.
This is not an easy place to be as a viewer. Jamie’s films share a bond with underground videotapes that were passed around the secondary market and hidden behind the counter of local rental stores, compilations of outtakes and raw footage that unearthed the silly and often startling life behind the fictitious scrim of all types of entertainment. Videos of this nature still exist but they are out in the open, uploaded to YouTube and shared more readily. While it has lost some of its excitement, there is a greater abundance of this kind of footage available now. In “Massage the History,” Jamie uses as his source material videos he found online of African American teenagers performing a ritualized sex-dance performance in their living rooms. Simulating sex with a partner in the form of a sofa, each dancer is engaged in his private fantasy world.
By using the teenage dancers in his work, Jamie isn’t making fun of them — although what they are doing is very funny — but giving them the platform they desire. Tracking them down, he films them again, this time in 35mm. The private act has been turned public, the home transformed into a movie set. In a sense, the piece reverses the trajectory of his previous films. Where “Kranky Klaus” and “BB” move from performance into a destabilizing zone of the real, “Massage the History begins as something real — videos of personal acts, hidden from view, not for public consumption — and turns it back into performance. The home, it seems, is always hiding something, and always on the verge of revelation. You just need to break it open. Or maybe fuck an ottoman.
Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that Cameron Jamie and Matt Groening, who were born 15 years apart, were in high school together. We apologize for this error and have fixed it.
Cameron Jamie: Domestic Arenas: Massage the History, BB, Kranky Klaus continues at Gladstone Gallery (530 West 21st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 17.