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by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp
Marnie Weber, "Sing me a Western Song," Apr. 21-May 26, 2007, at Patrick Painter, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Santa Monica, Ca. 90404

Ah, the Spirit Girls! Wearing white masks reminiscent of Noh drama but dressed in feminine frocks, white socks and Mary Janes, they have served Los Angeles multimedia artist Marnie Weber for a couple of years now. As her band, they perform mournful ballads with bass laden riffs reminiscent of Sonic Youth. (Weber designed the cover for that group’s 2000 album.) Weber writes or co-writes the Spirit Girls songs, plays synthesizer and performs as lead vocalist, activities that have come increasingly to be integral to her visual art.

In recent years, photographs of the Spirit Girls have populated her collages. Now, Weber’s music, performance, collage and sculpture have come together in an extraordinary exhibition in Patrick Painter’s two galleries in Santa Monica. (Smaller versions of the show are on view at Emily Tsingou in London, Apr. 19-May 19, 2007, and Fredericks & Freiser in New York, May 3-June 22, 2007.) Weber and the Spirit Girls perform at the Hammer Museum in L.A. on May 25.

In Painter’s east gallery, an improbable narrative unfolds in A Western Song, Weber’s 24-minute film, which is projected within a large distressed wood frame with hay bales for audience seating. The film follows the Spirit Girls as they leave the safety of home and hearth to follow Weber, the lead spirit girl, as she travels the countryside on her spiritual quest. They wind up in a Wild West town where Weber cavorts with the unsavory members of a traveling circus including hobo clowns. In a swinging door saloon, with a blind old woman playing the piano, she succumbs to the temptations of drink and dance. Weber is assaulted by ghost clowns and, though bound, subdued, possibly dead, her spirit rises. 

Weber was inspired by 19th-century spirit photography and tales of the Fox sisters, who attained fame at the time as spiritualists. They were said to channel communication from the afterlife in sexually charged public performances. The combination of theater, spirituality and sexuality can be seen in Weber’s film and accompanying installation of human-scaled sculptures, which include a hobo clown, a clothed pig and a rooster.  

Woven into this spiritualist drama are references to old Western movies, musical comedy, the hoary connections between girls and horses, and allegorical paintings such as John Everett Millais’ Ophelia (1852). In the ever-expanding genre of installation art, Weber has honed a body of work of startling originality while being rich in references to popular culture and art history.  

"Sing Me a Western Song," as the exhibition is titled, continues in Painter’s west gallery with more sculptures including the baroque ghost clowns. One ghost clown, white sheets making up its bulbous nose, oversized feet and tiny hat, sits on a hay bale to entertain a seal and beaver. They are the disembodied souls of sad-faced Emmet Kellys. "Drained of their garish color. . .  (they) are an eerie rendition of the bright original. Pale and still, they are the antithesis of shadow," writes Annie Buckley in the essay for the exhibition.

Other life-size creatures have escaped their carrousel: a horse with a girl lying on its back and a tusked wildebeest saddled with snarling snakes. The giant bear in a party hat wears a shield with the face of the Spirit Girl and holds a saber in his paws. Constructed atop old taxidermy molds, they literally contain the tragedy and fascination of stuffed animals. Skirting the realm of cute, they embody an undercurrent of danger and malaise that redirects sentiment towards the bittersweet.

Weber’s large-scale collages tell tall tales. She paints and then photographs western landscapes as backdrops to the cut-out figures of the Spirit Girls in action. They are like a Greek chorus, following Weber on her adventures and accompanied by all manner of sympathetic animals. The collages refer to a vague storyline that runs parallel to the film and concerns a carnival with a Ferris wheel, carrousel and hobo clowns, as well as bears and pigs.

Weber, with elongated black eyelashes and round red cheeks painted on her whitened face, is the seeker, the voyager, the one who dares to travel beyond the limits. Provocatively dressed in a white lace slip dress, she is portrayed in earnest discussion with a giant frog, who may be a prince, and she rides the range upon a mule and a buffalo. The prodigal daughter seems to court danger and discomfort to find her higher spiritual truth.  

If the Surrealists sought to disturb viewers by displacing expectations, Weber is their legitimate heir -- especially to the rare women like Meret Oppenheim, Frida Kahlo and Lee Miller. More immediately, she has taken her place beside peers Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley, with whom she is both colleague and friend. Weber provides an authentically feminized alternative to their testosterone-driven art.

Rumbling from the subconscious and fueled by the often conflicting messages embedded in the mythic literature, film and music of the American West, Weber has composed a symphony: mordant but not dismal, primal but not manipulative, smart but not academic. Weber’s exhibition is delightfully incomprehensible yet entirely familiar -- the exact feeling of a waking dream.

HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP is author of Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, published by W.W. Norton.