PRINT Summer 2001


YEARS BEFORE I SAW ANY OF CAMERON JAMIE'S WORK, the artist Larry Johnson had told me about “this guy who does 'apartment wrestling'”—or at least performance that takes that softcore-porn subgenre as its point of departure. Eventually I met the artist and he agreed to send me a copy of his film BB, 2000, but it would be months and many missed connections-before the eighteen-minute extravaganza of suburban teenage acting-out would arrive in the mail with two shorter videos, La Baguette, 1997, and The New Life, 1996. Wildly different from whatever I'd imagined, they were truly odd, riveting in a bewildering way.

BB, I knew, documented the “backyard wrestling” phenomenon that had sprung up among working-class kids in the San Fernando Valley. I had the wrong idea that backyard wrestling had somehow evolved from apartment wrestling, but it's clear from the films that this ingeniously clumsy suburban mayhem on video for several years (long before the art-school ingenues who've exploited it recently), assembling myriad fancy edits before deciding to shoot an afternoon's matches straight, with two Super-8 cameras, letting the thing speak for itself, more or less. It looks like it was cut with a razor blade, giving it a nice raw feel that allows quite a few overlaps and repetitions to slip in. These are hard to notice though, because everything in BB is an unassimilable surprise, even when you see something again from a different angle.

BB immediately reminded me of Jean Rouch's Les Maîtres fous (The mad masters; 1955). Rouch, a seminal filmmaker and pioneering ethnographer, was fascinated by the surreally real and the expressive “naive” theater of the Third World. BB records a comparable phenomenon in the domestic Third World that is the hidden underbelly of America's suburbs. The “mad masters” of BB mimic, in a loose way, the gods of the World Wrestling Federation.

With its repetitively ominous metal score by The Melvins, BB is a low-rent, complex choreography of injury. The jerky rhythms, the shifts between “serious” blows and whimsical show-biz mayhem (boys leaping on prone bodies from the garage roof, knocking each other's heads with folding chairs), the makeshift props contestants use to clobber each other, jump from, and throw people into (a stepladder, a sheet of plywood, an ice chest, a garbage can), and the unstylized, camera-indifferent expressions passing over the faces of wrestlers and spectators (anomie stricken teens all) give this film, despite the eventual crescendo of the sound track, the quality of a loop rather than a linear narrative: The body collisions could go on forever. Yet BB also has the visceral effect of a classical drama, with a distinct arc of events, ending at exactly the right moment.

The wrestling in The New Life and La Baguette happens in more intimate spaces, without an audience. In The New Life, Jamie wears a mask, black fright wig, and white long johns slashed at the ass to expose rubbery prosthetic buttocks. His partner is a professional Michael Jackson impersonator who normally performs on the sidewalk outside Frederick's of Hollywood. The arena is a cramped apartment bedroom. The wrestlers struggle, lock each other in various awkward holds, break apart, pause in momentary triumph or defeat; everything passes quickly; the action is almost desultory. In La Baguette, Jamie appears in the same costume, while his opponent, a young French ex-con, wears ordinary street clothes. This encounter has more violence in it and works over more space, in something like a school commissary, with a lot of wooden furniture that gets knocked over. As the wrestlers move and twist into unpredictable configurations, always in medium shot, they remain at all times figures instead of characters, archetypes of something just beyond legibility. All three films have an unaccountable quality, a cryptic absence of expositional detail that makes each work so open to interpretation that it's also completely closed to it.

What went past me in early conversations with Jamie was the fact that he comes from the Valley, and the backyard wrestling documentation is one of several ongoing projects that record life in a place that has, for him, a heavily negative psychic charge. (If you know the Valley only from films like Magnolia or a lecture gig at CalArts, count yourself lucky.) When I saw him recently he made this abundantly clear, citing a horrendous childhood that he compared, without getting into details, to life in a maximum-security prison. He called his displacement by the 1994 Northridge quake the most liberating event of his life-which makes his eternal return “for material” seem dementedly brave. (He now lives and shows his work principally in Europe. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's “Contemporary Projects” series currently offers, through July 29, an opportunity to view Jamie's work on his semi-abandoned home turf.)

Another project is a yearly survey of “spook houses.” Every town in America has a spook house or two that sprout up on Halloween, but the San Fernando Valley is disproportionately full of them, both the Christian kind that illustrate the wages of sin with tableaux of burning teenagers, and the secular ones, stranger still, produced by families as horror-movie renderings of their own psychopathic subtexts. Here's a teenager being swallowed by the bathroom toilet, stuffed into the oven, getting home surgery from his mother; here's a rat, and a witch, and a space alien sitting together on a couch watching TV. These sculptural caprices are the art of ordinary people who feel trapped with one another in hell—a different category of expression than “outsider art” by enchanted lunatics. 'Spook House,“ 1987-2000, Jamie's photographs of these powerful, pathetic effusions of the losing class, is a kind of collaboration with a realm of things that pass under the snotty radar of ”culture."

Jamie collects data (of a certain kind) over many years, on the chance that it might germinate into a work: videos of a lethal Tijuana “sport” in which a rampaging bull is set loose on a table of poker players (the “winner” is whoever survives); audio tapes of prank calls (the jewel in this collection, a torrent of obscenity running for several hours, might have served as the' inspiration for Bart Simpson's prank calls to Moe the Bartender); photos of corpses from Mexican crime magazines; suicide notes; desperate fan letters to pop stars., The forthcoming Taschen book Exquisite Mayhem, which Jamie and Mike Kelley edited (they previously collaborated on a photo documentation of the LA Goth scene), documents the work of Theo Ehret, a photographer who shot fake crime scenes in the '60s and '70s for magazines like True Detective and Police Gazette. In the '60s Ehret photographed the pro-wrestling bouts at LA's Olympic Auditorium and, in the '70s, segued into the burgeoning field of apartment wrestling: True to the genre, he arranged his female models, naked or in bras and panties, in poses copied from pro-wrestling photos.

Goat, 2000-, is a recurring performance that has never been documented. Periodically. Jamie goes to various locations in Northridge that hold especially ugly memories for him, dressed as Dracula. Not a full-blown Bela Lugosi trip, but a tall, angular guy with a few vampirish suggestions messing up his look, a half-assed sort of Dracula in whiteface with a little stage blood. He visits biker bars, strip joints, and shopping malls, bringing along a “witness.” 'Something weird always happens," Jamie says. Fights, sometimes. Strange interludes with people who never mention that he's dressed as Dracula. And often, even when he's dripping blood in a supermarket aisle, no reaction at all. Some of the people who hated him when he lived there have begun to recount what this vaguely familiar revenant does when he returns. They embellish, they make up Dracula sightings, Dracula happenings. So the undead Cameron Jamie becomes present in the landscape of his past, even in his absence.