This Artist Transforms Herself into Gruesome Movie Monsters

We visited the home of Jaimie Warren, who is famous for her self-portraits as pop-culture icons. She let us dig through her garbage.

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Jul 21 2017, 1:42pm

While some artists have a strong demarcation between the lives they lead and the work they share with the world, Jaimie Warren's art is an extension of herself. It is a manifestation of her own childhood nostalgia, fascination with the fantastic, and her ever-mischievous nature. So it should have been no surprise earlier this summer when I visited her apartment along the border of Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights in Brooklyn that it felt a little like the art department of a horror film. Amid normal household shit like kitchen appliances, bookshelves, and MacBooks were Freddy Kreuger heads, giant jack-o'-lantern masks, and the slime-y and squishy remnants of her artistic endeavors.

I became a fan of Warren's after discovering her weirdo self-portraits and GIFs, which depict her transmogrifying into creatures of pop culture and have previously appeared in the pages of VICE magazine. Of course, when she becomes a movie monster like Pennywise or a "foodlebrity" like "Lasagna Del Rey," it's never a perfect rendition. Each of her metamorphoses eschew sterile computer graphics for ramshackle practical effects. The DIY quality of her work makes you feel as though you could reach out and touch the oozing blood or scarified skin in every frame.

Warren told me the macabre costuming in these works was greatly influenced by her youth in Waukesha, Wisconsin. "I grew up in a suburban farm town where people would go all out with homemade haunted houses for Halloween, which is awesome. It wasn't unusual for one neighborhood to have six or seven walkthrough haunted houses." However, when Warren was older and had committed herself to taking photos, she didn't really tap into her love for creating creepy realms. Instead, her work was initially influenced by some of the more exciting snapshot artists of the 90s.

"I was obsessed with Tim Barber and Ryan McGinley and other big VICE people and movies like Gummo," she told me. But their emphasis on sex and drugs didn't really reflect her reality. It was the artistic community in Kansas City, Missouri, that helped her develop her own performative, fantastical style. "[Kansas City] had an incredible drag scene and an incredible, weird, and underground drag theater called Late Night Theatre. They made these mind-blowing plays and crazy parties, and the props and costumes and everything was just out of this world." Being a part of that scene helped her go from snapshots of her friends and herself wandering around the Midwest to creating alternate realities in her images that are both fun and macabre.

As she's honed in on her singular style, Warren's production methods have grown increasingly elaborate, involving dozens of collaborators and costumes that riff on things like classical art and modern cults of personality. If you visit her personal website, you'll find her posing as Freddie Mercury in a recreation of Saints Cosmas and Damian by Matteo di Pacino, or as Stevie Wonder in a recreation of Botticelli's Primavera. No matter the surreal setup, the result is exciting and deeply strange.

While her oddball portraits have been published and lauded by everyone from Aperture to the New York Times, Warren's biggest impact on the world might actually be her work with Whoop Dee Doo. The award-winning "fake TV show" that occupies a rarified space between community and contemporary art and started back in 2006. Warren co-directs and co-hosts episodes alongside artist Matt Roche. Together, they help bring a diverse array of artists and kids together to collaborate on exuberant performances that realize kooky ideas like a skeleton frat party, ghouls dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band, and an icy maze-like, underwater world. While Warren's work isn't explicitly political, more than anything else she does, Whoop Dee Doo seems to embody her personal values. "A big part of these communal experiences is to see the diversity in your community and how everyone really has these similar wants," she told me. "Everyone wants to have these fun, weird, bizarre experiences.

Warren's next major project is One Sweet Day, her third solo exhibition at the Hole gallery in Lower Manhattan. The show, which opens on July 26, will be one of the most ambitious works of her career, featuring a giant immersive set and four major videos. It will culminate with a wild performance on August 17. With her new show on the way, I figured Jaimie's trash would be rife with all sorts of art-related refuse. And I was right.

Here's what the artist who spends most of her time dressed up like grotesque movie monsters and legendary rocks stars had to say about what she keeps in her waste bin.

Bloody, Goopy Stuff

Jaimie Warren: I was obsessed with Nightmare on Elm Street as a kid. I even had the box set with the 3D glasses. Freddy is a perfect character because he can be really scary, but he's also ridiculous and silly. He has really dorky catchphrases, so you can take it either way. I love to be able to implement him into my performances. I just hosted an 8-ball telethon as Freddy, but I wore a white tuxedo. It was a talent show and every time someone would go on, I'd go backstage and get more and more bloody. By the end of the show, I was soaked in blood. It was a good visual—a gleaming white suit with a bloody face. All this bloody stuff comes from that show. Honestly, I've never been a good performer live. But every time I do things like that show, I feel like I get a little bit better. People can tell I'm trying really hard, so that puts them on my side.

Makeup and Prosthetics

I have a big slab of makeup wedge foam that you can carve prosthetics like wobbly tongues or fake teeth from. We got it for free, and it's this magic material. I also have a different style foam—it's like a memory foam. I get all of these materials by donation through Materials for the Arts or just finding them. I'm no expert at prosthetics, but I love shitty Halloween costumes. So it doesn't bother me that I'm not great at making this stuff. That's why I'm debating adding more high-tech materials into my art—I'm afraid it will detract from my work.

I also get a lot of stuff from Amazon that I use and return. That's a huge trick of mine. I just did a performance, and the main themes were whales and fish. I needed a dozen bodysuits for these costumes, which are $30 to $50 each. So I just had everyone wear socks, so they wouldn't get the feet dirty. Then I was able to return all of it. That's $500 in costumes, and I got it all back.

Fancy Trim

This is a piece of trim I got from Materials for the Arts, too. It's all in this insane warehouse of materials that's all free if you're connected with a nonprofit. It's like a wonderland—like the Pee Wee's Playhouse of materials. I was playing around with this trim because I'm trying to recreate a Fra Angelico painting at a super large scale for my upcoming show at the Hole.

Fra Angelico was a friar who is believed to have done these massive, crazy, beautiful religious paintings in the 14th and 15th century. But it's hard to be sure who painted what. I'm not an expert with that. It's more the visuals that pull me in. I'm taking the characters from one painting and putting a weird, pop-culture spin on them. The painting in particular that I'm redoing is really bizarre because the ratio and the scale is insane. I think I'm going to be building these huge fake people at the Hole and smaller rooms that you can go in and watch videos. I might be Freddy Krueger inside of this giant saint and then rip it open and pull his head off or something.

Mood Board

This is just one of my little inspiration boards. I was mostly looking at scary monsters and people screaming and trying to create my own ghoulish characters. In the installation that I'm going to do at the Hole, I think it's going to have this giant garden where it will be all fake leaves and plants and flowers that I'm going to make. But then, at the closing, I think it's going to turn into a haunted orchestra garden where these weird little ghouls that were hidden inside of the plants will all come out and sing this harmonized version of a Queen song. And I want it to be live, too, where the puppeteers are singing with microphones. I have no idea if that's way too insane, but it's a dream of mine. I've been looking at old cartoons, too. There was one I saw recently where there are all these tongue sandwiches. They are like white Wonder bread with a red tongues sticking out of them, and they're singing. It's supposed to be cute, but I was like, "That's fucked up and disgusting. I want to make those and put them in my weird garden orchestra."

Glasses and Work Out Pants

I've been wearing that style of mirror sunglasses since I was a kid. I loved the color on this pair, but they cracked. They were only $4, though, and I've got a spare.

Those workout pants have a hole in the crotch, so I had to throw them away. I used to wear them to bootcamp, which I try to go to almost every day at 8 AM at the Bed-Stuy YMCA. This guy Gary teaches the class—he is so awesome. Most of the people in his class are seniors, so it's not that hardcore. It's just a lot of sweating, a lot of jumping, pushups, and sit-ups. He plays great New York 90s jams and a lot of Caribbean music, too. The Caribbean vibes are all over New York. It's unreal. I feel so privileged to live here. I know it's not for everyone, but the fact that you're elbow to elbow with so many different people in this city is amazing. I get tears in my eyes sometimes just walking down the street. I've lived here four years, and it's still just as exciting. It's so beautiful—I can't imagine living anywhere else.

Cough Drops Wrappers and Contact Solution Bottles

Those wrappers are R-i-i-i-i-cola! Honey lemon cough drops! I was getting sick with the weather change. Allergies were insane a few weeks ago in a way that I had never experienced before, too. I was at Walgreens, and everything was sold out. It was like a cartoon with tons of people blowing their noses and asking, "Where do I get this?!" while the shelves were completely empty.

The bottle is my contact solution. I have terrible, terrible vision—I'm blind. It's painful. I got glasses when I was 12. But I was fine with it. I had glasses and braces, but I felt pretty confident with my nerdiness. I switched to contacts in early high school. But I would never get LASIK. I am very skeptical about that sort of stuff. I'm worried that people's eyeballs are going to fall out ten years later because there's not that much research on it. When it comes to your eyes, I feel like you need to know someone is fine 40 years later. That worries me. I could see a surgery with your hand or maybe even your ears, but your eyes? New technology on your eyeballs is way too terrifying.

Go see One Sweet Day at the Hole in New York City from July 26 through September 3. For more info, visit the TheHoleNYC.com.

Follow Jaimie Warren, Wilbert L. Cooper, and Eric Helgas on Instagram.

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