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Minor Threat: The Art of Cameron Jamie

Even within an already markedly diverse oeuvre, Cameron Jamie’s recent work is initially difficult to place. Despite certain iconographic continuities—found most notably in Jamie’s primary leitmotif, the mask—his newly atmospheric pen-and-wash drawings, brightly colored ceramics, and intimate Xerox artists’ books appear to depart starkly from the documentary impulse behind his much-celebrated films. Highlights of his singular filmography include BB, 1998–2000, which captures the dangerous antics and assumed personae of suburban backyard wrestlers; Kranky Klaus, 2002–2003, which follows the elaborately costumed Christmastime devils of the Austrian Krampus festival; and Massage the History, 2007–2009, which portrays the idiosyncratic and highly sexualized form of living-room-furniture dancing developed by a group of young Alabama men (and which is, according to Harmony Korine, “the single greatest dance film ever made”).1 Based largely on his cinematic output, which Jamie has by no means abandoned, his critical reception has thus far overwhelmingly focused on his role as an amateur anthropologist or ethnographer. That the newer work has yet to receive substantial discussion, despite featuring prominently in recent exhibitions, undoubtedly results in large part from its ostensible digression from this paradigm, making a consideration of how it relates to and expands on that paradigm particularly timely.

If Jamie is a “backyard anthropologist,” his backyard in some sense remains the San Fernando Valley, where he grew up.2 Jamie minces no words about his hometown of Northridge, California, which he calls “horrible,” “a very small and dead world,” and akin to “a maximum-security prison,” where a landscape of ubiquitous shopping malls felt like “the end of humanity.”3 Although undoubtedly rooted in biography, Jamie’s outlook should not be reduced to individual angst or even trauma (as some commentators have been led to do), but rather understood as a more general reflection of the socioeconomic conditions of life within increasingly all-encompassing spectacle. In 1988, Guy Debord bitingly characterized the combination of oppressively enforced conformity (the prison) with the near ubiquity of the commodity form (the mall) as the true connotation of Marshall McLuhan’s blithely optimistic term global village. “Villages,” Debord wrote, “unlike towns, have always been ruled by conformism, isolation, petty surveillance, boredom and repetitive malicious gossip about the same families. Which is a precise enough description of the global spectacle’s present vulgarity.”4 The situation is, of course, hardly mitigated by the rampant pseudodifferentiation of both products and identities available at the mall. “It is a matter of running hard to keep up with the inflation of devalued signs of life,” wrote Debord, before inadvertently prophesying America’s suburban meth epidemic: “Drugs help one to come to terms with this state of affairs, while madness allows one to escape from it.”...

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