Cameron Jamie’s first New York solo exhibition looked back to medieval Austria, centering on 11 ornately grotesque wooden masks reminiscent of those worn, to this day, by villagers channeling Krampus (a kind of anti-Santa Claus) and his band of demons, who in December street revels sometimes playfully whip those—particularly children and attractive young women—alleged to have been “naughty.” Collectively titled Smiling Disease (2008), the works also reference Perchten,festival masks that devotees of the ancient Germanic goddess Perchta once used to ward off evil spirits. The sculptural disguises, which the artist commissioned from an Austrian carver, are gnarled and fleshy-looking, with matted, shaggy fur from various animals serving as hair. The toothy, painfully wrought faces are delicately assembled and smile, seeming to relish the irony of their elegant abjection. Each mounted on a single bare tree branch stuck in a flat-cut section of log to form a pedestal, they were shown in a rough circle, as if conferring among themselves or conspiring with any viewer who dared to step into the center.
Jamie, a 41-year-old, American-born artist now living in Paris, is best known for films that focus on social groups and activities excluded from official culture, which makes his forays into formal display interesting. His theatrically presented masks call attention to their function as props, and to the silence of their surroundings. Though he has shot Krampus parades, the footage was not presented in the show. The masks were accompanied instead by inky drawings and semiabstract ceramic sculptures. Most of the works on paper feature black lines and drips arrayed around an axis in a manner that recalls the Surrealist practice of automatic drawing. They are mounted on boards to suggest windows in a door, a facile metaphor for a peek through a closed portal. Like the masks, they invoke a narrow psychological zone between control and release. Jamie’s ceramic works take the form of deformed birds, emerging seemingly prematurely from their deliberately clumsy bases. They are exquisitely painted, dignified when they look like a phallus, and morbidly funny when they look like a pile of excrement. Fantasy, it seems, holds opposing psychic forces waiting to emerge.