Last Sunday night, an overflowing crowd packed tightly into the small front room of American Medium in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood, the space bordering on mosh pit levels of density. Everyone was there to witness a performance by the artist Jaimie Warren, part of the opening of her new show “Somebody to Love.”
For the weeks leading up to her show, Warren was an artist-in-residence of sorts, taking over American Medium’s office and creating an installation in the front room. She enlisted the help of three local high school students to recreate the bottom left panel of a 14th-century religious work by the Italian painter Matteo di Pacino—an amputation scene—on their own terms, which in this case means a lovingly handmade set and actors dressed up as characters from American pop culture (Britney and Justin, Lil’ Kim, Michael Jackson, Gucci Mane). The end result is a music video, shown in the gallery alongside the installation.
“The past few projects I’ve done have been residencies where I’ve picked a piece from art history, working with the community to remake what the history of that painting is or what those symbols mean, and then just bring it to life,” Warren told me after the performance.
“Somebody to Love”—which is naturally scored by a synth-heavy remix of the Queen classic of the same name—tells the story of a nun who turns into Freddie Mercury shortly after performing an amputation on a leg stricken with the plague. The nun then falls in love with the leg, played by an actor wearing the leg as a mask. From there, things get very surreal, before ending on a positive note.
“Basically, it becomes this love story, as are most of my favorite Queen songs. So they find a way, even though the plague shakes their world for a while, and makes everything very psychedelic and scary,” Warren said. “But then, in the end, love prevails.”
Sunday night’s performance took place inside of that same installation, but with a different program (”I didn’t want to repeat what we did in the video, but I wanted to bring the installation to life,” Warren explained). The show opened with a performance of “On My Own” by Patti Labelle and Michael McDonald, with Warren dressed as Freddie Mercury, singing a duet alongside a singer in a skinhead punk costume (sample fake tat: “life sucks scum fuck”).
Throughout the short (four-song) performance, a Jason Mask-clad DJ swayed in the background and queued up songs. The theme from the horror classic Halloween was used as costume-change music. The whole show had a cheekily ominous undertone that was perhaps fitting for an installation based around a painting of an amputation.
The performance ended with a spirited full-cast version of “I Just Called to Say I Love You” by Stevie Wonder, with Warren in full-on Wonder garb. Following that, the kicker: the iconic Saturday Night Live closing theme blasted while the full cast—at this point a warped configuration of over 30 years of American cultural touchstones—hugged each other and confetti flew everywhere. The cast then went “backstage” and performed the song a couple more times.
In “Somebody to Love,” different traditions—drag, fan fiction, public access television, community theater—are synthesized to create something new. Warren operates as both fan and community organizer, re-imagining American icons and deftly balancing cultural input and output.
Until recently, Warren was based in Kansas City, where she was a part of an ecstatic creative community that included Cody Critcheloe’s longstanding project Ssion (now based in New York) and the fashion designer Peggy Noland (who splits time between Los Angeles and Kansas City). For years, Warren has staged performative photographs that recall the work of John Waters or Cindy Sherman. Kansas City is also where Warren created the children’s television show Whoop Dee Doo, which helped lay the foundation for much of her current work. “I didn’t start really making objects until I was working with kids,” she said.
Warren is currently teaching a class for New York City high school students at the Museum of Modern Art that explores “the boundaries of performance, video, and good taste.” When asked about future dream projects, Warren said that Little Richard came to her mind, namely a tribute project with “like 200 Little Richards going insane.”
“Some sort of public transportation space,” she continued, “whether it was an entire subway car or a ferry, where every person that was going from point A to point B would have this crazy Little Richard experience. This insane party with his energy nonstop.”