The first time I saw Jaimie Warren she was in a big, striped t-shirt dribbling tomato soup through her teeth and down her chin with a demonic smile on her face. She’s a photographer from Kansas whose utterly brilliant self portraits have slowly started to attract worldwide attention in the past decade. The soup-dribbling picture was a comprehensive introduction to her work. Inspired by 1990s sitcoms, viral memes, art history and R.Kelly’s legendary rap opera Trapped in the Closet, there is one element that connects all of Jaimie’s imagery together and that’s costumes. Whether she’s making herself look like a lasagne or a William-Adolphe Bouguereau painting, Jaimie’s inimitable skills lie in her ability to morph into an entirely different being using the finest fabrics the local thrift store has to offer. As well as creating ludicrously laborious homages to internet trends, Jaimie co-runs arts initiative Whoop Dee Doo with friends Matt Roache and Erin Zona. It’s a travelling group of artists who encourage young people to collaborate in the most weird and wonderfully experimental ways possible.
In her latest series of personal images Jaimie has recreated a world-famous 1423 Fra Angelico painting, replacing Christ and the Saints with people that she, her mother and her grandmother believe have been pillars of inspiration throughout their lives. Cue costume cameos from legends such as Mr Peanut, Ru Paul, Pink Floyd, Roseanne Barr and Stevie Wonder among others, acted out by the seemingly endless amount of people queueing up to assist Jaimie in her exploits – probably because as well as being a one-of-a-kind artist, she’s also absolutely bloody hilarious.
When did you start getting into self portraits?
When I graduated college the first photographs I had published were for Vice magazine. They were looking for a picture to go with an article called Ode to the Fat Friend and I submitted a picture of myself, this really immediate, self-deprecating image, and they started asking me for more self portraits and I was like, “Well, I don’t take self portraits!” Then I looked through all my images and realised I actually had hundreds of them that I had just been making for my own entertainment, and people were really responding to it. Then I started experimenting with costuming. There was this underground drag theatre in Kansas City called Late Night Theatre that had the most incredible shows and parties and costumes and did the most amazing performances and that was hugely inspirational for me and for the work that I was making and the kids’ show we ended up doing. When you’re in a small arts community you’re always branching out into different subcultures and that helps with the kids’ show as well because it left this craving for diversity that’s not right in front of you like it can be in New York, you know?
I hear you’ve been given grants for your work, how did that come about?
That’s one of the great things about Kansas City; there’s a lot of financial support for artists. Right now I have a free 2,500 square foot studio space for three years with no rent and no utilities, which is crazy!
Tell us about the Totally Looks Like project?
There’s three different series I have going on right now that are me recreating images that are either collages or Photoshop images or pairings of made-on-the-internet images by anonymous users. One of them is a series where people have made these crazy Photoshops about art history and one is where people mix celebrities into food, like Pretzel Rod Stewart or Lasagne Del Rey. And with Totally Looks Like there’s thousands of these, where people just pair up two images together. It’s usually a celebrity with an animal or food or an object or another person and they’re saying “Oh this person totally looks like this!” And they’re really funny! It’s totally my sense of humour because it’s silly and ridiculous. A cool thing for me would be if somebody who actually created these Photoshops saw that someone like me spent time remaking something that potentially took them a really, really short time to do. Especially some of the larger scale ones I’ve made. One of them had taken a William Bouguereau painting and put a bunch of Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordans with basketballs and jerseys on in it, and that’s like one of the biggest ones we’ve recreated. There’s babies and a real donkey and a horse in it and it’s all just from someone’s ridiculous Photoshopped Chicago Bulls-themed painting from the 1800s. I’m hoping that they’ll come across my version and be like, “Oh my God, someone did this? This is insane!”
Do you spend a lot of time on the internet?
I do and I don’t because I try to stay away from social media but I check up on all the memes and stuff on I Can Haz Cheezburger? That houses the majority of what I’m looking for. I’ve also started trying to do more video projects so I look at GIFs or the world’s best Vines on YouTube. I love how weird memes and these things that catch on, they’re just so strange they can be spread so quickly. It’s awesome!
It’s almost a kind of humour that didn’t exist ten years ago, it’s just happened.
I don’t even know how to explain it. I’m sure people will have written giant papers on what this all means. It’s odd, so odd.
There’s something of an art movement about it, isn’t there? People who didn’t used to create anything are now making these quick, little pictures which are spreading so fast. And now you’re making even more of an art movement by recreating that. It’s like a big meta movement.
Yeah I know, I’m thinking I want to try and get into more fans and tribute dedication stuff for people that I really love. I’m obsessed right now with watching this Michael Jackson tribute video where they’re playing some super intense song and it’s just clip after clip of his fans freaking out and fainting and it nearly made me cry it’s so intense. But I can totally relate to it because I was super obsessed with Michael Jackson when I was younger too. I’m really into the idea of making a fan video, maybe even remaking tribute videos with myself as the fans? With myself as each character.
You seem to gravitate towards icons. Does the general idea of celebrity interest you?
Yeah definitely. Not so much with stuff going on right now as much as stuff that I was watching when I was growing up. More like as a teenager, I feel like those were my most intense years and where I would have been more obsessed with Michael Jackson or really strong characters like that. And of course Roseanne. Roseanne I grew up with, big time, so she influenced almost everything I do. She’s the ultimate punk. Roseanne is a fucking punk!
There’s nothing like her. She had this humour that is so unlike anyone else, she just managed to be really feminist but without ramming it down your throat, it was just that she was in charge, she was wearing the trousers.
So who else inspires you to make your work?
I think a good example is Trapped in the Closet by R.Kelly. That is a super important piece of artwork that is absolutely brilliant and I wish I could make work that good one day. It’s just mind-blowingly insane, I cannot believe it. That’s been my favourite thing ever for many years and gosh, who else? Just characters really, like Miss Piggy and Elvira.
My latest project had, like, 200 people in it. It’s actually five photos in total, and it’s a remake of a Fra Angelico painting. In this photo is all my favourite kind of female icons I grew up with. In the middle big one I’m the Jesus character but I’m dressed as Missy Elliott in the big blow up garbage outfit from the Supa Dupa Fly video. There’s everyone: Madonna, Courtney Love, RuPaul, Miss Piggy, Nicki Minaj, Dolly Parton, Kathy Bates, God there’s so many good ones. The smaller panels on the far right and far left are my favourite male characters which were almost all Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder and Flavor Flav. Oh yeah! My current favourite thing that I am obsessed with is The Surreal Life. Do you know about that?
It’s this reality show that I think MTV put on where they put a really random mix of celebrities in a house together and filmed them. A love relationship formed between Flavor Flav and Brigitte Nielsen – who’s an actress who used to be married to Sylvester Stallone. She’s this giant, Amazonian woman and she’s like two feet taller than Flavor Flav and together they made a spin-off show called Strange Love. Strange Love was about Flavor Flav courting Brigitte Nielsen and their relationship. The two of them together is so amazing and I’m really obsessed with that right now.
Anyway, back to the big photo. On the left is people my grandma was inspired by and on the right is people that my mom was inspired by. People that affected her or prominent characters throughout her life that visually stuck out. I can reference that image to find out which people inspire me. I’ve just made this giant homage to that.
There are a lot of people in it, it must have taken so long to arrange it all.
Yeah. It’s not Photoshopped and that’s actually one of five photos. In addition to being photographed I filmed it as a kind of a painting that comes to life and they all sing That’s What Friends Are For by Stevie Wonder. So it’s like this crazy, choreographed, five panel video as well. I sing the Dionne Warwick part of the song and the girl from The Exorcist is below me and she kind of crawls out and does the spider walk with blood coming out of her mouth and then she sings the Stevie Wonder part and we’re holding hands. It’s kinda crazy! The idea is that when it’s exhibited you’d go into the gallery space and the video surrounds you. We recorded everyone singing the song in harmony so it’s a five channel surround sound audio piece of the Stevie Wonder song. It sounds like a church choir and feels like you’re in a church environment.
So there’s a lot of people in these photos, are they friends or did you put ads out for helpers?
That’s Kansas City. The main person that helps me with the photos is Lee Heinemann who also works in the studio with me but I also have six other people helping me make props and costumes and fix the hair and make-up. All the wigs and stuff were made especially for this, the costumes were made and found. All the people that helped create the lighting and costumes actually ended up being in the pictures as well. It’s one of the great things about Kansas City; people are just super happy to help. The fact the video is to the tune of That’s What Friends Are For and in the images are people that have inspired me or my mom or my grandma, and then people that were in the images are all people in my community that have been helping me for years makes it a very meaningful piece to me.
It’s cool that your mum and grandma inspired you to do this.
Definitely. Especially my mom because she’s always supported me and she’s always been weird. Even though she doesn’t understand what I do or why I do it she’s always encouraged me to be independent and do my own thing and not care what other people think and stuff. She’s rad.
Do you design the costumes yourself?
It’s a really big range. A lot of things are found at thrift stores and altered so it depends from project to project. This one is more about props and alterations rather than one big crazy costume, although it depends on the character; because with Mr Peanut obviously we had to make something for him, or Carol Channing from Hello Dolly, or Princess Diana – it all depends on how extravagant the character is. And then all the angels and nuns and saints, those costumes were made by someone called Lindsey Griffith. Lee Heinemann takes on the more extravagant costumes and the wigs. He made an amazing Tina Turner wig.
What does it feel like when you wear a costume?
The Missy Elliott one was crazy because even though it looks like I’m in the garbage bag outfit I’m actually in a fake façade and lying horizontally on scaffolding high up above everybody. Essentially it’s a giant costume because my head is sticking through a hole in the backdrop. I love costuming. It’s interesting too because I’m putting all these different characters on the same level where it sparks up interesting conversation because I can be portraying a white woman, a latino woman, a black man, an artichoke or Lasagne Del Rey at any time. And also in this really huge piece you have men being women, a black man being a white woman or a latino woman being Tina Turner, and I’m playing both Missy Elliott and a nun. All the different kind of role changing is so interesting, and whether that causes discomfort to someone or not it’s an interesting conversation to have. And obviously there are certain potential levels of discomfort for this kind of thing, especially if we’re changing someone’s race. But we’re also having them be a particular person, and these are all people that I have a lot of respect for that they’re morphing into. It’s not changing them into a stereotype, it’s somebody specific.