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Finding the pagan beneath our masks

CAMBRIDGE -- Some years ago, I saw this ridiculous video in a chic New York gallery. It showed two people mock wrestling in a small, well-kept, white-walled apartment. One was a skinny guy wearing a Mexican- style lucha libre mask and a long underwear suit with rubber buttocks protruding from the bottom flap. The other was a professional Michael Jackson imitator. The video went on to no clear purpose for less than four minutes, but it seemed to last forever.

I thought at the time it was a stupid work of art, but wouldn't you know it, the artist, Cameron Jamie -- the guy in the long underwear -- has gone on to enjoy considerable international success. He's been included in the Whitney Biennial , the Venice Biennale's International Theater Festival , and group exhibitions in major European venues like the Pompidou Center in Paris, where he lives, and the Reina Sofia National Museum in Madrid.

Now the video I thought was so dumb is on view in an exhibition at the MIT List Visual Arts Center surveying Jamie's 20-year career . Philippe Vergne , chief curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, organized the show, where it debuted last July.

I was prepared to hate the exhibition. I imagined it would be pretentious, self-indulgent, and unnecessarily obscure, which it is. It's like the work of a precocious undergraduate who has learned a little bit about conceptualism but nothing about respect for the viewer. What I wasn't prepared for was to be drawn in by the ideas underlying Jamie's work and to be won over by the three films on which his reputation mainly rests.

Born in Los Angeles in 1969 and raised in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, Jamie is a lover of kitsch and a self-styled scholar of suburban myths and rituals. Going by this exhibition, however, determining what exactly are his intellectual concerns is not easy. The show is, by turns, confusingly diverse and irritatingly oblique.

Included are scribbly drawings by Jamie that look like they were made by a high school stoner and drawings by professional street artists and illustrators that Jamie commissioned. Two different series of photographs depict suburban Halloween haunted houses and young people dressed Goth-style. An hourlong video documents teenage boys who produce their own backyard pro-style wrestling tournaments.

A video compilation of weird and goofy clips from public access television looks like it could have been downloaded from YouTube. A set of demonic hairy masks with grotesque wooden faces and multiple horns was made on commission by an Austrian craftsman.

What you have to realize about all this is that none of it is to be taken at face value as traditional art. It only starts to make sense if you think of Jamie as a sort of amateur anthropologist-philosopher who studies the persistence of myth and ritual in modern society.

When, for example, he hires street artists to draw cartoon characters based on a coconut carved to resemble a pirate (a tourist souvenir) or to produce fleshed-out portraits based on a photocopy of his hand with cartoon eyes added, it seems at first like a Dada-style joke. But such works are part of a larger endeavor to reveal how readily fantasy and stereotypes transform reality in the human psyche.

The photographic studies of haunted houses and of Goth youth show how shared fantasies create alternative worlds. From Jamie's perspective, paganism in many different forms continually percolates just below the supposedly rational surface of modern society. Some viewers may recognize his debt to the similarly anthropologically-minded Los Angeles artist Mike Kelley as well as to the performance artist Paul McCarthy, a Dionysian explorer of the dark side of human consciousness.

Jamie's mission becomes more clear in a trilogy of films ranging from 18 to 26 minutes that he made between 1998 and 2003. They are transporting. The first two focus on American subjects: a backyard wrestling tournament and haunted houses. The third concerns a traditional Austrian Christmas ritual.

What is remarkable about the films is how immersive they are. Using handheld cameras and a roaring musical accompaniment by The Melvins, a West Coast noise band, he enables viewers to feel viscerally the tension between mundane reality and the power of the fantasies that his subjects act out.

This happens most persuasively in "Spook House," which begins with a slow car tour of a quiet suburban neighborhood in Detroit and builds to a churning, apocalyptic climax in a surrealistically layered montage of images of Halloween yard decorations and haunted houses. It's not scary like a horror movie because the amateurish artificiality of all the props and costumes that you see is too obvious. And yet, partly because of the ominous sound of The Melvins, it brings to life a hellish underworld of horrific violence, demonic mayhem, and triumphant death.

In the wrestling film, called "BB," we see in grainy black and white teenage boys, some wearing masks or face paint, subjecting each other to the patently fake, death-defying moves learned from watching professional wresting. They compete in a makeshift, backyard ring made, evidently, from mattresses, tarps, and skewed corner poles from which loose ropes dangle.

The film is like an ethnographic recording of an exotic tribal ritual. It's not real violence that we witness but a grass-roots theater of violence prompted as much by deep - seated instinctual impulses as by the spectacle of contemporary mass entertainment.

The third film, "Kranky Klaus," concerns a Christmas ritual called Krampus that takes place in a small Austrian village. Men in hairy suits with spherical bells the size of coconuts belted to their waists and scary horned masks over their heads accompany a benevolent bishop with a long white beard to pubs and private homes. The bishop gives out gifts and the demons playfully but aggressively assault people and threaten them for their supposed misbehaviors.

As in the other films, the fantasy keeps tending to override the reality. You see the masquerade for what it is -- pure and somewhat comical theater -- but you also feel a strangely thrilling and at times frightening psychological intensity.

Jamie doesn't make any explicit social, political, or moral points in these works; he errs on the side of under-explaining. A more recent film called "JO," which juxtaposes scenes of a parade honoring Joan of Arc in France with a second segment documenting a Fourth of July hot dog - eating contest in Coney Island, is less compelling because it's so obviously a snide commentary on patriotism.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from Jamie's art, it would be that however rational and commonsensical we think we are, we are all subject to the power of archetypal images, irrational fantasies, and mythic narratives, often when we are least aware of it. Recognizing this may be a first step toward gaining control over the creative and destructive effects of primitive fantasy on our troubled real world.

Ken Johnson can be reached at


Cameron Jamie

At: MIT List Visual Art Center through July 8. 617-253-4400,