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All dolled up, but not sure where it’s headed

Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time there was a girl named Marnie Weber. She liked to dress up in costume and perform stories. She cut out pictures and glued them together in new combinations. She designed her own dollhouse, furnishing it from her imagination.

Sounds like ordinary child’s play -- and it is, but it’s also the foundation of a prolific and ambitious artistic oeuvre, encompassing film and video, sculpture, installation, performance and photo collage. The L.A.-based Weber hasn’t had a solo show in the area in five years, but two current offerings bring us up to date. Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery presents a five-year survey, “From the Dust Room,” that leaves off before the most recent body of work, which is on view at Rosamund Felsen Gallery. In addition, Weber will premiere a performance piece, “The Spirit Girls: Songs That Never Die,” on Oct. 22 in the Luckman Intimate Theatre.

Familiar forms of playacting serve as scaffolding for Weber’s work. What that elaborate structure actually supports, in the way of meaning, is left amorphous. Mostly the scaffolding seems to stand for its own sake. Thinly defined characters in sketchy, fragmented narratives hang from it. Scenes of surreal disjunction perch on it. Thematic threads twine through it, ends left dangling. For all the weighty symbols and subjects Weber engages (the afterlife, sex, our relationship with the animal world), her work ends up feeling light and strangely thin. Yet there is never a lack of things to look at. The photo collages, especially, are visually dense, and the films and videos, like brief, hallucinatory dreams, also keep the eye, at least, engaged.

Schooled in L.A., Weber (born in 1959) cites the influence of Alexis Smith and Chris Burden. Her use of masks and abject characters also bears the imprint of Paul McCarthy. She owes a debt as well to a generation of female artists who ventured slyly into the territory of feminized performance in the ‘60s and ‘70s, especially Eleanor Antin, who has assumed a variety of characters in work that moves fluidly between film, installation and photography.

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Though Weber creates work in discrete series, there is much interplay between them, and between her work in different media. The costumes she designs (burlesque Halloween versions of bears, possums, snails and rabbits) are worn by actor-friends in the films, placed on mannequins and displayed as sculpture; in the newest work, photographs of them are also incorporated into the collages.

Weber’s dollhouse -- a quirky 11-room, 6-by-10-foot cottage -- stands as an independent sculpture, and photographs of the rooms provide the settings for a series of collages. The dollhouse work is Weber’s most intricate and curious, weaving together aspects of sanctuary, fantasy and nostalgia. Adding weather and items of disjunctive scale to the interiors makes them both frightful and marvelous. One bedroom is a frosty cavern. Another boasts an opulent split staircase with a waterfall cascading down the middle. For the collages, Weber populates the rooms with an odd assortment of cutout characters: an organ-playing bear, a clutch of bunnies atop a hearth, bats with women’s heads clinging to stalactites.

Theatricality reigns supreme in Weber’s work, and the dollhouse tableaux carry over to similar shallow, stage-like spaces in the newest collages. These are peopled with photographs of “Spirit Girls,” the artist and others in pallid masks, long wigs and nightgowns. In one tender, silly scene, the girls cluster around a rustic house, teddy bears in their laps and arms, up in the trees and on the roof. In another, 10 of the figures busy themselves on or around a tree dropping oversized autumn leaves. With their miniature props, painted backgrounds and stagy lighting, the scenes have the feel of dioramas. Skewed scale gives them a charming awkwardness, but their emotional tone is hard to read. Elements haunting, absurd, kitschy and endearing end up neutralizing one another.

Populating her make-believe realm with women and (mostly) gender-free animals, Weber reinforces the age-old association of nature with the female sex. Animals act as guardians and companions in the scenes, but equally as decorative accessories. The women are vaguely empowered by this kinship, but many are, by definition, frail characters: flowers, sex kittens, girly girls. Few transcend the weakness of their stereotype.

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Weber flirts with ideas of innocence, exploitation and dislocation, but largely skirts substance and goes (in the collages, especially) for ornament and baroque excess. She likes to play with artifice and convention, but mainly, she just likes to play.

*

‘Marnie Weber: From the Dust Room’

Where: Luckman Gallery,

Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive, Los Angeles

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays; closed Fridays and Sundays

Ends: Oct. 29

Price: Free gallery admission

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Contact: (323) 343-6610, www.luckmanfineartscomplex.org

Also

What: “Ghost Love, the Spirit Girls,” Rosamund Felsen Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., B4, Santa Monica, through Oct. 8. Closed Sunday and Monday. (310) 828-8488. www.rosamundfelsen.com


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