Something to See Here
Actor Jim Carrey’s serial humor belies his artful quest to make sense of the world and affect people’s lives
Jim Carrey installation view at Heather James Fine Art
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GREGG FELSEN
Black lights perched on two towers point toward High Visibility, a 16-foot-tall, Pop-style painting filled with figuratively drawn archetype characters and winding text that’s at once emotional, philosophical, and moral. It is a dizzying swirl of love, lust, betrayal, abandonment, and other emotional bondage — each as personal in conception as it is universal to its audience.
“This is the first time I’ve seen the painting upright,” says the artist, Jim Carrey, who worked more than 400 hours on the piece in his New York studio. “Physically, it was a tremendous challenge working on sections of it while hanging from scaffolding and with all the emotional ups and downs.”
The painting arrived at Heather James Fine Art in Palm Desert on a flatbed truck — one of 40 works in the comic actor’s first solo exhibition, Nothing to See Here.
Carrey, who turns 50 this month, directs his assistants and the gallery staff to position the lights for optimum effect. “I’m addicted to the idea of creation,” he beams. “I think you’re kidding yourself if you think you’re creating for yourself. You create for other people to experience it.”
Two days later, the gallery — which typically shows Impressionist and Modern masters and the cream of contemporary art — would open the exhibition to an exclusive guest list.
After determining how to conceal the light towers, Carrey walks through the gallery’s three salons, inspecting the installation, which includes two larger-than-life Fiberglas sculptures, two videos, and a Twitter conversation projected and scrolling on facing walls.
Looking toward the part of High Visibility that shows a man and woman embracing, he reads the woman’s illuminated quote: “… and when the whole of me is not enough, what then when I’m older. Will your light be kind[?]”
Text permeates many of his paintings. He even jokes about creating his own typeface for his distinctive script.
The paintings in the show include Pop-style portraits of friends, such as Pamela Anderson, whose eyes reflect a man silhouetted by the moon, and social commentaries, like the one about gossips: Have You Heard What They Are Saying?
Possibly the most compelling picture is The Unfinished Abandonment of Self — a near throwaway. “It sat on the easel for a long time,” Carrey says. “I got sick of looking at it. I shredded it up, and I went to take a shower. Then I realized it wasn’t about me; it was about being invisible, getting past this selfish place. Visibility is being upfront and honest. No one wants to see that.”
In the painting, a male figure, literally coming apart, stands in front of a long, single-story white house with a Post-Impressionist-style tree in the yard. The work displays plenty of evidence — from the sophisticated composition to perfectly rendered bricks with slightly varied values of red — that the funnyman possesses fine art chops.
Carrey had reassembled the 35x45-inch painting by stitching the pieces with black wire — a technique that also surfaces in Heart Upon Re-entry, Hard Upon Re-entry, Hard Up On Re-entry.
“When I’m involved in creation, whether it be a movie, a painting, a joke, a song, or a sculpture, it stops the world for me,” he says in his artist statement (“I hope you read it. I worked really hard on it.”). “At best, I think an artist’s work also stops the viewer from thinking, worrying, or dressing what they are looking at with their mood or interpretation, bringing them into presence as well.”
He achieves this by addressing personal issues that resonate beyond himself — such as the paintings in his Shattered series, which he says are about “broken people. We’re all broken.” These pictures, “shattered” with brushstrokes, include We’re Not on the Same Page, a diptych showing a figure throwing a punch on one side and taking a punch on the other side; Lohan, which shows the actress in her 40s and being led into court by two men who lust after her; and Hooray, We’re All Broken, which consists of traced silhouettes of his own gesticulating body.
He finished the latter piece relatively quickly compared to, say, Disappearing at the Laser Peel Party, with which he became bored painting the minutiae of details. It features three robed women, devilishly red, one with a pointed tongue. Her claw-like fingers clutch an American Express Gold Card, while the woman flanking her left side looks on with a rolled-up dollar bill and a bottle of Belvedere vodka. “I probably worked on 20 paintings before I came back to it,” Carrey says. “But boredom has a real payoff for me. I figured out my scraping technique [used on the Shattered paintings]. Everything painful has a payoff for me.”
One payoff reveals itself in One Last Push, a 9x12-foot, black light-enhanced painting that he exhibits with a video projected on the gallery’s cement floor. If the soundtrack seems familiar, it’s because John Mayer came by and played guitar while Carrey worked on this emotionally wrenching piece.
“We met at Saturday Night Live,” Carrey says. “I love the energy he brings. He’s one of the greatest guitar players of our day.”
But the painting is serious business, with roots deep into his childhood: a drunken grandfather (whom Carrey imitated at the age of 7, unwittingly helping his family heal) and a mother so depressed that she believed her life held no value. “I carried that around with me my whole life,” Carrey says. “I still do. Once I knew my [humor] could help people, I consciously made a decision to be like my dad, who could hold the attention of a room, and prove to my mother that she’s worth something, that she created a miracle in me.”
Although Carrey has made painting his full-time endeavor for only a couple years, he has expressed himself this way since he was in elementary school. “I was scolded for sketching the teachers,” he says. “I’d finish assignments early and then draw. After I became famous [on the TV comedy In Living Color], my sixth-grade teacher sent me sketches she had confiscated. She kept them because she thought they were cute. She also knew how to harness the energy. If I was quiet, she would give me 15 minutes at the end of class to perform. Today, I’d be on Ritalin, and Ace Ventura would have never been made.”
One Last Push allowed Carrey to release his pent-up guilt and find some measure of peace. “I believe the purpose of art is to bring people into presence, to free them from thoughts of their past or their future,” he declares in his artist statement. “This involvement, this presence, this Freedom From Concern is what I playfully refer to as The Church of FFC.
“Bringing Freedom From Concern has been my life’s mission from the time I knew I could bring relief as a child, first to my family, who struggled with illness, addiction, and poverty, and then to the world. It is what I now seek for myself: freedom through honesty, freedom through absurdity, freedom through expression of every kind. My greatest hope for this exhibition is that you find something here that stops the world for you.”
Tap into the real life of Jim Carrey at his new website, www.jimcarreytrulife.com