You probably know Jemima Kirke from her role as aloof, impossibly chic Jessa on HBO’s Girls, but before she fell into acting at the behest of childhood friend Lena Dunham, she was already an accomplished painter, known for her moody, evocative portraits, often featuring friends and family.
The paintings in The Ceremony, her new show at New York’s Sargent’s Daughters, build on this intimate style of portraiture but add another element: Each of Kirke’s subjects, including herself, are depicted in their wedding gowns.
Kirke, who recently went through a divorce from her husband of seven years, had a variety of reasons for wanting to paint women in wedding garb, not least of all the fact that she, like an increasing number of women, views weddings and the industrial complex that surrounds them around them as antiquated and silly. Yet, paradoxically, it’s also something that she and many of her loved ones have felt drawn to participate in, to one degree or another.
“Weddings are totally irrational. And while the approach may vary – it’s still a relatively unquestioned norm. So many smart, independent, and progressive women I know having willingly participated in it. I just wanted to understand that better,” Kirke told us in an interview. “Also a psychic once told me I’d paint women in veils and I didn’t want her to be wrong.”
The exhibition includes portraits of Kirke’s actress sister Domino as well as her Girls co-star Allison Williams, though Kirke says questions about the identities of the people in her paintings are by far her least favorite. “If this is the only commentary my paintings receive, then I feel as though one of us, either me or the viewer, hasn’t committed to their job. Paintings don’t need credits,” she explains.
But when looking at Kirke’s women – all of whom are hauntingly beautiful, dressed to the nines, and tinged with a distinct sense of melancholy – it’s impossible not to wonder who they are. Also: Who did they marry? Did it last? And, of course, where in the world did they get that incredible gown? But it’s also hard to imagine that viewers will spend too much time focusing on the small smattering of famous faces in the exhibition. Kirke’s aesthetic is far too complex, at once mysterious and confrontational, eye-catching yet kind of hard to look too long at, for it to be all about that.
Interestingly, it was some of Kirke’s divorced subjects who were the most eager to get back in their gowns, whether due to a strong sense of irony or a desire to reclaim the garment and all that it stands for. Kirke’s self-portraits, meanwhile, were imagined. “I didn’t need to depict the actual dress. I already knew my feelings about my own marriage,” she says.
It’s rare to see brides presented in such a raw, unromanticized manner, and it goes a long way in unpacking the pretense and pageantry of wedding culture. Weddings are crammed with so much expectation. It’s supposed to be the most radiant you’ve ever looked, the most fulfilled you’ve ever felt, one day of your life where absolutely everything is perfect. No pressure, though! But rarely does anyone stop to ask what it’s all really for–or, what happens after.
“There are really only two kinds of weddings that make sense,” according to Kirke. “Green card weddings or glorified performances. Like the big, fuck-off-expensive, potentially themed, rent out the fucking Sistine chapel, two-day bender, double musical act, multiple food stations, bride-doing-coke-in-the bathroom, bridesmaids getting laid, pay off the neighbors, pay off the cops kinda weddings. They’ve gotta be sincere.”
The more time you spend perusing Pinterest, the more you realize sincerity often feels like the thing most unfortunately far-removed from contemporary wedding culture, and it’s refreshing to see someone finally starting a dialogue about that reality. After all, as woke as we may be, the pull towards the princess dress of our childhood fantasies can be shockingly strong. But that doesn’t mean we have to ignore the outmoded, often blatantly anti-feminist realities of the ritual we’re choosing to buy into, or the tackiness of the way it’s marketed to us.
Jemima Kirke’s The Ceremony is on display at Sargent’s Daughters from December 13, 2017 – January 21, 2018.