You may know her as the free-spirited Jessa in oft-discussed HBO show Girls, but Jemima Kirke considers herself more painter than actor. Her third solo exhibition, The Ceremony, is currently on view at Lower East Side gallery Sargent’s Daughters. A series of portraits depicting both friends and fictional women in their wedding dresses, the show seeks to interrogate why women still partake in this “antiquated ceremony.” A few days after the opening, we met with Kirke at the gallery to talk marriage, the #metoo movement, and recent controversy involving her castmate Lena Dunham.
I notice generally nobody’s smiling in these.
I don’t really have anyone smiling in my paintings. I suppose I want someone to just be sitting there without doing an action and I feel like a smile is sort of an action. It’s the same reason I haven’t painted someone braiding their hair.
I put [one] smile on; that one worked because she’s kind of disassociated from the smile. Not even a Mona Lisa thing. She looks high to me.
Is the not smiling part of your questioning of marriage?
If I could keep going, I would have more brides smiling. But it does suit that because wearing a wedding dress is such a performance. I wanted the contrast of sitting in costume and not being in costume. I’m doing a painting of my son in his karate uniform. He’s five. And even that’s coming out in a similar way.
Is your opinion on marriage different now than it was when you started the series?
I can’t really remember how I felt about it specifically when I started, other than I was really perplexed by it. I was curious why we do it. Because I myself have done it, and would do it again. Painting a series with a theme is just an opportunity to sit in one room and think about one thing for a long time. I sat in my studio; it looked like David’s Bridal. Dresses everywhere.
It’s interesting; I finished the series right when the #metoo thing started. This helped me understand what my stance is on that. I do feel like the sort of hypervigilance that social media is having on anyone who says anything—it seems like no one is allowed to have opposing views anymore. You have to believe one thing and one thing only, and there can’t be any exception to that rule. And that’s what I find very dangerous. We’re not allowed to have two things be true at once. So for these women, I can accept that some are progressive, liberal, intellectual women who want to put on a white dress.
Are you now focused more on painting as opposed to acting?
Yeah, everything I’m thinking about is in that realm. Unfortunately, because it’s so much less lucrative. But I can’t help it. I want to be able to call my agent and be like, I’m ready! But I’m not. I’m still itching to do new paintings.
Did you talk to your subjects about their views on marriage?
It depends. If they had been divorced, then generally people were really interested in the subject matter. But married, they didn’t really want to discuss it. My friends know me well enough to know I’m not painting you in your wedding dress because it’s beautiful. Some aren’t necessarily ready to hear my—well, not cynicism, it’s just I want to reopen the case.
Just look at it critically?
Yeah. I don’t mind anyone being anything as long as they’re not calling it something else. The two honest ways to get married are for a green card or to do a big, crazy Sean Parker wedding. Because both are sincere; one is for necessity and one is, we want to throw a party and we want you guys to look at us for the whole weekend. Those things in between are where I’m asking questions.
Going back to the #metoo: Normally there are one or two stories like this, and then it sort of fades. But the consistency with which more stories are coming forward—
I’m happy about that. What I’m not happy about is what I was saying before; people’s blanket assessment of the whole thing. Rape to sexual harassment, it’s become almost the same crime, at least on social media. And it seems that no one stands a chance, if they’re accused, of being innocent, if they are. They’re not allowed right now. And it scares me. I don’t feel bad for men, but why are we oversimplifying this? Details always matter. And occasionally, those details will reveal that someone didn’t do it, or there’s a gray area. And I understand the whole idea, we push it a little too far, and unfortunately some people are going to fall through the cracks but it’s for a greater good. We want men to realize this is a real thing.
Lena [Dunham] wrote in defense of a friend of hers. I have no opinion or understanding about whether he was guilty or not, but I do know you’re allowed to have strict principles, but make exceptions sometimes because the truth’s always in the details and she knows those details. Yes, she should not have said something. I understood it as not necessarily “Lena Dunham needs to be heard again,” more as her defending someone who was a good friend and she was in an advantageous position to help them, and she overdid it. I do not criticize her for being inconsistent.
Something I thought was interesting about [Dunham’s] apology was she said it was the “wrong time” for her to say it.
She wasn’t going to say I shouldn’t defend him. That’s what people would probably like her to say, but that’s preposterous because she knows some sort of specifics we don’t know. There’s always moments where you’re going to have to bend your beliefs. And it won’t be wrong or amoral.
The other thing I wanted to say was it surprised me the amount of people who wanted to be painted in a wedding dress who hadn’t been married, who thought they would probably never get married. Over here, that’s my friend ShiShi Rose. She is the fucking spokeswoman on Instagram for social politics. She’s angry as fuck; she speaks at colleges. She was like, Please, can I put on a veil? When she got dressed, she was giddy about it.
It’s probably one of my favorites in here. It’s the epitome of what I’ve been talking about. She stands for all these generations of radical change and social politics and yet she’s sitting there in a wedding dress.
What do you think the future will hold for women’s relationship to marriage?
I don’t know. It seems to be going strong. We want to participate in the pageantry and wear white and get handed off by our fathers. I think that was when I came up with the idea initially, I was at a wedding and they did that and it just struck me as so gross. Why are we still doing that?
Jemima Kirke’s The Ceremony is on view through January 21 at Sargent’s Daughters, 179 East Broadway.