Marriage is probably the last thing you’d expect to be the subject of a highly personal solo exhibition from an artist who’s trying to get away from being most known as a famous actress, and who’s spent the past year in the news not only because the show that put her on the map finally came to an end, but also because of the announcement that she was divorcing her husband of seven years. Yet Jemima Kirke, who’s been painting much, much longer than acting or even appearing on HBO’s Girls, is not someone to do what you’d expect; in fact, she saw the split as an opportunity to finally explore why women like herself, who otherwise often reject tradition still feel compelled to get married and get caught up in the excitement of finding and wearing a wedding dress.
Her six-month rumination on that apparent contradiction is now on view until January 21 at the Lower East Side gallery Sargent’s Daughters in an exhibition titled “The Ceremony,” a grouping of portraits Kirke has painted of herself, her two sisters—Domino, a singer, who actually had not one but two weddings to Penn Badgely last year, as well as their younger sister Lola, an actress and “madeup bride”—and quite a few of Kirke’s friends, including Allison Williams and the activist and Women’s March organizer ShiShi Rose. In between starring in music videos for everyone from Mick Jagger to Zayn Malik this year, Kirke painted them all—from divorcées to recent, still giddy brides—in search of some sort of epiphany. Here, she shares her findings, along with whether she’d ever get married again and why she thinks a wedding where a bride is doing cocaine in the bathroom is actually quite sincere.
You often spend years on a single painting, and even though I knew your portrait of Allison Williams was in progress when I saw it in your studio about six months ago, I never would have expected it to take on the dark overtones that it now has in this show. When did you start making most of the paintings in this series—and did you always plan for them to be a bit dark?
Yes, I definitely had that in mind. That painting, like all my paintings, started out as one thing, and at the end is completely unrecognizable. I work very fast and that used to mean that I made a ton of paintings in a short amount of time, and now it just means that my paintings go through a major transformation fast and can have 20 different lives. There’s a really tiny self portrait in the show that’s actually 15 years old, though it wasn’t a bride when I started it, but most of them were done recently. I’d love to work on them more, but artists do have to be pragmatic and make money and finish things, so I can’t be precious about all of them—I’ve got to turn out a product just like we all do. Actually, the one I painted of ShiShi in my wedding dress was just two weeks before the show, and it ended up being my favorite one. It was sort of the culmination of all the practice I’ve had over the last six months.
How did you decide who would be in this series? Did it deter anyone when you told them it was going to have more of a questioning rather than celebratory perspective?
I didn’t need to tell most people that that was going to be my approach—most understood that I would be questioning the subject matter. But the divorced women were much more interested and open to talking about it than the married ones, and actually, all of the married ones have only been married for a few years, because a lot of people, to my surprise, don’t have their dress anymore. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’ because my expectation was that everyone would have their dress in f—ing plexiglass in some vault somewhere. But it was much easier to get women who had just gotten married—not that I want to rain on their parade. I just was like, ‘Your dress is beautiful.’ That’s all.
Why did you decide to include yourself?
Because I’m one of them—I’m one of these women who got married. It’s not even my own wedding that I’m thinking and asking myself questions about—it’s more my relationship to weddings. It’s like a pageantry in my head, as I’m sitting there watching everyone try their dresses on or thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I could have done that.’ And, you know, I just wanted to put myself in different dresses. [Laughs.] Because it’s about that, too. ShiShi wore my wedding dress because she isn’t married, and that one was really important for me, because she was an extreme example of a woman who protests and questions and rebels against gender norms. She’s someone who has said that she doesn’t believe in marriage, and that she doesn’t want to get married ever. It’s something we talk about all the time, and especially when I was doing this project—we live together, she rents out a floor in my house—but actually one day she said to me, ‘I want to wear a wedding dress.’ I was surprised at her sort of coy desire to be in the costume, but she really did want it just like any other delusional bride-to-be. And she acknowledged that, too, which was really interesting to me—that no matter who you are, as a woman, there is still that fantasy story of wearing a wedding dress that can turn you all giddy.
So how did it go with your husband [Michael Mosberg, whom she also has two children with], then, when he saw your self-portrait where you definitely look somber?
Well, he and I recognized that it was quite a poignant and self-reflexive painting, and both of us were really scared of those things at the time. That’s one of the things I’m talking about: I think in marriage, you should be able to say to each other as couples, ‘I don’t love you right now and it’s okay, hopefully we get back there.’ I wish the conversation we had had gone, ‘Yeah, I’m struggling in the marriage right now,’ but I think it wasn’t something we were able to face because again, the societal consensus is that everything has to be either good or bad, or right and wrong. But it’s wrong to be married and be unhappy and stay.
Was your sister Domino at all hesitant to be a part of the series, since she got married so recently—and is clearly excited, since she actually had two weddings? Did you two discuss the more difficult aspects of marriage?
No, and she did say she liked the painting, but I mean, what’s she going to say? Some people aren’t ready to talk about the dark sides or negative aspects of something that they’re excited about right now. They don’t want to be bummed out. But with this show, I’m really not saying marriage is wrong and that you shouldn’t do it. All I ever ask for from people and from myself is to acknowledge that things have two sides, and there are dark sides to everything, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be married and to want to get married—it’s totally okay for a woman who’s a die-hard feminist to get married and have a husband. Two things can be true at once, but why can’t we talk about the hypocrisy of it as well?
There’s this callout culture of people getting called out for having two opposing feelings, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong about that—that’s a really black-and-white way of looking at things, and I actually think there’s art and excitement and beauty in those contrasts. Like, looking at ShiShi wearing my wedding dress was more interesting than looking at anyone wearing my wedding dress, because of the fact that she normally never would and it turned her into a different person—though if that happened on social media, she’s probably get called out for being, like, a bad feminist. So yes, I’d like to be able to talk to women who just got married about the stupidity of the move that they made, without them thinking that they have to now change their minds or get divorced or not married. I just think it’s something we should ask questions about.
Did you already think this way about marriage, or was this an attitude you came to over the course of doing this show?
This show was kind of just an excuse to just sit for hours upon hours and think about something until I turned to some sort of conclusion, although in the end, I only really had some, not a total one. One was that the only sincere, honest marriages are either green card marriages, or big f— off performances where the bride’s doing coke in the bathroom and wearing a dress that’s, like, bigger than the whole room. Because that’s what it is—it’s a performance, and I love that. I love huge parties, and I love weddings if they’re fun. Since I don’t actually care or want to drive four hours or get on a plane to go to your wedding, they really better be fun, but some people don’t even let you have a drink until after you’ve watched them get married. [Laughs.] I’m like, “What is this, it’s your party! F— you!”
Did you have fun at yours?
No. I mean, it was fine, it was quick, it was simple, but it was pointless. Either you’re throwing a party, or you’re doing it out of necessity.
Were you hesitant to get married in the first place? Have you always questioned it?
No, because I was pregnant so I was like, whatever you want, it’s really a moot point now.
Do you think you’d get married again?
Maybe. I might. It wouldn’t be under any delusions of thinking it would mean that it would improve anything or change things for the better.