Jillian McDonald

Jillian McDonald

Work from Horror Make-Up.

“IT was a sweltering Saturday afternoon on an L train hurtling across Manhattan toward Brooklyn. The last car held the usual assortment of characters: two women shrieking about a recent outing to a hardware store while a man lounged before them, guffawing; a young woman hiding behind sunglasses and iPod earbuds; a scruffy man slumped beside his messenger bag. Nobody paid much attention as a slender, elegant young woman began to enact a ritual familiar to subway riders: peering intently into a tiny mirror, she carefully started to make up her face.

Swiftly, though, it became clear that this was makeup with a difference. She was slathering her face with thick white paste, applying dark circles around her eyes and enhancing her frown lines and nostrils with blackmarks. Although she attracted a few glances, most of the other passengers maintained studiously blank expressions. Only when she slipped in a pair of green teeth and began daubing her face with fake blood did people start to stare, exchange meaningful glances and roll their eyes.

When the train reached Morgan Avenue in Bushwick, the woman stood, grimaced delicately and staggered to the doorway. As the man with the messenger bag hurried out behind her, one of the noisy women hissed, “I think it’s performance art.”

And it was, the latest chapter in the oeuvre of Jillian Mcdonald, a Canadian-born artist who in the last three years has developed something of an underground reputation for work inspired by movie mania. Her climb to cultdom began in 2003 with a series of videos and performances derived from her purported passion for Billy Bob Thornton that have been shown widely at small galleries and nonprofits around the world; her spoof fan site, meandbillybob.com, is linked to by countless blogs.

More recently Ms. Mcdonald has delved into the so-called “zombie renaissance” that some say has been sweeping the nation since around the 2004 remake of George A. Romero’s film “Dawn of the Dead” (1978), the second in his classic zombie series. Her subway performance was filmed with a hidden camera by her boyfriend and sometime collaborator, Beckley Roberts, the scruffy fellow with the messenger bag. Called “Horror Make-Up,” it will make its debut on Sept. 8 at Art Moving Projects, a gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Curiously, until four years ago Ms. Mcdonald, now 35, had little interest in either celebrities or zombies. After receiving a master’s of fine arts in nontraditional media in 1999 from Hunter College, she was known mostly for interactive performances that relied on chance encounters with strangers, like placing ads in Canadian newspapers offering her services as a shampoo girl, and then performing in a hair salon or gallery, or passing out chocolate to people in the Union Square subway station in Manhattan.

She found direction when “I was trying to figure out how to make work about celebrity crushes,” she said in an interview. “They fascinate me, and I’d never had one myself.” The answer hit her on the red eye from New York to San Francisco. The film on the flight was “Bandits” (2001), starring Mr. Thornton and Cate Blanchett. Ms. Mcdonald awoke in the dark to see the actors’ lips moving toward each other in slow motion. “I knew immediately and irreversibly that I should be kissing him instead of her,” she wrote later on her Billy Bob Web site. “I was in love.”

The result was “Me and Billy Bob” (2003), a video in which Ms. Mcdonald creates the tale of a doomed love affair by digitally inserting herself into clips from his films. Using scenes from “One False Move,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Monster’s Ball” and others, she charts the relationship from sappy first encounter to tearful farewell. In the final scene she re-enacts her deus ex machina “Bandits” moment: holding Mr. Thornton’s face in her hands, she slowly moves in for a final, despairing kiss.

In 2004 Ms. Mcdonald videotaped a monthlong performance piece, “Billy Bob Tattoo,” during which she inked her leg each day with his name. Then came “Screen Kiss” (2005), now on view at the Sixtyseven Gallery in Chelsea. In it she splices herself into make-out scenes with other actors, including Ben Stiller, Ewan McGregor, Vincent Gallo and Johnny Depp, culled from movies like “Down With Love,” “Along Came Polly,” and “Before Night Falls.” “Dear Billy Bob,” explains the introduction, “I still love you the best but I can’t wait forever and there are a lot of other fish in the sea.”

After most of the kisses, Ms. Mcdonald turns and stares triumphantly at the camera. But the high point comes in a scene (taken from the campy movie “Original Sin” ) in which she locks lips with Mr. Thornton’s ex, Angelina Jolie. As she nears Ms. Jolie, Ms. Mcdonald’s lips and eyes quavering ridiculously with expectation, it becomes clear that the actress’s features are doing exactly the same thing.

What intrigues viewers of both videos is how Ms. Mcdonald manages to transform herself so completely into a variety of personas, and how cleverly she modulates her expressions and gazes to match — and thereby send up — those of her digital partners. Technologically, the works look surprisingly sophisticated; yet Ms. Mcdonald made them at home on a Macintosh, using editing and special-effects software that she mastered through Internet research.

Before filming her scenes, she spent hours analyzing her chosen excerpts and memorizing the actors’ movements. Then she set up a camcorder on a tripod and, counting beats, performed before it, using green poster board from a craft store instead of the green screen normally used for special-effects sequences.

She intended to introduce “Me and Billy Bob” on the Web from the start; the site went up before its gallery debut. “Conceptually my plan was to get attention from Billy Bob,” she said. She swiftly drew an enthusiastic response from his fans. “A lot of people think it’s real,” she marveled. “They think I’m in touch with him.” Although at first she feared the actor’s lawyers would complain, Mr. Thornton’s official Web site now links to her fan site, but he has never made contact with her himself.

Along the way, Ms. Mcdonald admits, she did become infatuated with Mr. Thornton. “My friends would tease me about it,” she said. Now, she maintains, the one-sided romance is over, although her boyfriend, Mr. Roberts, bears a striking resemblance to her former crush. (“Everybody tells me that, but I don’t share that with him,” she said.)

Her interest in zombies began in a similar fashion: she was driven to analyze an obsession she didn’t understand. “I find it amazing and fascinating that people are so spellbound,” she said. She has always been terrified by horror movies; initially she conducted research by playing DVD’s while she cowered with the lights on at the other end of the room. But now she’s hooked on the genre, just as she became hooked on Mr. Thornton. And, as in the kissing films, “it came out of my interest in exposing the artifice that lends itself to humor,” she said. “If you can get to the point where it seems ridiculous, then it’s not scary anymore.”

“Zombie Loop,” the first piece in her “Horror Cycle,” is a two-video projection installation that Mr. Roberts filmed this summer on a deserted Wisconsin country road. In it Ms. Mcdonald plays two roles: a white-garbed ingénue who flees, squealing, and the reanimated rotting corpse who staggers forward relentlessly in pursuit. At the end of each loop the figures switch places.

In “Zombie Portraits” she and nine friends morph into zombies in stages, in a lumpish fashion that suggests B-movie stop-motion animation. (Excerpts from the zombie projects can be seen at jillianmcdonald.net.) As with the digital editing, she researched her special-effects makeup techniques on the Internet. “I’m a big fan of learning things on the Web,” she said.

Yet runaway Web popularity does not necessarily translate into art-world success. Although she continues to receive Billy Bob fan mail, she said, no major art dealers have called. Even so, before long she may begin gathering her own share of zombie acolytes. And in the meantime, “this is my excuse to watch a lot of cheesy movies,” she said. “It’s research.” – Carol Kino for the New York Times

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