Tuesday, October 22, 2013

McCarty and Kensmil at the RHA

by Marlene McCarty
Crying Light
by Natasja Kensmil
Royal Hibernian Academy, Dublin
5 September – 20 October 2013
Review by Darren Caffrey

Does anything frighten us like the merest sight of our own reflection? Terror comes of a story told to scare, equally the frame of art is no hiding place from the horrors of life. It could be, but artists dont want it that way. Indeed fear is often as compelling as the lure of success. And so it is with two exhibits running in sync at the Royal Hibernian Academy which both tease at something of the draw of death and destruction.

The work of Marlene McCarty stands larger than life and here precisely is the illusion which draws you closer. Each work is composed as a tableau, presenting distinct characters within each scene but hinting also at a union which might yet reveal the full extent of the tale. In fact, the gallery text shares with us a glimpse of the real life world of each figure and each figure has been finely rendered in graphite pencil and blue Biro. But that is where the facts begin to blur into a bigger story about shared responsibility. It is this terrifying concept, overshadowing the tale of each gruesome crime, which in itself brings to mind the true cause of fear and so-called psychopathic behaviour. 

Life is once only. Marlene's first foray into representing murderous young girls came as the result of being introduced to the life of another Marlene as told in a true life american crime novel. When Marlene Olive was just a teenager she and her boyfriend of the time killed her mother and father. One day Marlene McCarty was asked by her mother to move some things in the attic. It was here that she found a self-portrait from when she was seventeen. In her own words, this typical pencil drawing was “terribly tightly rendered with all the teenage angst of hoping to make it look like a pretty version of me”. Similarly drawn, McCarty found in a portrait of herself a means to reflect the innocence of murderous individuals. She has since been making various series of drawings, worked up from head shots and details of height, and composing of them a literal fantasy embedded in real life events. Taken as a subject, the many examples of the same crime only serve to reiterate the claim of human.

"The girl, as she matures, is losing her position as a child in society. Now she's being sexualized, not only physically and hormonally, but also by outside desire. She's living in these domestic environments with her parents, and generally her mother is going through this stage where she's losing her sex appeal and her cultural currency. And in each case, there's an impulse. The impulse for the girls was: I have to get out of here, I have to free myself, I have to get rid of this environment of parents, family and everything that is oppressing me. And murder was the way out." (1)

Rather than speak about individual works, it would seem the job of the critic is not to criticise or praise but to simply acknowledge what is present. The characters seduce in formal representation and their drama becomes ours for a moment, each one accorded characteristics which reflect their sex, age and place in the group. Primates bowl about as sideline to, and perhaps also as a symbol of the great meaning of such a litany of tragic events; but primarily we are confronted with what it is to be sexual. The fact that in these drawings the characters are clothed with the folds and falls of various fabrics, restricted even by a suggested tightness, nonetheless leaves each of them naked to the eye of any viewer.

The use of line to delineate form while also dancing with the notion of transparency serves to illustrate the fantasy which is innate in looking. The question being: if we are looking, what do we want to see? Indeed, what are we afraid of seeing? Thus, the naked bodies of boys and girls are set into the picture amongst an array of vulva and fully erect and somewhat limp penises of the adult males and females in the mix. Elsewhere, she has drawn more hands than makes sense and even two faces, making of the scene a sketch; as though some other possibilities were rejected. The drawing thereby providing a form of proof of exactly what happened in the process. It is clear that although true to life, in many ways these drawings represent a means to look at the question of human desire. We all have nipples. Indeed by representing also the individual hairs of primates along with the wild seventies hair styles of her subjects, including also the pubic hair of both males and females, she has confronted head-on issues which religious and now secular societies have failed to manage: namely how do we stand as one and become the other. In such a social climate, fear and tragedy will surely test even the most respectable of judges.

In one particular drawing, with a provisional title of Group 2, the central figure serves as a force of attraction for the other figures in the picture plane. On either side, this figure is engaged by adult primates, embracing and open to their gaze. Behind the back of each adult primate, adult women breast-feed and otherwise comfort the young as well as the female primate which make up what is overall, a playful, joyous composition. At the knot core of this drawing we are presented with a dual headed, dual shafted erection, which in turn is weighted by dual testes. It is from this heart of the picture plane that every other line extends and reflects without ever filling in the blanks. It is here precisely that nurture begins: the bondage of man and beast.

In the end is death, even for the youngest life. The picture plane is always a reflection and the paintings in 'Crying Light' reflect change. Whether it be the traditional costume or custom or indeed the evocation of an epoch, the works by Natasja Kensmil illustrate these changing attitudes which prop us up and hold us back. The paintings themselves, taken from two different bodies of work, shadow every subject with a murky glaze of requiem and distance, the colour palette too appearing suitably dated. While there are two distinctive sets of work presented, the uniform of aged remorse is bound by Kensmil's painterly style and so dead babies and queens present no challenge to one another, nor science for superstition. And so when this progressing world of charming simplicity is taken over by a swarm of soft black swirls in Crystal Eyes not only is everything not alright, it is terrifyingly real, the smoke of industry billowing a new darkness with it.

As a cast and setting, Kensmil's use of history proposes different stories which make the one world. In Elizabeth I, we are given to understand that the story of the world which this queen commands, is itself yet to be discovered, as though predestination is as absurd as any other context we might observe. Conversely, The Armada Portrait, painted in Elizabethan times by George Gower, reflects with its globe and grasp in favour of politics and power, the picture plane reserved only for symbols and stature. Kensmil's version however supplies a sort of tragic comedy, developed as a layer which resolves eerie greens into the heads of frogs, as though the product of an ectoplasm not seen by Gower, thereby omitted from his painting. Exactly because the original concerns itself with control as the structure and the future, it confuses the richness of humanity for the riches and potency of rule and order. Indeed when looking back at any reflection from the past, all we have at our disposal is fact and suggestions which the facts support.

On the whole, the absurd proves here a useful reminder of the terror of self doubt which even the monarchs of our world must encounter and leaves the various bug-like species which populate the foreground on the left to appear as a reminder of how focus and as such power is all about positioning: the small things which make even the bigger things seem small by comparison. Arresting and prominent, the queen's tiny head sits engulfed by the ruffles of her time, while elsewhere in the picture much larger shapes hang like memories without a place. Even so, the frog heads appear in stages, relating to one another in likeness and difference, as gradually they come to resemble if not a queen, then certainly a subject in their own right. Time as we know passes and the child which she clutches as she holds the sceptre of rule is shown to almost float within a space that can only be expected to grow as her grip loosens. Of this well known subject, the artist has made a fresh and rewarding shadow of the original.

Indeed the breadth of historical influence is itself light and welcoming. As each tale is explored it is revealed in line with both history and experience. And so while even the most intimate of views are presented for us to witness, the effect of a precious use of light and sparingness of colour in turn compose a changing view of revolution. In The Martyrdom of Tsar, where we look up at a masked man on a horse, the horses back stridently bold and beset also with the surrounding skulls of the dead, the image is one of power and we are left in no doubt as to who is responsible. Of course the painter here is also the story teller, illustrating social and scientific revolutions as both informed and obscured by her actions, a turn exemplified in Anatomical Manuscript, where the paint forms a hazy screen through which something of alchemy occurs. 

In the series of paintings entitled Sleeping Beauty, the agonised faces of young children hold their cold black stare as if somehow protected from any further scrutiny or judgement. The faces are painted in short rough brush strokes and their expression is one and the same. They are dead, they could be alive but the pallid greenish hue suggests otherwise. This particular series extends from the fact of infant mortality and draws on the once favoured custom of capturing the image of a dressed corpse. Known as memento mori, the practice translates as 'Remember that you'll die', and it presumably works on the basis that such a document could preserve the life of the dead beyond mere memory. However, in Sleeping Beauty IX, the head of a baby nestles amongst the ruffled lace of an age and there is something which suggests that the subject might as well be a prize cabbage, a thing which although special, perhaps even loved, is now surely long consumed. Decoratively painted in loose gestural marks, the artist has been careful to observe the relevant traditions, and so for the viewer the statement is clearly made. There is little room for feelings though, only remembrance as the means to expose in us a responsibility for life.

Are these paintings of better service to this end than say the actions of you or I? Of course not, but they do operate as part of a texture of reminders set down by the living which mark and indeed warn of the passing of life. Equally, the drawings of Marlene McCarty do not make for much use in the sentencing of murderers, nor do they propose an alternative working of healthy family life. In each case the artist is hoping only that by being responsible for the work, by making the mark and creating where else there was little, actions may continue to show themselves through consequence. If then responsibility is defined by action, it is shown here in both exhibitions that innocence is not clear. Be it the softly erotic pencil lines of McCarty or the bright white tangled brush work of Kensmil’s dead babies, all we can really say is that whatever is found to be useful is carried on into the next. In this way action threatens innocence.

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