BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 21 NOV 13
Featured in
Issue 159

Rules of Attraction

The uncomfortable world of Marlene McCarty

BY Jennifer Kabat in Features | 21 NOV 13

Marlene McCarty’s work will make you uncomfortable. Girls (all of them murderers) are eroticized, their clothes disappearing, sexuality apparent beneath shirts and jeans, as if the clothing itself existed only to make manifest breasts, nipples and vulvas. Or else, there are apes and gorillas being fondled, held and loved – by women. Drawn in hyper-fine detail in pencil and biro, the very style makes you stare. It’s a bit like looking at porn on the Underground; these drawings break the rules of polite society. And with their made-you-look quality, when you do look and your gaze rests on them, you’re very nearly repulsed by what you find. That’s the trickiness of McCarty’s work. It’s sexy and entrancing and terrifying. The sexuality is too much, too public; what is supposed to be hidden and private has been shoved in our faces.

The effect is doubled by the works’ monumental size – too large you to ignore. To stand next to them is to be dwarfed, the scale compounding their disturbing nature. Indeed, McCarty’s drawings provoke such a complex series of responses, it’s clear that a taboo is being broken. Nearby will be written accounts of the true stories on which the drawings are based: girls who killed their parents to break free from their families, from imposed norms, church, school, goodness and virtue, sweetness and light, tearing down those childhood rhymes. What are little girls made of? Not sugar and spice and everything nice. Not here. Maybe not anywhere.

Anointed: Beeville, Texas, 2007, graphite, ballpoint pen and watercolour on paper, 89 × 140 cm

Because the texts aren’t next to the drawings, you have to grapple with the two separately. It’s like looking at a photo printed out of register, the colour vibrating beyond the lines of the image. Traditional crime narratives would have the bad girls punished, order re-imposed and all made right with the world. Only here there are no convenient narratives. The order is ambiguous at best. Throughout McCarty’s work, right and wrong blur and social norms fray. It’s hard stuff. With its mixed signals, it sends you hurtling down a rabbit hole where everything is up for grabs – notions of self, society and sexuality – and, in her drawings of great apes, even our self-definition as a species.

McCarty’s forebears are Shulamith Firestone and Angela Carter, both of whose writing addresses women’s economic dependence on men. Both declared war on the family, on virtue, on women’s passivity as a virtue. Carter took on porn with a feminist reading of the Marquis de Sade; Firestone used Marx to blow up the biological family. In their fates, though, lies a larger truth about the inescapability of female roles: Carter died young of lung cancer and was famously scorned by the Booker Prize; Firestone likely starved to death – she died alone last year. The very form of her death was deemed, by Susan Faludi in The New Yorker, symptomatic of a larger failure of radical feminism to change the world.1

In The Dialectic of Sex (1970), Firestone declared: ‘The biological family is an inherently unequal power distribution. One that keeps women dependent on men.’2 She called for the revolt of the underclass and women who – rather than workers taking on means of production – should control reproduction. There is, however, nearly zero chance of escape from our enslavement. Even Firestone’s idea of fertility divorced from the body hasn’t freed us yet. It just lets us delay childbearing. Pointedly she wrote: ‘Unless revolution uproots the basic social organization, the biological family – the vinculum through which the psychology of power can always be smuggled – the tapeworm of exploitation will never be annihilated.’3

Eight years later, in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Carter damned the notion of chastity as something that keeps women trapped as perpetual victims. She called instead for a ‘moral pornography’, for someone who ‘might use pornography as a critique of current relations between the sexes. Her [while Carter wrote this as ‘his’, assuming, one supposes, that all pornographers would be men, in the present context I prefer to change the pronoun to ‘her’] business would be the total demystification of the flesh and the subsequent revelation through the infinite modulations of the sexual act of the real relations of man and his kind [...] [S]he might begin to penetrate to the heart of the contempt for women that distorts our culture even as [s]he entered the realms of true obscenity as [s]he describes it.’4

Factory Wall in Cincinnati, 1990, heat transfer on canvas, each: 13 cm diameter

Carter condemns virtue and victimhood; Firestone condemns romance and the fallacy of eroticism sold to women as their prime value. Both are saying the same thing: as a woman, your sexual exchange value is your worth. Once you see that bald truth, what else is there to do but get mad or get even? Carter champions De Sade’s prostitute heroine Juliette (from his book Justine, 1791) who won’t play by the rules of virtue and turns her sex exchange into her escape. In the early 1990s, I became a stripper. It seemed to me that if sex was my most basic value then why not use it? I’d be evaluated on it anyway, whether I was a temp or a waitress or a gallery assistant. Other girls, McCarty’s girls, turned into murderers. Neither of these options is considered an acceptable way to escape.

That ‘moral porn’, calling a spade a spade, is the dark power in McCarty’s work. It gives voice to the voiceless, and it started first in the late 1980s and early ’90s when she became a member of Gran Fury, the advertising and propaganda arm of the New York-based aids awareness collective ACT UP. The issue with Gran Fury was, she explains: ‘How do you create an identity for a group that’s always been defined as an absence, or by and against the norm?’5 Gran Fury’s job was to make a presence out of absence, subverting norms with language, humour and image. In her own work at the time, McCarty was appropriating sexist speech – those ‘Hey, baby’ taunts hurled at women on the street. She took this ‘found language’, and painted words like Pussy, Beaver, Cunt (1989) on canvas. Another proclaimed: I May Not Go Down In History But I May Go Down On Your Little Sister (1990). The paintings were, in fact, made with iron-on T-shirt transfers. Twinning male language with the patriarchy of the male painter (who in the us was still being lionized, from the Abstract Expressionists up to David Salle and Julian Schnabel), the canvases crossed both with women’s work. Rejecting man’s great splatter, McCarty used ironing. For an installation in Germany, she had matchbooks with classic pin-ups laid out in a fire ring (Hearth, 1992). Inside each book was the inscription: ‘I got a clit so big / I don’t need a dick.’ Only the printer balked at ‘clit’, so McCarty decided to leave blank spaces for this and ‘dick’, and to handwrite them instead.

In 1993, filmmaker Tom Kalin wrote about her work, likening her to another Marlene, Marlene Olive, who’d killed both her parents as a teen. He suggested that McCarty’s work contained the same transgressive violence.6 After that, McCarty read about Olive, who had been oppressed by becoming a woman and what it means to be a woman, versus her mother’s ageing and loss of cultural value. McCarty says: ‘There’s the taboo, but to be a girl and kill your mother is incredibly transgressive and scary. Yet, I understand that desperate attempt to free yourself.’7 The deaths her subjects enacted weren’t simple. They weren’t ‘clean’ as we might call it, shot by a single bullet. Instead, these mothers were bludgeoned with crystal candlesticks and dragged across the dining room. In their very brutality, these murders are symbolic.

 Marlene Olive, 1994–6, collage, 43 × 30 cm

McCarty knew that the work would be about language and self-definition, but not the form which it would take. She found the answer in her childhood bedroom in Kentucky (Southern, conservative, religious). Visiting home as an adult, McCarty was asked by her mother to sort through her things, and among them the artist found a framed drawing of herself as a teenager, the framing itself testimony to the picture’s value. The self-portrait wasn’t just a naïve drawing by a 16-year-old. It captured that slippery moment in teen-dom when you’re between one self and another, when you’re becoming a woman, a sexual commodity, and you draw yourself and your crushes and your name over and over, inscribing them in notebooks and binders, in art class and on your jeans and sneakers. This was what Olive needed. Had she been rendered in paint, it would mean something else, something grander. As McCarty explains, drawing is ‘not the master’s choice and definitely not the signifier of “masterpiece”. I borrowed from a vernacular language of drawing. This is not a personally developed marking style or system bent on advertising my mastery.’8

To construct the works, she starts with collages, images pasted together from fashion magazines, then blows them up to scale. That very technique is also redolent of youth. I remember the collages I hung on my bedroom walls, next to fliers for Washington, D.C. punk bands. The very idea of my self was worked out by slicing and dicing and recombining images from Vogue.

With the girls’ nakedness – the see-through shirts, the nipples bared and fondled – the drawings expose the truth of fashion magazines and the messages girls are sold. Even if we know it to be true, seeing that truth laid out so blatantly is an assault on our ‘values’. (The word is in quotes to indicate they’re not quite my values, although I must share them to an extent, given how uncomfortable this work makes me.) McCarty is presenting an alternative pornography, a moral pornography, one that shows a greater truth, one where a woman appropriates porn not to make something sexual but to use the genre’s power to show just where the power lies. Here, the woman who is stymied by patriarchy tries to burn it down. Lights the matchbooks in a ring. I got a clit so big …

Group 8 (Karisoke, The Virungas, Rwanda. September 24, 1967. 4:30pm.), 2006, ballpoint pen and graphite on paper, 2.9 × 3 m

McCarty’s recent drawings of great apes and people probe the boundaries of how we define ourselves. In them, she casts out the fiction that we as a species are separate or superior, and shows that the divisions between the great apes and ourselves are far more complicated than we’d thought. The mural-sized works show gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees signing and using language – speech supposedly being the marker of our humanity. Others portray women who broke the bonds, who crossed over and muddied the waters in loving and living with chimps and gorillas. Group 8 (Karisoke, The Virungas, Rwanda. September 24, 1967. 4:30pm.) (2006) has the noted zoologist Dian Fossey, who’d talked of her favourite gorilla Digit as her soul mate, enmeshed and eroticized with him, while group 3 (Tanjung Putting, Borneo. 1971) (2007) shows a PhD candidate with the orangutan who nearly broke up her marriage.

In both The Sadeian Woman and The Dialectic of Sex, Carter and Firestone write about love’s possibility. It’s the hope both held out. Carter ends with it. Firestone believed if you take out the oppressive biological function – the family – but keep love, the emotion can lead to something deeper – something transformating. You get that sense with McCarty too. With love we defy our self-inflicted boundaries. Firestone writes, ‘Increased sensitivity to the real, if hidden, values of the other, however is not “blindness” or “idealization” but is, in fact, deeper vision [...] Love requires a mutual vulnerability that is impossible to achieve in an unequal power situation. Thus “falling in love” is no more than the process of alteration of male vision – through idealization, mystification, glorification – that renders void the woman’s class inferiority.’ 9

The women had set out to study the apes, and when men established the discipline of primatology, the rules had been: no contact, no interactions, no naming. Keep away. But the women refused. They loved their ‘subjects’, and in doing so made the claim that we are more alike than separate. Here is the radical power of love to cross the lines we set about ourselves – no matter how rigidly – and it’s the women who do the crossing. This is where McCarty’s work ends up, hurtling us through a topsy-turvy realm where love challenges all the boundaries between us, including how we define ourselves. 

Marlene McCarty lives in New York, USA. From 1988–95, she was a member of the aids activist collective Gran Fury, and in 1989 she co-founded the design studio Bureau, with Donald Moffett. In 2010, a major survey of her work was presented at 80WSE, NYU, New York. This year, she was included in ‘Keep Your Timber Limber’ at the ICA, London, UK, and had a solo show at the RHA Gallery, Dublin, UK.1 Susan Faludi, ‘Death of a Revolutionary’, The New Yorker, 15 April 2013 2 Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex, 1970, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2003, Kindle edition, location 135 3 The Dialectic of Sex, Kindle edition, location 190 4 Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman, Virago Press, London, 2000, pp. 19–20 5 Interview with the artist, 11 May 2013 6 Tom Kalin, Marlene McCarty, Metro Pictures exhibition pamphlet, 1993 7 Interview with the artist, 11 May 2013 8 Artist’s talk, April 2012, NYU Steinhardt School, New York 9 The Dialectic of Sex, Kindle edition, location 2004

Jennifer Kabat is a writer. She teaches at The New School, New York, USA, and on the MFA Art Writing programme, School of Visual Arts, New York.