Perhaps Marlene McCarty’s most challenging body of work, for its unsettling and often sexually explicit unification of man and beast, is a series of large-scale pen and ink drawings that recall the hairy, erotic realism of the illustrations of Alex Comfort’s original The Joy of Sex. In McCarty’s world, human beings consort with primates and give birth to primate babies. Viewers recalibrate their respective comfort levels, and are left to wonder whether evolution is linear progress in the service of dogmatic modernism. This series, which continues, comprises a psychically significant section of McCarty’s current survey at 80wse in New York, and serves as a fascinating point of entry to the work of an artist defined by canny aesthetic prescience and lifelong political activism.
This retrospective, “I’m into you now,” is a truncated whole, spanning from 1980 to 2010 and giving most of its space over to McCarty’s signature drawings. Curated by Michael Cohen, the survey includes the artist’s infamous series of drawings depicting young female killers, in which her subjects, genitals and nipples visible through their clothing, are reborn as complicated packets of sexual persona rife with a murderous perspective on the margins of society. The narrative of each girl’s life makes startlingly similar progress, ostensibly the conceptual impetus for the artist choosing to continually depict young women who lives have been sculpted by this criminal act. “The girl, as she matures, is losing her position as a child in society,” explains the artist. “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.”
McCarty, who grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, developed a correlation between politics, art making and design when she moved to Switzerland as an undergradute to study graphic design at Allgemeine Kunstgewerbeschule Basel. “People were very politically engaged and politically concerned in Switzerland, and [it opened my eyes and made me] disgusted with what was going on in the world,” says the artist, who at this time was exposed to youthful revolutions based around public space as well as nuclear disarmament. She also resided in a building where many young Swiss punk bands, including Mother’s Ruin and Lilliput, would perform. McCarty began making intriguing, Bauhaus-tinged graphic backdrops for the bands to play in front of (which have been reproduced as window displays for the exhibition), and one sees in these works the early activation of a political agenda. That “disgust” traveled with the artist when she moved to New York City and became involved in AIDS activism, in and outside of artist collective Gran Fury, where she produced socially critical design-based activist materials (also on view at 80wse).
“Not to sound puritanical, but I think art should be challenging,” says McCarty, and the work presented in the exhibition acts not only as a survey for McCarty, but also as an intriguing timeline for feminist artwork from the ‘80s onward. Many of McCarty’s confrontational sculptures and wall pieces, including the three-panel heat transfer on canvas untitled (pussy, beaver, cunt) (1989–1990), a text piece detailing the nicknames for vagina, paved the way for the riot grrl aesthetics (the show’s catalog features an introduction from musician Kathleen Hanna).
Society writ large has taken a shy step back from the confrontational female voices that dominated ’90s activism, and this survey illustrates most clearly that McCarty’s work, specifically her primate drawings series, have only become more provocative. “I feel like art should take people places that they haven’t really thought about,” says the artist. “It shouldn’t just be big glittery pieces that are like, ‘wow, that’s really big and shiny.’ It should deal with things that are close to people, but that are complex, difficult, and interesting-things that people can carefully think about. You have to remember that about 40% of the population thinks that the earth was created in 6000 years and that dinosaurs trotted the earth at the same time as Jesus.”