New York

Marlene McCarty

Metro Pictures

Consider these misogynist one-liners: “IF IT’S GOT TITS OR WHEELS IT’S GONNA GIVE YOU PROBLEMS,” “NOTHIN’ LIKE A PIECE OF PUSSY ’CEPT THE INDY 500,” “BEND OVER. I’LL DRIVE.” These, and some 30 other such gems, lifted straight from various media sources (car magazines, coverage of the Gulf War in the New York Times, etc.), were the subject of Marlene McCarty’s first one-person exhibition. Each phrase was emblazoned in a narrow stripe horizontally bisecting a series of stretched canvases that were installed edge to edge around the walls of the gallery. The ribbon of misogynist and sexist language enclosed the reader in a sustained and unending insult, not unlike everyday cultural experience. In this refined, graphic presentation, however, the scathing tirade went limp as did, unfortunately, the impact of the work.

Proportions of obscenity and disengagement are critical to McCarty’s work. Despite the highly volatile and salacious nature of her texts, the confrontation is lost in refinement, and the nastiness of men’s locker-room talk becomes as neutral as a nursery rhyme. When she manages to make the balance between taste and offense more precarious, as she does when she works on an intimate scale, the word as lethal weapon shoves all the derision and humiliation of the language she appropriates smack back into our faces. In these charged circumstances, the centrality of representation and language to questions of power and gender rises to the surface. Can women assume power by dispossessing male authority as the producer/user of such language, or do they merely confirm male dominance? Of course, the structure of the inquiry is not unique to discussions of feminist politics; it is also reflected in the creative street talk of, for example, the popular rap group that calls itself “N.W.A.” (Niggers With Attitude). The authority that African Americans claim when referring to themselves as “niggers” with “attitude” (just as women claim the same authority to use sexist language in contexts where men cannot) reverses the relations of power by returning the insult as accusation to those who are implicitly not entitled to exercise similar usage.

Clearly set apart from both the expressionist demonstrations of rage that inform the performances of Karen Finley and from the scolding narrator’s voice in Barbara Kruger’s work, McCarty’s speech acts are constituted through parody and, thus, are indirect and even somewhat hypothetical. By isolating the rhetoric of domination from its normative and supportive contexts, McCarty uses language to place us in a threatened position, only to accord us a power over it. All in all, she may circumscribe the offensiveness of moronic power mongering and sexist humor that inflects male language, but the equation of male dominance and female subjugation, far beyond the subintelligent confines of red-blooded, redneck America, is endemic to our culture. In order to silhouette patriarchal culture through the use of such blatantly obscene language, McCarty must assume, as she does, the role of the perverse female. Her technique cracks the lid of a Pandora’s box of unanswered questions that have, at present, only conjectural answers: When a woman appropriates misogynist language, does she assume the privileges accorded the user/producer of language and, thereby, effect the general function of praxis? Is the insult defused or turned back upon the perpetrator, and if so, whom do we designate as the perpetrator? Questions of whose language we speak—is it language itself that speaks through us, or is language always dependent upon a community of users through whom its permutations arise and are authorized—are central to McCarty’s investigations. Though, as many complain, this space may well be physically inappropriate for her work, the issues she raises are too important to be confused with problems of scale.

Jan Avgikos