New York

Marlene McCarty

Metro Pictures

Marlene McCarty’s 30 large text-paintings employ four distinct fonts that subtly transform familiar typographies: the flame lettering of heavy metal and tattoos, the fat cartoonish characters of stock and funny cars, the geometrics of ads and bumper stickers, and the cut outs of agit prop and punk. Her stylized letters form vaguely obscene and often aggressive messages that reflect a multiplicity of voices, and are made by heat transfer onto raw canvas. “I iron them on, you know, woman’s work,” McCarty says. And on one level, these works, with their references to Barnett Newman’s zips and other modes of post-painterly abstraction are attempts to iron out the phallocentrism that lies just below the surface heroics of “pure painting.”

Throughout her career, McCarty has been distinguished by her choice of sources and the nature of the language she re-presents. Eschewing both the authoritative weight of the dictionary as used by Joseph Kosuth and the ideological stance of the psychoanalytic texts favored by Mary Kelly, McCarty has appropriated the typography and discourse of bumper stickers, biker magazines, and various types of pornography to focus on the banal and vernacular. Her earlier works tended to be simple reversals or re-presentations of the terrorism of patriarchy—“I Love Fags,” “Bend Over I’ll Drive”—emblazoned over familiar objects—on bumper stickers, pillows, curtains, mugs. Claiming the derogatory as one’s own—the rapper’s ubiquitous “nigger,” the gay and lesbian community’s embrace of “queer,” and the photocopied sheets put up by Fierce Pussy—is a strategy used by a number of groups as a means of empowerment: the object of vilification becomes a speaking subject who hurls back, as a dare and a badge of pride, what was meant to offend.

McCarty’s recent paintings enact a more elusive interpretive game, exposing both the tyranny and spuriousness of constructed identities. Does it matter who says what, when, and to whom? Phrases such as “You’re my slut bottom suck” and “Cunt Hunt” beg the question. Obviously, these speech acts change radically, depending on the relation of the speaking subject to the object: man to woman, woman to woman, man to man, woman to man. The unattributable source material, the intentional confusion, and the fluidity of subject/object positions reflects an attempt to destabilize the way in which speech defines gender roles and the limiting nature of these roles themselves. At the same time, the impossibility of establishing a firm interpretive pound means that passive/aggressive, butch/femme, agent/object can’t be used as essentializing epithets. Even formally, the extremely thin and hard-to-decipher transfers signal the instability of such categories. Polymorphously perverse, McCarty’s phrases—“Clit’s So Big Never Needed the Hole,” “Filth spew spigot of disgust I love You”—are a hallucinatory narrative in which Antonin Artaud’s “theater of cruelty” meets the freneticism of Kathy Acker. A couple of the works even hold out the possibility of ecstatic transcendence—“I’ve disappeared in you,” “Bend over become salvation.”

Andrew Perchuk