Los Angeles

Marlene McCarty


In her recent show, Marlene McCarty continued her study of adolescent girls who become, through acts of violence, conflicted sites of sexuality and identity. McCarty's fascination is always with what might be called (pace Adrienne Rich's old theoretical chestnut) a lesbian continuum of erotic thrill seeking and aggression: Her subjects are usually victims and/or perpetrators of violence between women. These large, finely rendered graphite-and-ballpoint drawings (all 1995–98) depict real girls, none of whom looks like she could kill (if only one knew what those looks were): Fourteen-year-old Gina Grant wears a short, sheer dress and holds out her hands as if dancing. A text accompanies each portrait. Gina, we are told, crushed her mother's skull with a candlestick after an argument over a boy Gina liked.

In most of the drawings, all from the “Young Americans” series, begun in 1994, the girls' clothes are rendered transparent to reveal vestigial or full breasts, pert nipples, and, more often than not, the diagrammatic deft of hairless pudenda, weirdly uniform despite the subjects' differing ages. Their faces are drawn with exacting verisimilitude from newspaper clippings and police files; their bodies, as has been noted by other critics, are fantasy constructions realistically portrayed.

What hasn't been commented on is how McCarty assembles these figures. A group of collaged and color-copied studies, available on request at the gallery, revealed the pertinent details: The bodies are pieced together from fashion-magazine ads and Jock Sturges photographs. The elegant cut out disruptions and the trace specificities of source material interrogate McCarty's subject more potently than the seamless, unified facture of the drawings themselves, asking: What are the psychological effects of the media's bombardment of girls with idealized images of other girls in varying stages of undress and arousal? What is the erotic valence of these adolescent girls' aggression?

De-eroticized and clinically matter-of-fact, the genital display in the drawings is forthright, the antithesis of the come-hither tease of JonBenet Ramsey and her ilk, whose coyness would deny the sexuality they market. And yet, sickly lipsticked cutie pie or dazed killer, the antipodes meet in the eruption of violence onto and out of the feminine: Is the zone between kill or be killed what is deemed normalcy for women?

McCarty's tour de force is her four-part portrait of Patty Columbo, who at the age of sixteen murdered her family with the help of her married boyfriend. To ballpoint and graphite McCarty added colored marker: The hair is a different tint in each picture, crimped and pink at her most recent parole hearing, straw blonde years before as she listens, head bowed, to the news that her parents had been found dead. The odd erotic power of McCarty's project reaches full intensity in the second portrait, in which Columbo has three arms: One hand holds up her chin; the two others rest near her crotch on her bare thighs. What is represented is not monstrosity, only the sensual strangeness of representation itself. (For an art-historical precursor, consider the snaky elongation of neck and octopoid attenuations of digit and limb in Ingres.)

Are these careful meditations also self-portraits? Drawing in the psychic turmoil known as the teenage, McCarty's renderings of girls may be the uncanny equivalent or counterpoint to Larry Clark's portraits of boys, in which being and representing, having and wanting are collapsed, in which embodiment itself is a misdemeanor.

Bruce Hainley