New York

Marlene McCarty

Brent Sikkema

If it’s possible for an artist to synthesize muse and doppelgänger, Marlene McCarty seems to have found her girl. Some ten years ago, McCarty—who originally garnered interest for her in-your-face text paintings (like Bend Over I’ll Drive, 1990)—received a copy of Bad Blood: A Family Murder in Marin as a gift from a friend. A true-crime tale written in 1982 by Richard M. Levine and regarded by connoisseurs as one of the genre’s meatiest and most disquieting (if titillatingly so) titles, the volume traces the otherwise standard adolescent rebellion (sex, drugs, and angst-driven interest in the occult) of sixteen-year-old Marlene Olive to its improbable outcome as she, with the help of her boyfriend, murders her parents and burns their bodies in an attempt to cover up the crime.

McCarty quickly learned that Olive was not unique. Having become fascinated by the particular imbrication of burgeoning feminine sexuality and brutal violence chronicled in Bad Blood, she researched the phenomenon of teenage girls with similar stories, eventually creating larger-than-life-size composite pencil-and-ballpoint drawings that retrospectively, and phantasmatically, portray another fallen lass as yet unmarked by the freakish events that would forever define her. McCarty paired her subjects’ faces (culled mostly from news accounts) with bodies from popular culture (fashion magazines and the like), then rendered her subjects’ clothes as transparent, so that breasts, genitalia, and feet simultaneously glimmered through and were veiled by shirts, skirts, pants, and shoes. Short texts on who they were and what brutal crimes they perpetrated accompanied each piece.

While countless sagas involving comely protagonists have caught McCarty’s attention over the years, Marlene Olive appears to have maintained the strongest hold. In her recent exhibition (and the first at this gallery), the artist focused only on the goings-on at 353 Hibiscus Way, Olive’s home address. The resulting images, each ten by fourteen feet and executed on two sheets of paper tacked side by side (and thus riven by a cleft), lent a certain complicated logic to McCarty’s fascination with the girl. Indeed, the artist’s style is as seductively ambiguous as her subject: one part naive schoolgirl doodle and two parts slickly appropriated puffery. The cast of Olive’s macabre drama resembles the vacant-eyed occupants of Calvin Klein billboards—in one image, three Marlene Olives lean languidly into one another, offering a tripartite glimpse into the girl’s evolution from pigtailed kid to lusty lover. In another, Marlene, boyfriend Chuck, and Daddy Jim cuddle together, limbs entwined.

Some have said the interest of McCarty’s work resides in the gap between the serene image of a gorgeous girl and the text detailing the horrifying acts she proves herself capable of. But I’m not so sure. After all, the glamour of extreme violence often serves only to heighten an otherwise banal beauty’s appeal (see: Natural Born Killers). The unexpected strength of this former Gran Fury member’s work actually lies in its methodological unwillingness to lay out easily legible opposing poles. As in her early text paintings, she appropriates and redeploys sexist culture in a manner that refuses to explain where critique ends and complicity begins (a strategy not dissimilar to, say, Sue Williams’s a decade ago). While the artist is clearly pointing to the fact that for young women access to power often comes through sex or violence or, more vexingly, through a confusion of the two, she hardly offers a resolution. Indeed, McCarty knows that if she can’t shake her fascination with this other Marlene, we won’t be able to either—which is one way to keep the questions coming (answerable or no).

Johanna Burton