New York

Marc Quinn

Mary Boone Gallery | Uptown

The new body of work Marc Quinn presented in this exhibition is seductive yet disturbing. The show comprised seven paintings from the series “Iris,” 2009–, in which human irises and dark pupils in an outsize dimension become the object of our gaze even as they in turn observe us implacably. They are simultaneously intimate and intrusive, and it quickly becomes uncomfortable to look at these paintings that look back at us, especially given what accurate renderings of human eyes they are (in fact they depict the eyes of real people, painted—from photographs, mostly with an airbrush—in oil on canvas). Each enormous eye has its own lurid, vertiginous quality, but the extraordinary realism makes all of them fascinating and repellent.

It is impossible not to think of the pervasive eye of Big Brother, that dystopian fiction that is now reality, as video cameras monitor our actions in public places and border officials have begun using biometric eye scans. Yet Quinn seems to allude not only to the invasive power of surveillance but also to something much more ancient and symbolic. In both the Christian and Masonic traditions, a single eye represents the eye of God (familiar from the one-dollar bill), which penetrates the recesses of our soul and knows all our thoughts and faults. And so, as observers/observed in this wall of pupils and irises, we are crushed between at least two weighty interpretations. Technological or biblical, there is no escaping from this wide-open eye!

Each of the irises is multicolored—light blue, blue, gray, brown—and striated with shadows, splotches, and veins. The more or less dilated pupils are dark black, with violet tones. At the sides the delicate venous network of the eyeball is delineated. Quinn shows us the visible part of our body that is highly colored—unlike the skin that covers us—suggesting the vast range of colors of our internal organs. So he is, perhaps, turning back to the internal and external conjunction of the body that he first explored with Self, 1991, a cast of his head made from his own frozen blood. But here he adds a spiritual or psychological factor: These eyes are, symbolically speaking, the window to the soul, the place where it emerges from the depths, where it is shown and expressed. If the physical eye receives light, the third eye and the eye of the heart receive intellectual and spiritual light, and at the same time they indicate the superhuman condition, that of clairvoyance, where man attains perfection, participating in the divine. In Hindu and Buddhist tradition, the third eye is the ultimate signifier of spiritual enlightenment.

In Greek mythology, Iris is the female equivalent of Hermes. A winged messenger of the gods, she is associated with the rainbow and symbolizes the connection between earth and heaven, between gods and men. In the same way, the human iris has long been seen as configuring our relationship with the celestial and spiritual sphere. Microcosm and macrocosm come together in the representation of these halos of phantasmagoric colors around a dark mass; it is almost like looking inside the gaseous layers of a nebula, or witnessing the formation of a galaxy in the darkness of the universe. IRIS (We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars) SO 200L (Dilated) (all works 2009) is streaked by whitish flashes and seems like the prelude to an explosion in an electromagnetic field, while IRIS (We Share Our Chemistry with the Stars) MQ1 280L is a black sun that emits flames of opaque fire. The astronomical subtitle all the works share is no accident.

And yet all these multiple interpretations simultaneously add up and cancel each other out. In fact, in these colorful paintings the black pupil remains a dark and inaccessible place, impenetrable and secret. What seems to be a place of entry is actually an insurmountable boundary. At the center, the mystery of individuation remains intact.

Ida Panicelli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.