The new series of works in Servane Mary’s exhibition “God Dies,” which just closed at Martos Gallery on March 17, reveals the artist’s innate understanding of the sensuous potential of materials, techniques, and their combination. Mary is best known for her painted portraits of female celebrities, which give physical, painterly presence to ephemeral images as a way to substantiate the psychological presence behind them. In comparison, these new pieces work with rather than against visual instability, accepting it as an unavoidable and even defining feature of modern female experience.
With “God Dies,” Mary has progressed from literal images of femininity to a more abstract form of these images, grounded most powerfully in material. Made primarily of silk and mirrors – a poetic enough pairing of materials even in text – her new works enlist the past as a lens through which to examine the present, addressing the challenges and consequences of being a culturally visible female figure. At the exhibition’s entrance, a gallery of ostensibly commanding women, sitting regally when not heavily armed with machine guns, would seem to confront the viewer with images of (even now) unconventional female roles. Rather, by transferring the images onto translucent, cosmetic-hued silk, Mary makes the images palatable within traditional standards of femininity. It is this taming of the images that is the works’ most shocking aspect, drawing our attention to the ease with which female rebellion is squelched and assimilated. Similarly, in Acid Queen, 2011, photographs of cowgirls and other symbolic figures of female liberation are hung out like intimates on a public laundry line.
Mary’s works are not overtly political statements; in fact, they acknowledge the inefficacy of such outright self-declaration, having learned from the difficulties faced by Jane Fonda, Elaine Brown, and the other female activists they depict. Yet the works are cooly, even covertly confrontational by the precise token of their diaphanous beauty. Hanging at the center of Mary’s show is Untitled (Cheetah, Elaine, Explosion), 2011, a curtain made of four silk panels printed with photographs via a solvent transfer process. The magenta and coral hues of the silks make the central image, printed on white, of a woman sporting a bun atop her head appear like a proof from a fashion shoot. The compositional rhymes among the photographs of the woman and the cheetah and smoke plume to her left and right, respectively, demonstrate the media’s way of aestheticizing − and thereby declawing, so to speak − both images and their content. In this impulse, and in her practice more generally, Mary owes an obvious debt to Andy Warhol, and his series of “Disaster” paintings in particular. Her silken portraits of female figures also share much with her predecessor’s paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, and Elizabeth Taylor, all women whose private plights became public knowledge.
Yet Mary’s subjects hover on the edge of the iconic rather than inhabit it. For someone like Elaine Brown, former chairperson of the Black Panthers and centerpiece of Untitled (Cheetah, Elaine, Explosion), the decision to retreat from visibility was largely involuntary, predicated by the male-dominated ethos of the party. Similarly, the promising career of actress Frances Farmer, was cut short in 1944 when, in view of her increasing alcoholism, she was declared legally insane and institutionalized. In God Dies, 2011, Mary has stretched a piece of white silk with a picture of Farmer over a mirror. By pulling the fabric across that symbol of feminine vanity, the artist further destabilizes the visual presence of the innately delicate material. The effect of the mirror is such that the washed-out print of Farmer’s publicity still, already appearing on the verge of disappearance, reaches the peak of its disintegration when one is directly in front of the piece. The viewer supplants the image with his or her own in a process analagous to the way that someone as idolized and idealized, as Marilyn Monroe is destined to be displaced by the public’s perception of her.
God Dies calls to mind most specifically Warhol’s 1962 Marilyn Diptych, in which the repeated reprinting of the image leads to its deterioration. At the same time, the photograph’s seeming to flicker, intensified by the continuously changing reflection in the mirror, also recalls the scribbled reproductions of that other pioneer of photo transfer techniques, Robert Rauschenberg. Like many of Rauschenberg’s works − and, at least on the surface, unlike those of Warhol − Mary’s works all contain a palpable psychological element that is guarded from the viewer, if not entirely inaccessible to him or her. Made explicit in the expressive brushstrokes of the artist’s earlier paintings, this emotional presence now manifests itself in the artist’s combinations of translucency and reflectivity, played off one another to produce an often uncanny iridescence that is simultaneously seductive and unsettling. It’s a presence persistent even when Mary approaches the abstract. In Untitled (Pink Monochrome Mirror), 2012, there is no image printed on the fleshy and alluring pink silk. And yet, reminiscent of an enlarged snapshot of a blush compact and all the cheeks it is used to adorn, the hue speaks just as strongly to the cultural demands of femininity as do the female figures, depicted elsewhere, who embody them.
The most poignant work in the show isa two-part piece featuring Jean Seberg, the famously-coiffed star of Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless.” The actress’s decision to stop acting at the peak of her career has been equally attributed to public blacklisting and defamation, done in response to the actress’s radical political affiliations, as to her more personal battles with depression and physical abuse. In either case, our fractured understanding of Seberg’s life mirrors the fractured character of the life itself, a phenomenon which Mary deftly renders in Untitled (Jean Seberg and The Mirror), 2012, to beautiful effect. Here, the artist has selected a source image from the movie in which Seberg, looking pensive, stands in front of a portrait of herself which has been tacked on the wall behind her. The image, pigment-printed on off-white silk, is stretched over part of a slightly trapezoidal slab of mirrored Plexiglas and installed in a corner opposite a rectangular mirror. This visual multiplication of Seberg’s image – a doubling of a doubling – points to the disparities between public and private selves that haunted the actress, ultimately leading her to commit suicide at the age of 40. At the same time, as the viewer is doubled and reflected into the work, he or she becomes intimately involved in Seberg’s emotional moment.
I say “he or she,” but I mostly mean “she,” for I think Mary’s attempts to promote empathy are targeted specifically at her women viewers. The generally fragile and feminine appeal of the pieces in the show, rendered in market-friendly hues culled from covers of Cosmopolitan, compel the female observer to consider whether, in our contemporary image-based society, women perpetuate standards and expectations of their own gender that are at least potentially more damaging than those imposed by the stereotypical harbingers of pa