Artforum and Gay City: Marlene McCarty


Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

A version of this review appeared in Artforum:

John Keats composed the gnomic, oft-cited phrase “Beauty is truth, truth beauty;” in her first show with Brent Sikkema, Marlene McCarty sustains her attack on presumptions about these famous twin poles, particularly as they apply to the American teenage girl. ...

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Another version of this review appeared in Gay City News:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” that is all

Ye need to know on earth and all ye need to know.

In his “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats neatly synthesized what probably remains to this day the most often-cited cultural inanity. And what is the result of the formulation? There are two–– the reduction of people to ornaments, and a justification for ignoring anything unseemly or unbeautiful as untrue.

In her first show with Brent Sikkema, “Marlene Olive—June 21, 1975. 33 Hibiscus Court, Marin County, California,” Marlene McCarty, via six large-scale murals, sustains her attack on presumptions of truth. America’s teen girl is the ultimate victim and perpetrator of the cult of beauty, and McCarty has long dedicated herself to the embodiment of this dichotomy, in the form of the American teen murderess. In a culture that adheres to the principle that beauty is tantamount to good, young girls, as paradigms of beauty, often make for a painful and tempting incursion of reality—which is that good and evil are entirely independent of our own vanities and fulfillments. What we want isn’t necessarily true. It’s a lesson learned many times from young girls–– Lizzy Borden, Joan of Arc, Amy Fischer, the girls of the Salem Witch trials.

McCarty’s latest works—graphite and ballpoint on paper—are culled from media images of Marlene Olive, a 16-year-old who, with her boyfriend, killed her mother and father in 1975. McCarty’s larger-than-life drawings depict the teen couple and Marlene’s parents, Naomi and Jim, in casual 70s family-style stills.

Under the fashion-template clothing of the period, however, another untold reality looms as visible: the genitalia of the teens and Naomi and Jim Olive imply the more complex truth of human existence—a truth that McCarty evidences as perhaps not ugly, but definitely not beautiful.

McCarty, with a consciously unpleasant line, catches us up in that long stare—at breasts, vaginas, penises—and we are forced to accommodate the fact that truth and beauty don’t really have all that much to do with the subject of our gaze.