Remembering Today, Longing for Long Ago, Protecting Tomorrow, 2008
By Sue Spaid, for the exhibition Mary Kay & Rebecca Morales
Popular pastimes such as shadow boxes, encased keepsakes, picture lockets, pressed flowers, buried treasures, time capsules, photo albums, scrap books, bulletin boards, and memento mori demonstrate some need to capture yesterday, extend today, freeze moments, or thwart entropy. Why do human beings tend to delay change, resist decay, and defer aging by preserving the now, rather than letting go? This essay can’t answer this question, but I do hope to show that Mary Kay’s new paintings double as mementoes, fields of soaring relics permanently pasted into our memories. Soon after viewing her paintings, I asked whether she was also a naturalist, since the figures in her paintings seemed too detailed to be rendered from memory. She immediately suggested we visit her studio, where we studied her collection, casually culled while on walks with her dog. Like most artist-naturalists, she arranges her specimens categorically (similar insects, pods, vertebrae, fibulas, clavicles, skulls, seashells, carapaces, dried flowers). When these pieces appear in her paintings, they’re not always identifiable. Rendered in ways that veil their reference, they’re rotated at oblique angles as if tossed in the air, obliterated from sight by being buried under other objects, or distorted as aspects undergoing disintegration are selected. Even figures you feel comfortable identifying loom otherwise. The seashell-like form in To Grow is actually the tightly closed bud of a moonflower, while Maw’s cow vertebra evokes a fuchsia orchid.
Rather than ponder the question of what is being looked at, which would require one to identify each object hanging on the canvas’ surface, one should wonder about what is happening inside the painting, especially since these bottomless paintings look more like archaeological sites than illustrated plates from naturalists’ travels. However, Kay’s drawings, wherein she first paints a luscious ground, then selects the appropriate character(s) to float atop, and paints each as vividly as possible, do resemble such plates. Some of her paper works, especially her bone study, whereby dozens of bones hover over a black field, recall illustrations found in Cassiano’s Paper Museum.1 In 1762, King George III purchased this collection, whose 7,000 watercolors, drawings, and prints mostly document natural history, which was once considered one of the most significant efforts to “embrace human knowledge in visual form.”2 Twenty-two years later, Sir James Edward Smith purchased the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus’ personal collection of books, letters, and specimens (minerals, insects, shells, fish, and plants), which along with Smith’s collection formed the core of London’s Linnean Society.3 While I have no proof that Kay ever visited such collections, this British-born artist shares their anxiety about forgetting. This fascination with visual knowledge and desire to amass the past pervades her first culture. One only has to visit the Victoria and Albert or John Soane’s London home to taste this distinctly British pursuit.
So, let’s see what’s happening in Kay’s paintings. One feature that her paintings share is some orifice, whether a nest’s center, a radiant sunflower-like mandala or a vertebra’s hollow center, each proposing pursed, pinkish lips mouthing “whooo” or “oooh.” This sounds very weird, but they’re everywhere here. With Spirit, two veiny leaves hover over a pinky-grey fluffy nest, comprised of straw, grasses, and thorns. Laced in red, the veins suggest an active circulatory system pumping blood, oxygen, and/or nutrients. Meanwhile, an animal has constructed a stunning, though pointless nest, one that’s ultimately too painful to perch upon. In Maw, the dramatic orchid-like vertebra, occupying an enormous boneyard suddenly swept up in a gust of wind, summons the spectator’s attention. Simultaneously grasped from various vantages, ranging from close-up to far away, this scene generates substantial depth. False Hope, the series’ most animated work, consists of a single cicada wing wisping blissfully through a pasture dotted with colossal toothy creatures. If you’re beginning to sense the onset of some ominous tempest, you might be comforted to learn that the first artwork she remembers appreciating was Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (1500), hanging as a poster in a friend’s bedroom. With Rush, one senses the ruffled plumage of a puffed-up bird crowning a cross-section of a fleshy bone. The most mysterious painting is Uproot, whose detailed fleshy root drifts in the dark, parallel two ruddy cicada wings, while delicate roots toss about. Reiterating nature’s transiency, this theme recalls the extreme lifecycle of cicada nymphs munching roots and thriving beneath the earth’s surface, only to emerge as adults every thirteen or seventeen years. Parts consists of three turtle vertebrae.