From the exhibition, Contemporaries VI: Mary Kay, 1992
By Leland Warren
Nature morte, the term used in France since the eighteenth century for what in English we call still lifes, would initially seem an especially apt description of the recent paintings of Mary Kay. Dead butterflies, locusts, beetles, flies, and larvae painted in lavish colors and shown piled or sprawled across huge canvases suggest themes of fecundity and prodicality that have variously informed the tradition of still life painting in the West. If here flashes of color emerging from dark spaces recall the similarly dynamic appearance of magnificent flowers in seventeenth-century Dutch pictures, of gaudy-blooms that celebrate human participation in, even mastery of, nature’s power, Kay’s actual subjects are monstrously enlarged versions of creatures we can often find on the margins of the same early paintings, creatures placed there to remind viewers of the ubiquity and inevitability of decay and death.
But if these ostensible subjects would seem to place the works within one of the traditionally lower kinds among the hierarchy of genres, the actual appearance of the paintings – their scale, their drawing, their surfaces point toward a radically different placement, among past and modern heroic modes. Far from the still lifes’ astonishing fidelity to floral and entomological detail with their careful, artist-effacing application of paint, the bold, gestural strokes here produce explosions, swirls, fountains of color whose energetic and seemingly uncontainable assertiveness suggests the enterprise of abstract expressionism. But because within this dense texture of forces we make out distinct figures disposed in exaggerated postures and potentially significant relationship to one another, because, in other words, we perceive an implied narrative beyond that of the painter’s effort in creating an image, we may reasonably think of these as history paintings.
Titles of the works ironically invoke the conflicting conventions of these distinct modes of painting. Small Insect Pile designates an appropriately inanimate (if unusual) object for a still life, while Insect Pile 3 suggests that the collection has served only as the occasion for a series of paintings whose purpose is to allow the artist to practice and/or display her skills. But an initial feeling that the choice to treat this subject on this scale can hardly be innocent is justified by other titles, titles like The Plague and The Quick and the Dead whose Biblical allusions imply that we are to read in the images the kind of allegorical stories appropriate to the most significant of narrative paintings.
If the locusts recall one of the Egyptian plagues, why are they given such striking colors and why do the legs and trunk of one of them look so like a fallen human? What are we to make of an apparent identification of insects as those who are to be judged by Christ at the end of time? And although the rendering of the butterfly in The Glorious Dead is, indeed glorious, we recognize the title as a commonplace – indeed, formulaic – reference to valor and sacrifice, to the glory conventionally associated with those who have given their lives for a cause publically defined as both noble and sacred.
The Plague, The Glorious Dead, and perhaps Cacophony: such labels encourage us to read Kay’s works in relation to a more specific tradition of public painting about war, a tradition probably best known for its idealizations of the virtues of combatants, but one which also includes masterpieces of visual invective, works pointing up the cynicism that is often behind the rhetoric of those who urge others to sacrifice for the nation. By deploying (usually dead) insects in contexts where we would expect to find sacrificing (or sacrificed) humans, Kay would seem clearly to take a place in the skeptical camp. Indeed, to me the most powerful of the paintings, the inexpressively titled Insect Pile 3, achieves much of its force by recalling in its pyramidal structure of ambiguously aspiring creatures Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1817), a work not about war, but nevertheless among the most heroic assaults on political cynicism ever painted.