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Sex and Death: Interview with Marlene McCarty
by Ana Finel Honigman

London, Aug. 2013: The slippery separation between loving and killing is the theme linking Marlene McCarty’s rich and varied work. As a member of Grand Fury, the AIDS activist collective, McCarty challenged prevailing apathy, misinformation and homophobia by combining text and images for consciousness-raising public art projects. Following Grand Fury’s disbanding in the early 1990s, McCarty began producing a series of ballpoint pen drawings depicting girls who kill their mothers. Both projects trace the toxic ties connecting intimacy with death.

McCarty began investigating true crime tales of matricide when Tom Kalin, a fellow member of Grand Fury, compared her work’s power to the bewitching pull ascribed to Marlene Olive. In 1975, Olive compelled her boyfriend to kill her parents. Olive was characterized during her trial as a manipulative vixen obsessed with the occult and teenage hell raising but in McCarty’s portrait, the teenager looks pretty and serene. In McCarty’s image, like all her subsequent portraits, Olive is dressed in transparent garments revealing breast buds and a pre-pubescent body. Although sex and death are unavoidable forces in this work and the others forming McCarty’s fifteen-year “Murder Girls” series, her true interest is in identity formation and the intimate bonds that socialize or pathologize us.

McCarty’s work has been recognized with a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pollock-Krasner Grant and Skowhegan School Teaching Fellowship. Her work is in the collections of MoMA, the Brooklyn Museum and MoCA Los Angeles. She currently teaches at NYU Steinhardt’s School of Culture, Education and Human Development. On August 22, she spoke with Catherine Grant, the editor of Girls! Girls! Girls! In Contemporary Art, at London’s ICA to accompany her work in the gallery’s group show "Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper)." Joining drawings by Judith Bernstein, Tom of Finland, George Grosz, and Antonio Lopez are McCarty’s wall-sized drawings of young women lovingly intertwined with great apes. Before her conversation with Grant, I realized my longtime ambition to interview her with this email exchange.

Marlene McCarty, GROUP 3 (Tanjung Putting, Borneo. 1971), 2007, Ballpoint pen and graphite on paper, 107.5 x 110 inches; Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Ana Finel Honigman: The work in "Keep Your Timber Limber (Works on Paper)" depicts young women in sexual situations with apes. These works resemble your "Murder Girls." How do the series relate?

Marlene McCarty: Both bodies of work are concerned with destroying boundaries of definition. Many people try to link them through tragic events but that is not what compelled me to do the ape pieces.

AFH: Do you think of adolescence as a feral time? Are teenagers more animal than adults? 

MMC: That’s funny. I think that adolescents possibly are more feral. They definitely seem to be looking for escape from a domestic or captive status. Their frontal lobes are not yet fully developed thus “impending” their reasoning and preconception. Consequences of one’s actions are not really a focal point of the teen brain. Simultaneously teen brains are being flooded by massive amounts of hormones. Need I say more?

AFH: Your choice of Bic pens as the medium for "Murder Girls" is reminiscent of school supplies. A few critics have noted that these drawings resemble adolescents' painstaking classroom doodles. Were you creating them as an alter-ego? When making them, were you imagining yourself as an adolescent girl – maybe heroizing her deviant peers and making a self portrait?

MMC: Here’s how it happened: my choice of materials was informed by my fantasy of how I thought the girls themselves would like to draw and/or see themselves drawn. I started researching the project before I ever suspected that I would do drawings. I had been doing a lot of artwork by creating large decals and then ironing them onto canvas. I just assumed I’d take the pictures I found and iron them onto canvas as well. I did in fact do a couple like that of the first case that I worked on. That was about Marlene Olive. But then, I realized that the medium was completely inappropriate for the subject matter. The iron-ons made the work about media, mechanical reproduction, Warhol, anything and everything but about the girls themselves. I struggled a great deal with how to best articulate the project. Then, in the middle of trying to solve all of this, I went home to visit my parents. My mother asked me to clean some stuff out of a closet and I found a drawing. It was a portrait I had done of myself when I was seventeen. It was graphite and terribly tightly rendered with all the teenage angst of hoping to make it look like a pretty version of me. I knew at that moment that I had to do drawings of all the girls. I needed to create tight, repressed, unexpressive and stylized drawings. I had not drawn anything for ten years.

AFH: Why pen, not pencil? 

MMC: Initially I used only graphite. But feeling the pieces needed a stronger contrast, I added ballpoint. Blue ballpoint was chosen because that’s what we used to doodle with in high school on notebooks, in textbooks, on desks.

AFH: Do you consider your "Murder Girls" series to be feminist art?

MMC: The “Murder Girls” were not intended to be feminist art. I do think the fact they deal with female identity formation probably allows them to function in that arena, but they are also able to function outside that arena.

AFH: When you were creating "Murder Girls," did you consider yourself a fan of your subjects? Was your fascination wholly intellectual or were you (like I am) privately compelled by stories of serial killers and other anti-heroes? I am also interested in why you decided to depict Sylvia Likens alongside girls who perpetrated violent crimes.

MMC: As you can guess, it's complicated. I don't know if I fit into the classic psychological make-up of a fan but I was and I am extremely compelled by and felt great empathy with "the girls."

Marlene McCarty, Marlene Olive – June 21, 1975, 1995-97, Graphite on paper, 96 x 60 inches; Private Collection.


AFH: Can you summarize their stories or the common themes in their stories?

MMC: They all killed their mothers, sometimes including the father and, in a couple of cases, the whole family. The girls were all adolescents, all in that grey zone between childhood and adulthood. The girls were blossoming sexual beings while their mothers could see their own sexuality waning. In all cases there was an extreme (though often unacknowledged) power struggle between the girls and their mothers. I tried to the best of my ability to find cases where the crime committed grew out of this identity struggle. I tried to stay away from cases that were fueled by insanity (sociopathic behavior), drugs, or self-defense. In other words if a girl was being abused by someone then rose up to kill that person, I wouldn't use that case.

Self defense is too rational. I was interested in the murkier tension. A sort of undefinable field where that resonated with me personally.

I do have some portraits like Sylvia Likens or Suesan Marline Knorr where the girl was murdered by her mother or caretaker. I used these portraits because I believe the mitigating factors came from the same internal girl/mom friction but in these cases the parent managed to get the upper hand.

AFH: Do you think this series would be seen differently, or would be conceptually different, if you were one of the people who obsess about serial killers and act like fans of true-crime anti-heroes?

MMC: It’s pure conjecture but IF I was one of the people who obsessed about true crime I’m guessing the drawings would be a lot more descriptive. I purposely made the drawings as blank as I could so that the budding sexuality and the girl were the main visual signifiers. You see no action. You see no sensational murder.

AFH: When you speak with viewers about "Murder Girls" are most of them empathizing with the girls or their families? Do you think that the series inspires parents to confront anxieties about children potentially hiding secret selves? 

MMC: There are a lot of layers within the work and people tend to connect to different combinations of things within the pieces. I am not generally privy to those experiences, although comments that I have heard run the gamut from fear, empathy, sexual attraction, voyerism, moral ambiguity, beauty, ugliness, tragedy, fashion illustration, heroism, guilt to awe. That said, I don’t do surveys to specifically see what people are thinking but at talks women often approach me and say they find the work extremely resonant. It makes them recall their own teen years and difficulties they had with their own mothers. 

AFH: Were you a rebellious teenager? 

MMC: I take the fifth.

Marlene McCarty, Melinda Loveless, Toni Lawrence, Hope Rippey, Laurie Tackett And Shanda Sharer - January 11, 1992. 1:39 Am (2 Of 4 Murals), Graphite and ballpoint pen on paper, 10 x 14 feet; Collection of MOCA, Los Angeles.


AFH: When I was a teenager, girlhood was a main topic for art. Why do you think that girlhood was such a ripe topic in the nineties but seems less so today?

MMC: As regards the nineties, we were coming out of a period when many groups of people were no longer willing to be silent. We were mired in the specter of AIDS. Nationally, as far as women and girls were concerned, the conservative right was determined to return women to the home and husband. Abortion rights were threatened. Abortion clinics were war zones. In a reaction to this cultural climate, women were not going to be silenced. Planned Parenthood and NARAL organized a massive march on Washington. WAC (Women’s Action Coalition) was loud and in your face. Lesbian Avengers were loud and your face. The Riot Grrl movement was loud and very in your face. The girl/woman body was political and as such the body was flaunted. Such an atmosphere bred exploration of the female form in many perspective and not all of them linear or political. Some exploration was actually adamantly apolitical in reaction to the pervasive politics of the time. Actually, today a lot of girlhood content is being dealt [with on] TV, in shows like in Girls or Awkward or even MTV’s Teen Mom.

AFH: As a professor, do you observe your female students grappling with feminist concerns in their art?

MMC: Yes, in and around their art. But they don’t necessarily identify these concerns as feminist. They ask, "Do I want to make art incorporating my body?" Or they say, "I adamantly DO NOT want to make work about the female body." They ask, "How does sex figure into art making? Can I make art out of sex? What do the various representations of women in mass media mean? Who is meant to consume them? Can I combine motherhood and being an artist? Why are there so many of 'us girls' in art school and so many fewer with high visibility in the artworld?" And they tell me, "Nobody (family, friends, husband) expects me to succeed as an artist." I really see these concerns heightened in many of the international students.

AFH: You began creating work with Grand Fury. Do you see a legacy from AIDS awareness in the representation of sexuality by artists who were adolescents or children during the late-eighties and early-nineties? Do you feel that sex and death are especially interlocked for that generation of artists?

MMC: I feel like Monica Majoli and Amy Adler, in her early work, were making work under the specter of AIDS and really went head-on into the darker side of sex. They were precursors to artists like Sue de Beer, Banks Violette, Terence Koh, Pinar Yolocan, Dawn Mellor and Amie Dicke. All of these artists represent a late-AIDS legacy. They grew up in the shadow of AIDS. Death and sex were inextricably linked. Safe sex was thrust down their throats, so to speak. Alternative sex was definitely in the air. Their work is darker and scarier than the next younger generation. With Ryan Trecartin, Josh Faught, and Trisha Baga's There's no I in Trisha these elements of sex and alternative identity still have agency but the sexuality is no longer so linked to death.

AFH: Thankfully, it certainly seems that queer identity has evolved beyond the trauma of AIDS. In the West, that is. Elsewhere, the treats and traumas are different but much older. What are your thoughts about the nightmarish homophobia in Russia and the Western response to it?

MMC: Well, first, I’m a sucker for Tilda Swinton holding up that rainbow flag. But, the situation in Russia is a serious civil rights issue. It was necessary for Obama to speak out against it. However his stance, and by extension our stance / the US stance, will become more complicated when people realize that other countries with whom the US has close relationships commit grave civil rights infringements on Gays and Lesbians. Saudia Arabia is an example. Western outcry is good and can have an impact, though I’m not sure Russia that gives a damn. In Uganda where anti-gay legislation is still being considered by parliament, global outcry has at least made them remove the death penalty from the legislation and has managed to put the brakes on implementation of such a bill. Just to keep things complicated: part of the reason such a bill even exists is that American Christian Conservatives have been on the ground in Uganda drumming up support for the bill.

AFH: Do you think that Americans should boycott the Olympics?

MMC: I think the entire Olympic Committee and all countries should boycott the Olympics and the games should take place somewhere else. Then Russia might listen. There are plenty of huge stadiums around the world that could host such events. I am not for Americans being the only ones to boycott. There needs to be more solidarity. More pressure. But, I am not for penalizing the athletes who have worked like crazy to train for these games by not allowing them to participate.


Ana Finel Honigman 



ArtSlant would like to thank Marlene McCarty for her assistance in making this interview possible.




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