Chicago, April 2009--Over last weekend Mary Lou Zelazny's first career retrospective "Altogether Mutable" closed at the Hyde Park Art Center. Fortunately, before the exhibition closed ArtSlant correspondant Dana Boutin was able to sit down and talk with both the artist and Allison Quinn, curator of the exhibition. The following is their conversation as it was conducted in both an informal exhibition talk and later at the Center's café.
Upon entering “Altogether Mutable: The Work of Mary Lou Zelazny,” a mid-career retrospective of over sixty pieces at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC), a curious courtship arrested me. In the collage-painting Stardust, a creature, or rather a conglomerate of hats, belts, ties, a gun, etc., delicately prepares to lick the translucent, bluish flesh of an elegantly attired woman. Perhaps the glass of wine in front of her has lubricated her affections! Her cigarette lies dangerously close to his drink, a can of oil. Foreshadowed by the nude coupling in a painting behind them, their poisons promise a fiery fusion. The title Stardust links humans and objects, the mutable detritus of combustion, back to their common origins. Stardust conflates several elements of Mary Lou Zelazny’s three decades of work: figures dissolved into swaddles of fabric, collage controlled by the dictums of form, ungainly romantic relationships, and dark humor, all on an edge where fantasy and reality blur. At HPAC’s exihibition talk “Art Thing,” Zelazny noted, of her many art historical influences, Pablo Picasso and Gerhard Richter for their ability to do many things, and Max Beckman and Francis Bacon for implying narratives and abstract figures. The Slumber Party playfully embodies flesh and abstraction in an oversexed voluptuary and a woman made of cake. Zelazny described The Slumber Party as a new Last Supper, for women. Every detail, every object plays a role, down to the foreboding book title Gone with the Wind in the lower left corner. Through invention tempered by an alluring observation of shape, pattern, and light, Zelazny remixes reality. While a mastery of paint choreographs her dramas, Zelazny’s playfulness with collage casts viewers as improvisers in a performance played out in the mind. If there is a fourth wall here, it is sturdily attached to the other three, enveloping the viewer in a suspended yet strangely familiar space. Over coffee at the HPAC’s café, I had the opportunity to talk to Ms. Zelazny about her process, aesthetic experiences, and retrospection. After having coffee with Zelazny, I spoke with both Zelazny and curator Allison Quinn at “Art Thing,” an informal talk at the HPAC.
Dana Boutin: This is the first retrospective either of you have worked on, right?
Allison Quinn: Yes. Mary Lou hates when I use the word “retrospective.”
Mary Lou Zelazny: I’m not used to it.
AQ: She says, I’m not that old. But her work proves that within thirty years, a lot can happen. You don’t have to be ninety to have a retrospective. You can be as young and spry as Mary Lou. She has the talent to make the portraits with which the show begins. She then automatically shifted to abstraction and, interestingly enough, works her way back to the realistic portrait.
DB: How did you negotiate what would be shown in the retrospective?
MLZ: Allison had an idea about what she wanted and there’s a narrative that emerges. They hang together well. The advantage of having a large body of solid work is that I was at ease with someone editing and selecting from it. I directed Allison to pieces that I knew were available or would hang better together, but basically it was her call and I trusted her taste.
AQ: The gallery space and what was available from local private collections helped determine what would be excluded. The most recent work tends to be smaller, and worked well in the Cleve Carney gallery while the earlier works tended to be much larger and hung best on the 22 ft. tall walls in Gallery 1.
DB: What surprised you in the process?
AQ: The surprise was the conversation. These paintings are so dense with material. We asked questions and had time to think about the show for over two and a half years. It’s important to be friends with the person with whom you’re working. I got to know Mary Lou, understand how she thinks, and see it reflected in the paintings. I didn’t know Mary Lou’s work so well when I approached her, so I had hoped she would be okay with a fresh pair of eyes.
MLZ: I welcome that. One can get tired of one’s work after looking at it all the time, showing it to students, and doing data entry and organization. Another person can bring a fresh perspective to it.
DB: Mary Lou, does Allison’s catalog essay “Always the Perfect Non-Sequitur” present one possible interpretation or is it largely representative of how you view your own work?
MLZ: All essays are open to interpretation, and my work is very open to interpretation. I construct it to pose a situation and invite people to go with it where they wish.
AQ: I knew that Mary Lou’s work had been around for a long time and I wondered why she didn’t have a large show before. In doing research, I found little historical writing on her work. Most of the writing was 500 word subjective reviews in art magazines or local newspapers. I wrote the essay with the goal to provide a historical context on her work for future use. The catalog is important because now, hopefully, more can happen with showing her work.
DB: What is the Hyde Park Art Center’s mission?
AQ: A big part of the Hyde Park Art Center’s mission is to show contemporary Chicago artists. The artists are living and they can speak for themselves. I coaxed Mary Lou into showing the plein air paintings she’s done on vacation. Because we’re a teaching as well as an exhibiting institution, it’s important to show people that you don’t just get talent from starting with an open canvas and going ahead with it. Even on her vacation, Mary Lou is working. These paintings show what she looks at—light pattern, the texture of wood, how a raindrop falls—which filters into the background of her collage works.
DB: Mary Lou, when incorporating advertisements and images from magazines in your earlier work, would you say that you have a warmer or less detached approach to using pop culture than New York artists?
MLZ: I don’t know how New York artists think about pop culture, and it is difficult to compare myself to pop artists from the sixties, but I would say I have a warmer approach.
DB: I guess I’m asking how you feel as a Chicago artist and your connection to having a different route than the Imagists but working in the same place and coming after them.
MLZ: I don’t think it’s interesting to compare oneself to New York. There are many New York artists and you have to think, who are you comparing yourself to exactly? I’m not one of the Imagists, and my work is different from their work. A lot of them were my teachers. I have great respect for and love their work. But I also love other kinds of work, specifically very figurative work. In general, it's difficult for any artist to follow a popular aesthetic movement.
DB: Do people try often to pigeonhole your position in the art world?
MLZ: The categories that most often come up are Surrealism and Post-Imagism. Definitions like this can oversimplify anyone’s work, and in my work specifically they overlook the many other influences.
DB: In planning the show, did you have similar ideas about what you wanted to convey?
AQ: For me, what links all the different series and styles in Mary Lou’s work is the study of relationships: between getting to know yourself, being unsettled with yourself, and how you relate to your family, lover, and all the various relationships you have throughout your life.
MLZ: There’s usually a story behind how each narrative in my work arose. These narratives come from things I think about and see: food, dating, home decorating, collecting, current events, and all kinds of clutter. Cigarettes inspired O Sole Mio. When I went on vacation, I would wiggle my toes in the sand and find a cigarette butt. That made me think about how you’re never really alone. Human activity is everywhere. The actual collage pieces came after that idea.
DB: Works like "Stardust," "Pea Green Boat," and "O Sole Mio" portray people dating or relationships ranging from the monstrous to the romantic and whimsical. Mary Lou, would you share a dating experience?
MLZ: There’s none that I would want published. [Laughs.] I think every woman could tell an outrageous story about dating.
DB: Have you ever been serenaded?
MLZ: My interest in serenading comes from art history. The images often portray a sexual metaphor as the foreplay of some later event. I am often interested in subjects no longer in fashion. When I started painting boats, no one was interested in boats. It was a corny thing, like clown painting would be considered now. The musician in art is not very fashionable, so I wanted to resurrect that. But also, I have been an audience to people who play instruments. Sometimes it goes on and on and you have to stay there. There’s an awkward moment. At what point do you cut it off? In Pea Green Boat, I wanted to construct a situation where there’s no escape from the serenading suitor.
DB: In her essay, Allison talks about humanity’s “lonely episodes” in relation to your work of the 1990s. Do you see “lonely episodes” as unpredictable or as connected to milestone events that many people experience?
MLZ: I think of “lonely” as another word for a moment when you feel that you’re not connected to your fellow humans. Both sexes, young and old, find themselves in a place, from time to time, where they are struck by the fact that they are singular. I think that may be what she was getting at.
DB: What was a particular moment when you had a singular experience?
MLZ: Just now! Did you see how beautiful Lake Michigan is today? It’s frozen solid and white. The sky is this slate blue and the lake is acid white and stretches all the way to the horizon. It’s amazing. These singular moments don’t have to be negative. It’s about being aware.
DB: What did each of you become aware of via the retrospective?
MLZ: I knew I was accessing a certain mood and expressive quality through the individual pieces, but I didn’t know they would make sense as a whole or that you could actually see the transition.
AQ: Mary Lou spoke of the rock n’ roll mentality of the earlier works. I imagine that was more of her lifestyle then, before marriage and kids. Quick motion and angst comes out of that time period of work. The marine, underwater body paintings slow everything down and almost pauses it. The feeling of time changes, completely changes. It’s very recognizable as you walk through the show. Recent work is more reflective. The characters are in their own head or moment. That rubs off on the viewer. I feel this emotion when seeing them.
DB: Mary Lou, what rock n’ roll did you listen to?
MLZ: REM and the Smiths were the more popular bands I listened to in the 80's. Although they’re considered mainstream now, they were alternative then. I also listened to Salem 66, the Slits, the Fall, and Felt. And world music was just starting to become popular in the 1980s.
DB: What music do you listen to now?
MLZ: I still listen to rock n’ roll, but not garage bands as much anymore. Now I listen to Goldfrapp and TV on the Radio. I listen to a lot of current alternative music stations.
DB: Do you listen while you paint?
MLZ: Yes, it helps concentration. When you’re in the studio working, you’re pretty much on your own. It’s a lonely field, like writing. Some people work in absolute silence while others listen to music. I think what music artists listen to is a really interesting question.
DB: How do you see the relationship between work and play in your practice?
MLZ: There is the discipline to go and play. I think if you go back in history and read what artists have written about working, there’s a great deal of satisfaction, if not outright play. But I don’t know about writing. Is it play?
DB: I once had a teacher tell me, "If it’s fun you’re not doing it right!"
MLZ: Do you believe him or her?
DB: I guess I have fun and then go back and parse out things. That can be harder.
MLZ: Did you have fun writing when you were younger, before you met this teacher?
DB: Maybe I did! I heard that some people play school or doctor as a child and grow up to adopt that career.
MLZ: I did make early collages and I always drew as a child. I loved science fiction and adventure games. My dolls were always explorers, never housewives. Outer space adventures were popular at that time. Star Trek and Lost in Space were on T.V.
DB: When seeing the "Soundings and Boats" series, particularly the painting "Little Balls of Air," I thought of Adrienne Rich’s poem, "Diving into the Wreck." You share an interest in mythology, water, and gender roles with Rich.
MLZ: Poetry doesn’t directly influence me. Greek myths might have more to do with my thinking about a different kind of powerful woman than the Judeo-Christian model.
DB: What Greek myth stands out to you?
MLZ: Athena represents woman as not only beautiful and sexual but also as powerful and destructive. She’s born out of the head of Zeus fully formed, in battle regalia. It’s a fabulous image!
DB: I have to ask about the humorously unsophisticated, bridelike fabric phantom floating above the gorgeous purple, green, maroon, and sepia flesh of the naked woman in "Waiting for History."
AQ: Waiting for History visualizes the conditions women face as they approach a certain place in their career and their life. It’s an aquatic version of the glass ceiling. For me, that bride image is nostalgia for childhood or a young girl’s fantasy of what life would like be when you’re married. And then this woman is hanging out at the bottom of the ocean, and she is fine with it, but at the same time going nowhere. It’s a disturbing image.
DB: Could you describe the moment when you added this willfully dissonant figure?
MLZ: I conceived the painting as a whole from the beginning. My sister made the drawing as a child. I copied it onto some fabric, and then drew from the fabric. So I actually set up a still life in order to achieve that dynamic. It’s a contemplation of being a woman artist. The figure lying backwards is looking up at the very beginnings of artistic expression. Yet she’s at the bottom of the hierarchy.
DB: Allison, what do you love about Mary Lou’s work?
AQ: What I love about the work is the play between the sweet and the sinister. For example, the series of flower still lifes look innocent and domestic but if you look closer, there are pinup ladies looking at you with these eyes that are so unsettling. In Mary Lou’s work, there’s always an edge. You can take it as, Ah! A sunset over a lake! But when you look closer, you see things break down and there’s this either naughty or dark side to them that affects how you think about them after the fact. They linger with you longer because there are these two opposing views or methods in one canvas. The wrenches and other tools in the "History of Tools" series, which we were not able to include in the show, look more like their own beings, but they’re not humanistic. They have a kinetic motion to them. They look like they’re frozen in motion but you can’t quite place why, where, or what they’re doing. They look sinister and evil and I like that. [Laughter.]
DB: Mary Lou, now that you’re making your own collage materials, it’s impressive how you can still portray where the light would fall even though it’s a constructed piece you’ve added.
MLZ: It’s based on practice and observation. What I see and invent is a marriage. The formal qualities of paint and the study of how artists have treated surfaces are at the core of my work. For example, I go between the two impulses of illusionistic, deep space, almost like a Renaissance perspective, and surfaces, as in Cubism. Through collage, I wanted to bring something to invigorate the surface and cause me to rethink everything and not rely on my hand.
“Altogether Mutable: The Work of Mary Lou Zelazny” was on view at the Hyde Park Art Center until April 12th, 2009.
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