Shotgun Review- April 2009|
Marci Washington- Dark Mirror at Rena Bransten
by Brady Welch
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Marking the degree to which an era can be judged woefully moribund--like an overripe banana, just past its prime--is a tenuous undertaking. Undaunted, artists, writers, philosophers, and politicians have always, and will continue to peer, if not into the looking glass, then the crystal ball. And so it goes with Marci Washington's exhibition, Dark Mirror, an impressive jab at the conscience, currently showing at Rena Bransten Gallery. In a statement tacked to the wall upon entering the gallery--as if to say, I actually want you to read this--Washington tells us that, "I am focusing on the commonalities between our time and Edwardian England... a time of empire for the sake of empire... and the beginning of the empire's decline." That the subjects and hangers-on the era's hollow regality (roughly 1901-1910) failed to understand the gravity of their fate is part of the point, but this show is no history lesson. It's best to just hop aboard as Washington unveils the wonderfully grim characters that hide out in her head and trouble the rest of us. The majority of the work in Dark Mirror consists of deftly crafted portraiture in watercolor and gouache on paper. Washington's color palette, like the larger project she has set before herself, tends toward darker hues. The subjects in her paintings are generally pale, lithe, dulled by drug or drink, and, on more than one occasion, drooling ruby red blood or some sort of black crud. Other works depict washed out, ghostly specters that appear on the verge of vanishing--or, via Washington's skilled hand, almost melting--into the background. The effect is supremely creepy, and very intoxicating. Other unfortunates in her paintings appear to have been decapitated, as there are freshly severed heads lacking young and beautiful bodies. (Some of the artist's work not included in the show but viewable on her website, depict stray appendages dangling from ceilings. In one particularly ghastly scene, three arms sway from the spare branches of a tree, as if torn from their respective corpses by a pack of wild dogs.) If one has trouble repressing a sick joy with Washington's delightfully macabre imagery while reconciling it with her larger mission of speaking to the more specific terror of implied political, economic, and social decline, there is no need to fret. She assures us of the correlation: "Through the metaphors of the haunted house, the ancestral curse, and cannibalism/vampirism, I am exploring America's relationship to it's [sic] own past as well as that of imperial England as a haunting, a curse, and an ideological infection." Although not specifically a product of the Edwardian twilight, Washington cites Charlotte Bront‘'s Jane Eyre (published in 1847) as an influence. One particular character in the book is the raving, blood-thirsty lunatic Bertha Mason, whose husband has locked her in the attic and who Jane Eyre compares to a vampire. What I think Washington is trying to get at with this--and in her specifics, only slightly off the mark--is the notion that Victorian writers like Bront‘ used supernatural motifs in their stories as metaphors for the degrading effects of a repressive and ultimately decaying social order. While it was more likely that the popularity of Romanticism and its attendant relationship to Neo-Gothicism accounted for the spooks and specters peeking out from the shadows of nineteenth-century England, Washington still has a point. It's just that the moral lassitude characterizing Edwardian England was of a much different vintage than that of the dour and skittish outlook that has characterized the past six months of the twenty-first century. The decadence marking turn of the century England owed almost all of its revelry to a very understandable naivete. A sense of freedom was in the air. Science and technology were cohering in ways that offered concrete advances in medicine, transportation, and communications. The last big war anyone remembered was the Crimean War occurring almost fifty years prior. And the money. Oh, the money. It seemed to fall from the sky. In America, we call this age of extravagance the Gilded Age. Not coincidentally a number of writers and artists have compared our country's recent free-wheeling behavior in a time of war and endless credit as yet another Gilded Age. But what a difference a year makes. All but one of the pieces for Dark Mirror were created in 2009, a new era in which major financial institutions go bankrupt, jobs seem to flutter away like so many birds, two bloody insurgencies continue, and when not a few members of a broken republic walk into public spaces and start shooting. Viewed in this milieu, the specters at the heart of Marci Washington's work are far removed from those covered in the white lace of Edwardian England. There is a sad cynicism resonating throughout Dark Mirror, and a cold implication of whistling past the graveyard when everyone knows that is exactly where we're headed. The principle quality of Washington's work is its tragedy. In other words, her paintings make us think quite a bit about ourselves as a people in a singular way. Modern connotations of "catharsis" perhaps give the word too pungent a flavor, but when discussing the experience of viewing Dark Mirror, the Aristotelian idea still holds. It is strangely comforting to view her subjects--dead, dying, and undead--and internalize the message they convey in their silence. American exceptionalism and the ideas it has engendered "have doomed us to repeat a history that we have felt entitled to ignore," Washington says. See what happens to us? her paintings say. Go on. Look in the mirror. Marci Washington: Dark Mirror is on view at Rena Bransten Gallery through May 16, 2009. Her work is also included in the Trace Elements exhibition at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, on view through July 3, 2009.
--Brady Welch is a writer and editor based in San Francisco.