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Blue, Green, Magenta Series work by Dieter Mammel and
Melanee Cooper Gallery
Two artists with disparate techniques and subjects featuring the illustrated narrative are paired at Melanee Cooper Gallery this early fall season, and are worth taking a look at.
Marilyn Holsing is represented with her Young Marie Series of paintings based on the artist's fictitious concept of a young Marie Antoinette, developed after the artist took a trip to France and Versailles. The series shows an idealized portrait of Marie in various fantastical situations, including fire-breathing, plate-and-cup balancing, performing an aerial acrobatic act, tightrope-walking, and having her hair braided by a flock of assorted birds. Ms. Holsing doesn't pretend to put her young Marie in any historical context -- in Young Marie Stargazing, for example -- by showing a string of electric bulb lights in the paintings, and putting Marie in semi-contemporary dress, emphasizing the fantastical nature of the series.
Each work is painstakingly painted with small marks of gouache on a casein wash background to give the faux finis appearance of needlework on silk. The artist's statement notes that if she made one mistake, the whole work had to be thrown out and begun again from scratch. Annoying for sure, if a little tedious, though the artist's choice of process is well-suited to her subject matter: delicate, intricate, and deliberate.
My first impression of Ms. Holsing's work reminded me of the self-portraits of another contemporary artist, Julie Heffernan (reviewed in ArtScope.net, October, 1999). The ridiculousness of a child as a fire-breather, or with a platoon of birds braiding or knotting her hair, have an air of innocence and playfulness while at the same time, a sinister undercurrent that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Certain keys to the identity of the child, though, will lead the viewer to unmistakably identifying the child in question to be Marie Antoinette (at least, through modern conceptions of Marie): the name, the ever-present 18th-century hairdo, even the needlepoint-like quality of the medium. Though Holsing's muse was Versailles and Marie Antoinette, nowhere is there an allusion to the real Marie Antoinette's childhood in Austria. These are the illustrated idyllic fantasies of a young child laid out to satisfy our voyeuristic cravings of celebrity, though not inherently dark images thinly veiled by pleasant apparitions such as Julie Heffernan's work. The tragedy lies only in what we know of Marie Antoinette in her later life. In many ways, this is how most people view their own lives, and we find these echoes in, for example, the concept of being born under a blue sky, but dying in a dark forest. Personal identity is forever ingrained by our childhood experiences; so when we are surrounded by that dark forest, we always find ourselves shocked and amazed. Marilyn Holsing's work never takes you into that dark forest: her conceptual Marie remains blissfully ignorant of any future; fantasizing, and (hardly) mundanely living with the innocence of an overprivileged child.
According to the artist, the series concept was developed based on the real Marie Antoinette's agrarian fantasies to be closer to the common people of France -- a fashionable ideal of the French aristocracy before the revolution. And therefore, from a more studied perspective, the feats that Holsing puts her Marie through, do in a way convey not only the ridiculousness of the real Marie's agrarian fascination, but also the circus-like feats the real Marie would have had to go through to convince a public both common and aristocratic of her sincerity, and to fend off the libel that surrounded her court.
Unlike Holsing's warm and fuzzy Marie, there is a cold, hard edge to Dieter Mammel's watercolor and ink wash paintings in his Blue, Green, Magenta Series. Reminiscent of Gerhard Richter's "unpaintings" with a nod to Morris Louis and Degas, Dieter Mammel's work is both semi-photographic and painterly, with a strangely removed indifference to his subjects that is somehow and simultaneously touchingly familiar, stressed by the monochrome cold color schemes.
Most of Mr. Mammel's work shows a child in some situation or other. In Diver, Dieter shows us a boy with a snorkel and goggles that looks as if he's asleep, yet underwater due to the greenish hue of the painting. You don't know whether he's asleep, drowned, or whether just a flash of a camera made him narrow his eyes. The viewer is not quite sure what to interpret. Sleep can feel like a nitrogen narcosis, what deep-sea divers refer to as a "rapture of the deep". Beach Boy has a boy (the same boy?) playing in the sand on the beach. In Ava, it's not clear what this little girl is doing or where she is. Her right hand is near her mouth. The left hand is an amorphous blob at the bottom of the painting. If she's holding something in her left hand or grabbing at something, you don't know what it is.
Several paintings depict adults in situations with similar absence of context. In Blue Note 2 a man is drawing on a surface (a chalk-board?). If he's writing something, you don't know what it is he's writing, and so, don't know what the man is trying to communicate. You know only what Mr. Mammel decides to show you. There's a man (skiing?) in Helvetia but the artist has chosen to put a large "+" sign over the man's behind -- the significance of which is completely lost without more information.
Mammel's technique borrows somewhat visually from Gerhard Richter's "unpaintings" where cold, removed, snapshot-like paintings are "destroyed" by smearing the paint while it's still wet, except Mammel instead uses heavily watered-down pigment to stain the painting surface. Conceptually, the effect is much like trying to paint a detailed scene with only a wet-on-wet watercolor process, but the lack of detail is created mostly by the technique and effect of staining. There's an inference here of detail, therefore, similar to Asian ink-drawings. The artist shows a keen sense of which wet-on-wet process will produce what kind of surface effect. It's this process that helps him decide what to show and what to hide -- or isolate. Richter's purpose was to "destroy" the image, but Mammel is only building it up, choosing not to show everything by stopping with the underpainting.
Mammel's composition relies strongly on a snapshot quality that, together with the cold-color choices with little real whites, stressed by the unprimed canvas that they are painted on, strongly suggest The Smiths' album covers designed by Morrisey and subsequent videos filmed by the late filmmaker Derek Jarman, in which people and situations are emotionally framed. The result is a window into personal introspection and isolation even while in the midst of a group. This is a "magnifying glass into the soul" approach to the figure in contemporary settings: A bath, at a chalkboard, asleep, on the beach, where we don't and can't really know the context, but can infer through our own experience. We either have been there, or we haven't. If we have, we think we know what is going through the mind of the figure in the painting -- but we don't, really, made painfully obvious by the lack of further clues than what the artist has chosen to give us.
Blue, Green, Magenta Series work by Dieter Mammel and Young Marie Series work by Marilyn Holsing, are showing at Melanee Cooper Gallery through October 27, 2007. All images used by permission through Melanee Cooper Gallery.
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