With the much anticipated film LIZZIE coming to cinemas this month — based on the true story of Lizzie Borden, who brutally murdered her father and stepmother in 1892 — this seems like a particularly good moment for a Marlene McCarty show.
The Enormity of Time at Sikkema Jenkins & Co showcases works from McCarty’s notorious Murder Girls series: large-scale drawings of adolescent girls who murdered their mothers, and, often, additional family members. On view are two multi-part works made over a decade apart: Patty Columbo (1999) and Hearth 2 (2010). McCarty, whose art evades all attempts at categorization, began the Murder Girls series in 1995 with Marlene Olive, known for the “Barbecue Murders.” Since then she has portrayed a dozen more killers, all female.
Art history is saturated with representations of murderous women — think of the many portraits depicting Judith with the head of Holofernes. Often, these women’s actions are justified by some higher moral principle — Judith, for example, had to kill Holofernes to save her city.
A more vicious female found in art is the infamous siren. While Greek mythology describes the siren as taking a half-woman, half-bird form, in art from the Middle Ages on, she has typically been depicted as a twin-tailed mermaid. These images are commonly sexualized, showing the mermaid’s bifurcated tail as if she is spreading her legs. (This pose was considered so vulgar that Starbucks had to change its original logo to the sanitized mermaid we carry around on coffee cups today.) The siren’s power to lure travelers into the path of destruction with the beauty of her voice is symbolized by her physical beauty; throughout art history, the more dangerous the woman, the more her physical attractiveness has been emphasized. Think, for example, of the sexualization of witches in early modern Europe, as exemplified by Albrecht Dürer’s famous 1497 engraving “The Four Witches,” or Hans Baldung Grien’s 1510 woodcut print of a witches’ Sabbath.
McCarty’s depiction of Patty Columbo exudes a similar aura of sexual power. In May 1976, then-19-year-old Patricia Columbo and her boyfriend brutally murdered her parents and 13-year-old brother, hoping to gain an inheritance. Presented on a monumental scale usually reserved for paintings, the four drawings show Patty at different stages in time, from the police notifying her of the murder in 1976 to her first parole consideration in 1984. Meticulously executed in pencil and ballpoint pen, the drawings’ teenage aesthetic is likely to remind the viewer of sketches made in the margins of one’s high school notebooks.
In all four drawings, Patty is positioned as if seated on the ground, with her knees up and legs spread, reminiscent of the siren. Her underwear and bralette fade away, exposing her vulva and nipples to our gaze. From the first drawing to the last, little varies except the direction in which Patty is looking, and — most drastically — her hair color and style. Starting out with pink in the first drawing (reflecting her 1984 parole hearing), it changes to red, orange, and finally, for her 1976 notification of the deaths, yellow. In this way, McCarty captures a progression that resists narrative, disclosing almost nothing of Patty’s personality or actions. However, a sheet of paper that describes the murders, written by McCarty, is available at the gallery’s front desk. Take it or leave it.
The second work confronts the viewer with the site of a murder. The two large-scale drawings that comprise Hearth 2 depict almost identical images of China Camp State Park, where in 1970 16-year-old Marlene Olive and her 20-year-old boyfriend, Chuck Riley, burned the bodies of Marlene’s adoptive parents in a barbecue pit, after brutally murdering them. Rendered in graphite on paper, the landscape is dense. At the center of the composition is a mysterious man-made structure interrupting the wildness of nature. Examining a picture McCarty took at the site in 2009, it becomes apparent that the artist makes the pit, as well as the surrounding environment, appear larger, more ominous than it actually was. While the bodies are gone, the space remains, along with it its history.
Similar to the sirens, many of McCarty’s murder girls mobilized desire to lure others, in their cases to help carry out murders. Marlene Olive was obsessed with witchcraft and believed she had supernatural control over her boyfriend — who was sentenced to death while she was tried as a minor and received only a four-year sentence. Judith, too, was only able to enter Holofernes’s tent because he desired her. But with McCarty’s drawings, the attraction extends to the furtive feelings of desire we, as viewers, might feel.
While many past reviewers of McCarty’s work have stated that the Murder Girls make them uncomfortable, the source of this discomfort is rarely explored. Considered within a larger art historical narrative, however, the unsettling feeling exposes certain presumptions around gender roles, which the artist amplifies by leaving the subjects’ vulvas and nipples exposed. We’re not used to seeing nonfictional female killers in the realm of art: women who committed gruesome murders, usually for reasons no greater than their own self-interests. This does not correspond with the dominant view of womanhood in which women are expected to be caring, compliant, and submissive — not to stab their little brother to death with scissors, as Patty Columbo did. Thus, while McCarty’s work fits into the art historical tradition of representing dangerous women in an overtly sexualized way, it deviates by choosing subjects that aren’t fictional — and this is exactly what makes many viewers uncomfortable.
This discomfort with artistic representations of female killers is exemplified in Marcus Harvey’s 1995 portrait of Myra Hindley. Hindley assisted her partner, Ian Brady, with the killing of five children in the notorious Moors Murders in Manchester, England. When Harvey’s work was included in the 1997 exhibition SENSATION at the Royal Academy of Art, several members of the academy resigned and the work was vandalized twice on the opening day alone. The portrait of Hindley was more horrifying to the British public than one of Brady would have been, largely because her involvement in the murders betrayed the sacred notion of a mother’s love. McCarty’s work perpetrates the same offense of refusing the conventions of womanhood and the sacredness of the mother-daughter bond.
The exhibition title, The Enormity of Time, reflects not only the amount of time it took McCarty to complete these works, but also the enormity of time the girls’ crimes will haunt our sensibilities. Upon leaving the gallery, I found myself slightly distressed, being so used to moral takeaways (I am, after all, a product of the Soviet Union). Yet, McCarty does not give us the satisfaction of a neatly wrapped moral or a happy ending, nor does she attempt to rationalize the girls’ actions or to vilify them. Her work resists subjectivity as much as it resists narrative — and that is precisely where its impenitent power lies.
The Enormity of Time continues at Sekkema, Jenkins & Co. (530 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 13.