Elizabeth Dee Gallery | January 9 – February 20, 2010
Housed in the front lobby of downtown L.A.’s Standard Hotel is an analog outfitted organ replete with hippie-era kitsch: neon bells and whistles, not to mention the glimmer of quartz and crystal streaming from the Mod chandelier overhead, refract zaps of color off of keys equal parts the shade of ebony and California sand. Bathed in this ambient light, the instrument seems to glow. Such musical majesty would be the perfect accompaniment to Philadelphia-based artist, Virgil Marti’s, most recent atmospheric, three room installation at Elizabeth Dee. The deliciously gluttonous opulence of Marti’s Rococo-smitten environment begs for such an instrument, if not a full-out musical score—the funny thing is, that may just as well be comprised of the tinny chimes of Mozart’s harpsichord as the browbeating rhythms of death-rock. Either would fare well in the printmaker’s parlor of tricks.
For now we’ll have to settle for musical reference alone. In “Memorial Garden” (2008), a digitally resplendent wall tapestry in velvet brown boasts repeated, symmetrical images of Elvis, a teddy bear, and a robins-egg blue funeral wreath: at once, the stuff of rock-icons’ grave sites and a satirical assessment of our fetishized celebrity idols. Such juxtapositions are not surprising, however, as Marti’s entire exhibition drips with this type of irony. On the one hand is the serious examination of painting, art, and the history of interiors; on the other is the artist’s peddling of what might be termed a gem and rhinestone aesthetic. The perfect example of such a dichotomy can be found in Marti’s custom-made wallpaper installation, “Austrian Swag” (2009), a seven-color screenprint that lines the entire front room of the gallery. Feigning the slick materiality of silk or satin, the wall-sized prints blanket the space in an icing-like drapery of soft grey, eggshell, and ivory white. As the backdrop for four Victorian-derived iridescent multiples, it offers the perfect balance of excess and gravitas.
As for the multiples themselves, they consist of quarter inch-thick wall hangings composed of floorboards lacquered in reflective, pastel skins and cut to resemble 18th century casts of Chippendale mirrors. Titles such as “Fox and Friends,” “Double Pretty,” and “Spitting Image” (all 2010) play up the artist’s sardonic bite. Despite their luminescent exteriors, the textured surfaces of the planks mock all attempts at self-reflection, no doubt a visceral pun on Marti’s interest in the war between nature and artifice, organic environment and man-made constructs.
Other objects include a duet of circular couches, “A Pot of Paint” (2010) and “Arrangement in Black and Blue” (2010), each intended as denotative portraits of the artist’s parents. Lined with fringe and quartered into pillowy sections of floral, sherbert orange and rose, the duo’s female component imparts a decidedly more welcoming air (albeit one tinged with eccentricity) than her melancholic-hued male companion. Situated in the center of the room, viewers are all but forced to obey and endure the objects’ childhood designation “look, but don’t touch”—as if a scolding by the plushly adorned guardians were a viable possibility. But before we throw Freud completely under the bus, we must examine the trio of tuffets in the back room.
Here, the variously sized fur-lined ottomans, “Object Relations” (2010), function more like a nuclear family unit—father, mother, child—than do their retro-outfitted surrogates (no need for therapy here), while the devilishly playful interior of the previous gallery space gives way to Marti’s naturalist proclivities. Pastels are replaced with earthen neutrals, faux fur ceases to look so “faux” and a candle burns from an extended aluminum antler, dripping wax over the smallest of the ottoman triad. Finally, the merely decorative seems to have morphed into something heavier, more tangible. Things interact. We feel the weight of the artist’s intentions in this slightly perceptible shift of conscience: action=reaction. We want to linger here for a while.
Surprisingly, in the end, this is very much a show about beauty. Yes, it is mischievous—sporting elements of death and vanity in its extravagant and grotesque displays. But unlike the overtly emphasized commercial materiality of a Koons or the color-field sentience of Greenbergian design, all of the subject’s manifestations are game for interpretive analysis: superficiality, exteriority, reflectivity, intimacy, its exuberant exaltations and sinister ponderings. It is this multifaceted tenet of the beautiful that defines our complex relationship to interiors. These spaces are crucial to our human existence. They reflect our internal selves and define how we inhabit the world while art, conjointly, reflects the world we have built. Marti’s work begs the question, why not bring the two together in this labyrinthine system of object-relations? His message is clear. Beauty can be ugly but it can also be beautiful. Enjoy it.
ContributorKara L. Rooney
Kara Rooney is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer, and critic working in performance, sculptures and new media installation. She is a Managing Art Editor for the Brooklyn Rail and faculty member at School of Visual Arts, where she teaches Art History and Aesthetics.