Cold Flesh

Malerie Marder's bodies make a strange mix of life, death and the unknown

In the unconscious abyss of sleep and repose lies an arena of possibility. There are the dreamscapes where one enacts the impossible, from the mundane to the amazing, from talking to the president at a barbecue to flying fleet-bodied through urban vistas yet unknown. Beneath the eyes of a resting dreamer lies this fathomless space where action occurs, movement so close to the surface yet always hidden and protected by the skin. It is a closeness that makes for the uncanny--incomprehensible performances that are at once disturbing and comforting, eerie because they make grossly real the impossible but all right because we are not awake. Restful sleeping bodies make the end near-at-hand. Tweaking once again that old poetic couplet of death and sleep--that Sleep is Death's brother--Malerie Marder's images operate according to this seeming contradiction.

Currently showing at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, the bodies in Marder's video and photographs elicit an unsettling combination of emotions and psychological moods. In "At Rest," a 12-minute video loop, one watches an array of bodies sleeping and relaxing--Marder's friends and family naked, snoozing and unfurled on beds and in tubs, on couches and in Jacuzzis. We become voyeurs stealthily casting our gaze upon the pockmarked and the beautiful, the pregnant and the fat, the taut and the liver-spotted, both babies and the elderly. The video seems at first to be but an exercise in watching bare bodies, in sneaking a peek at an old man's genitalia, ogling a woman's large, spotted nipple, contemplating the transformations of an aging body, peering in at inactive, pretzel-like embracing couples. Some seem dead, such as the body of a woman in a tub, floating lifelessly as if the victim of her own undoing. Others are clearly alive--bodies splayed out, eyes wide open with faces gazing back at you whether sleeping or not.

But then the breathing sets in.

"Victor Marder," by Malerie Marder, 2000
"Victor Marder," by Malerie Marder, 2000

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is on display at The McKinney Avenue Contemporary through May 9. Call 214-953-1MAC.

The bodies in "At Rest" are beset by irregular, chained breathing. Marder has created visual dissonance by increasing the speed of film that captures the unmoving, listless bodies. Layered atop the imagery of irregularly palpitating bodies are sounds of bleating and snorting, whinnying and heavy breathing that could be signs of orgasm or suffocation. Bodies at rest become bodies subtly tinged by frenzied sleep. Instead of watching full-out human movement in fast-motion, we watch the nuances of sleeping people that have been uncannily quickened. The usually calm movements of relaxation become unusually panicky as the pliant raising and lowering of the chest during sleep becomes restless panting and gasping. The figures breathe as if on respirators, bodies reliant on invisible, perhaps internalized miniature heart-lung machines, battling to stay on this side of the split between sleep and death.

While less suggestive of death's rest and more the tortures of mental exertion, Marder's photographs in the neighboring gallery space, 10 of them, are equally unsettling. They are large-scale color prints that would be misleading to describe in terms of portraiture. Once again using her family and intimates as subject matter, Marder makes photographs of psychological dispositions rather than specific people. Marder shoots her subjects in homogeneous settings, both run-of-the-mill and run-down hotel rooms and everyday ranch houses. The setting of the photographs at The MAC is the latter, what looks to be a suburban, one-story, single-family dwelling à la Brady Bunch without the split-level. Yet there is less identity in the space than that. There are no traces of habitation--just people set in space.

A photograph, "Diane Marder," of Marder's naked mother in an empty, anonymous kitchen says nothing about her mother as the woman of the house, as one might expect. It says nothing about her work, pastimes or hobbies as in traditional portraiture. Rather, the image of her mother, staring oval-eyed back at us, says something unspecific and mysterious about her emotional standing. Deeper than the surface of her ego, the photograph probes her id--the Freudian unconscious, the mental recesses where lie the instinctual impulses that make her both animal and human. Instinct and arousal play out between mother and lover in another photograph. Here in an untitled image Marder juxtaposes a naked Mrs. Marder perched on a bathroom sink and a boyish but virile man, naked, wet and presumably the young Miss Marder's boyfriend, looking longingly at her mother from behind the glass shower door. Here we are faced with a sense of emotional uncertainty. We don't know whether to feel ashamed or titillated, embarrassed or aroused. In another image, "Victor Marder," that is less sexually provocative but equally bizarre, Marder's naked father sits in front of a fireplace, appearing both vulnerable and patrician, aged and docile yet noble like statuary of Republican Rome.

In her photographs, Marder uses emotional ambiguity to create unease in the viewer. In looking at her photos, we find ourselves in an instance of emotional bad wiring and confusion. Aptly, we might attribute the ambivalent character of these images to bad social circuitry as Marder describes her work as a search "for a failed sense of connection that I find romantic." While she captures such psychological disconnection in the photographic instance, her pictures are by no means mere vagaries of the camera. While brightly lit and keenly colored like the documentary snapshots of Nan Goldin, there is little chance involved in these images. Similar to the large-scale photographs of the Canadian photoconceptualist Jeff Wall and shiny incongruous scenes made by her former teacher Gregory Crewdson, Marder's photographs are carefully staged and set up. Yet, unlike Wall and Crewdson, whose photography is a bit more theatrical, Marder's work is quiet, more dour and somber. Further unlike Wall's and Crewdson's works, which are often set in a banal but ghostly suburbia, Marder's images are personal images of the interior, both of the mind and the home. Unwitting or otherwise, they are figural marks left in space: pictorial evidence of the artist's own plumbing and probing of intricate and personal depths. While her images are not truly portraiture in the conventional sense of the term, they, like the photos of Wall and Crewdson, take on a painting-like (not painterly) quality because of their careful composition, color and figures. Her work is part of an ongoing but recent renewal of painting that has been thankfully engendered by photography, and often by digital technology within photography as well. But there is no digital intervention in Marder's work. Her images play upon the raw directness of the psychological real and all of its precarious underpinnings.

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