Marlene McCarty: Into the Weeds
Buffalo, NYUb Art Gallery, Center For The Arts
Into The Weeds
October 3, 2019 – February 1, 2020
“Trouble has to happen,” Marlene McCarty tells me. “And then people grow out of that. Things change, and then new growth happens.” She is talking about how to affect lasting institutional change, something that, as an artist and activist, she’s been after for many years. We’re discussing her new solo show, Into the Weeds, at the University of Buffalo, her first exhibition of all new work in over a decade. McCarty’s latest project comprises large-scale drawings and an interior and off-site ecological project, bridging her decades-long interdisciplinary art practice to her activist work during the AIDS crisis in the ’80s.
At first Into the Weeds engenders a sense of calm—a soft pink glow emanates from inside a dark gallery; the grow lights for a long row of thriving plants which lead to a garden in a sunlit room. Gradually, however, the exhibition’s more ominous underpinnings begin to surface. The gallery, painted black, houses two rows of partially finished temporary walls, leaving studs and drywall exposed. Their reverse sides hold enormous drawings, like blueprints tacked to the wall of an illicit DIY operation. In the gallery’s furthest room, a bed of unruly stalks in a low steel planter comprise Into the Weeds (A Deliverance Garden) (2019). Stacks of newsprint pamphlets on a row of benches identify the plants as poisonous and medicinal weeds and provide written accounts of their uses, highlighting methods of self-managed contraceptive healthcare across various historical contexts. Locally grown mugwort, for instance, promotes menstruation and can be used to induce abortion and regulate hormonal changes during menopause. Another is chaste tree, historically used by priests and monks to suppress male libido. Rue is traditionally given to brides in Lithuania on their wedding day because of the herb’s capacity to prevent pregnancy. In North America, rue was used by enslaved women who were forced into procreation and denied access to healthcare; depending on the dose it can also be lethal.
This isn’t the first time McCarty has addressed access to state healthcare. As a member of the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury she staged bold visual campaigns to distribute information, hold the government accountable, and “get drugs into bodies.” Considering this alongside the failure of federal health policy to eradicate racial and class disparity within the US healthcare system, McCarty’s homeopathic garden allows us to imagine autonomous care without systemic barriers. Rather than use overt gestures of radicality characteristic of Gran Fury, she presents quiet instances of power conjured from the lowly things that surround us.
This inversion of power is visualized in eight ballpoint pen and graphite drawings on view, where waning patriarchal and modernist symbols are made vulnerable by decay. Crisp detail balances sketchy irreverence in these depictions of dense ecosystems of body parts, animals, clothing, and weeds sprouting from geometric substructures. Signifiers of western patriarchal culture and white nostalgia abound. A Raggedy Ann doll, a Civil War-era ball gown, and the new architectural eyesore known as the Vessel are among the objects depicted, tangled and decomposing; becoming fertile ground for new growth. Canonical sculptures by male minimalists are losing their edges to flab. Some of these forms have aged better than others. For example, in Decay, Water Hemlock, Glabrous Protuberance, Hair Loss, Queen Anne’s Lace, Modern Sculpture, Hirsutism and Multi-species Competition (2019), Sol Le Witt’s “Incomplete Open Cubes” are spilling over with a thick mane of hair, flowering plants, and breast-like swollen protrusions. In Degeneration, Nipple, Flab, Jimson Seed Pods, Vascular Congestion, Heraldic Chevron, Rimples, Cowboy Sweetheart, Color Field, Gock (2019), the transformation is less pleasant. A ghostly cowboy hat hangs on a diamond-shaped Kenneth Noland whose bands sag and wrinkle through stringy patches of hair. The titles contain keys to the drawings’ contents (a quick search reveals “gock” to be a portmanteau of the words “gut” and “cock”). “There is a puzzle here, if you want to follow it,” she says.
Between these oozing, disintegrating forms and the lethal aspects of the garden, there is a strong sense of vulnerability that brings to mind Judith Butler’s post-9/11 book Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence, 2004. Speaking to a surging nationalistic and retaliatory spirit in America, Butler calls for global community-building rather than retribution in the wake of loss: “To be injured means that one has the chance to reflect upon injury…to find out who else suffers from permeable borders, unexpected violence, dispossession, and fear…” she writes. “Final control is not, cannot be, an ultimate value.” Throughout Into the Weeds, McCarty imagines a leveling that gives way to space for new growth.
McCarty has installed another garden and a composting site at Silo City, a complex of decommissioned grain elevators a 20-minute drive from campus. With these industrial ruins as a backdrop, she’s cultivated a large-scale permanent garden of medicinal and poisonous plants hardy to Buffalo. Soil collected from McCarty’s compost bins that line the path to the garden will continually replenish the earth. Reflecting back on the conception of her project, she describes a kind of coalescence: “I was thinking about the trash heap that has become Western civilization as a kind of compost pile, and about all the unusual things that meet each other there: things that have been shed, discarded, accidentally thrown out. They come together in this compost pile and they form into something else,” she says. “Trouble is the compost pile.”