Marybeth Chew: Three Questions
Marybeth Chew is a classically trained painter whose practice disrupts the cultural conventions of painting as we know it. Born and raised in Wilmington Delaware, the town that gave us the bleak and barren cityscapes of Fight Club, Chew started painting seriously as a teenager. In grey, fume filled basements she produced startling giant black landscapes. What I think of as her signature style is dark, dripping, encrusted layers of paint that might be described as archaeological. They encode an archaeology of Chew’s bodily gestures and gazes alongside an idiosyncratic archaeology of media.
Chew developed her practice as a painter alongside her interest in pop culture, from the feminist zine movement to exploitation movies and 1980s sex comedies. She began painting from film and video early on, doing a series of stills from John Water’s films. A later series captured odd moments of dread and death from classical films such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which is one of her favorite movies. She describes it as “an abstraction of struggle, a story of senseless, unexpected chaos that is inescapable.” In Weird Look Inks, Chew paints tense, overladen moments between men and women based on images she cut out and saved from a discarded film book. Nine Studies of Couples from Film Stills continues this extended conversation with the cinema.
Chew describes these series as exploring the idea of narrative as visual rather than scripted. She tells me she is experimenting in producing narrative effects with as little action or exposition as possible: the expression on someone’s face, two people looking at each other. How much implication can one image bear? Part of the power of this work lies in the charged space between these public images which anyone might claim and the intimate caress with which Chew marks them as her own with both desire and disdain.
Entwined with this excavation of popular culture, Chew has turned her eye toward personal media, snapshots and home movies (both her own and of others). In Family Photo Marker Drawings, a series of ten images produced wholesale in one afternoon, she reproduces a pile of family photographs in marker, that quintessential medium of both childhood and permanence. Here, I’ll admit that when I was in college I kept a sentence from one of Chew’s zines taped above my desk, it read: Irreversible is such a terrifying word. Her recent Home Video series is among the most intense and visceral of her work, painting private moments with a cinematic pathos that we can somehow neither enter into nor turn our eyes away from.
Chew’s latest explorations have turned to the internet. In Before/After she paints Google searches, producing flat, fragmented canvasses that expose her fascination (and ours) with bodies, objectification, and transformation. During the recent snowstorm in Baltimore, unable to get to her studio she picked up her water colors. Working in this quick and unforgiving form, she can’t go back over things with the thick accumulation of meaning she achieves in her oil paintings. In this medium, her usual attraction to abjection has a lightness, an unabashed prettiness. Of course, with Chew’s sensibility there is never just a pretty picture. There is always something more, an inscrutable story, a visceral emotion in the layers of paint, or an emotionally charged critical question. Indeed, Chew posed this prettiness to me as a problem, a question she (and we) must toy with, as the dehumanizing title, Flanks, frankly declares.
As a body of work, much of Chew’s fascinating and often unsettling oeuvre might be described as a kind of personal media history, a reinscription of the images that pop-culture sears into the psyche, at times mixed-up and smeared abjectly across the family album.
K: First let me just say that I love your work. I am a huge fan. I am really interested in exploring and expanding the idea of the “moving image,” of thinking about moving images across different media and mediums in relation to memory and imagination. There is an obvious connection with moving images in your work, yet you tend to work in paint and ink rather film or video. What images move you and how do you think that translates into your work?
MB: I connect with low budget films partially because they’re so extremely transparent in process that there’s a whole other narrative of reality in them. You consider how and why they’re made as you’re watching, then you often have to understand what’s implied rather than executed, as a sort of conspirator. So they have these other layers that are more personal and engaging on a less conscious level and have a multi-dimensional kind of movement. Paintings have a readable world of other events in the same way. They have to be read time-backward, from the end that’s the surface, and all the decisions and process are taken in at one time, so there’s a temporal sticking into the act of looking. That’s possibly the main experience that really compels me when looking at a painting, being sort of trapped into a surface that partly reveals a complete source and event, which is in part legible but ultimately truly unimaginable. So both stir this internal fantasy of a larger world in them, and present it outright, but the process of seeing it is in a very personal imagined interaction.
K: I love that. It is as if the painted surface becomes skin, all the textures and scars we try to cover up on our bodies. The past laid bare on the surface. There is vulnerability there, as well as bravado. How do you imagine that relationship between the surface and vulnerability, or fantasy even, in your work? Or is that all part of the unimaginable?
MB: I have an inclination toward imagery that is in some way dystopian, but a lot of what becomes portrayed as negative, and failure, in popular culture is normal life. So in media, and in our culture where we’re systematically criticized, it’s hard to find images outside of this weird, fake normal that aren’t communicated as painful. That is part of the appeal to me of horror films, which is one of the few genres where a person who’s not a typical Hollywood actor and a privileged character is very often an emphatically empowered character. Something that’s only occurred to me since starting to make these Before/After body paintings is that with the internet, and in an extremely visible way in these images where people are graphically disembodying themselves into parts they dislike, we also are seeing so many forms of bodies that we never would have when our mass distributed images were entirely commercially controlled. And they’re obviously normal bodies and parts in the proliferation. I want to re-represent that open diversity as much as talk about the self-objectification they so literally illustrate.
K: Yes, and that diversity circulates and proliferates, with the potential, at least, to dislodge all that fake normal. Or magnify it. So there is pop culture, the surface, the skin, the body, and you are bringing them all into this uneasy proximity with each other. And with the unimaginable. I’m just thinking that “surface tension,” is the perfect way to describe the energy of your work: there is this uncanny sense of being in a moment right before an eruption. A moment that seems to break the rules of physics, that can not last or is not real, but is at the same time being fossilized. What is it that you hope to uncover through your work, through the layers?
MB: The connecting theme, which is something I am actually trying to disentangle in my work, is illusion in experience: from outright unfounded beliefs, or types of escapism that relate experience into fantasy, to culturally imposed ideas that are compellingly ubiquitous, but don’t resonate with my own actual experience or best interests! This is a constant work for me and a very hard thing to put into words. This illusion in experience was for a long time an abstract subtext in my paintings, with surface and process conflicting with an image, but in my most recent work it is pretty literal. The Before/After paintings have a social element, separate from self-objectification. They are about that but they are also about illusion: in how joint belief in a common cultural value, in this instance, is so pervasive that here it is actually physically forming these many self-controlled bodies. This phenomenon is too understandable in the reality of impositions on the body as a permanently elusive bar in women’s cultural permission to self value. That is a much more important meaning than how this form of social control is relative to all controlling social structuring, but the illusion aspect is what allows me to go into this image with a little bit of lightheartedness as an absurd image. They are also, in a funny way, literally like an illusion, like a magic trick in narrative.
K: Marybeth, thank you so much for taking the time to answers these questions. It was more than a pleasure and I look forward to many more conversations, whether in paint, print, or person!