Marlene McCarty’s Unorthodox Visions in Ballpoint Pen

This article is part of Hyperallergic’s 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

Artist Marlene McCarty, arguably best known for her larger-than-life graphite and pen drawings of teenage girls who murdered their parents, has in recent years concerned herself with plants. Finding affinities between the erasure of botanic knowledge and the ongoing, urgent attacks on women’s bodily autonomy, McCarty’s earthworks, portraits of flora, and indoor gardens have much to do with her earlier explorations: In “AGAIN,” (2023), a public artwork in Silo City in Buffalo, New York, for instance, she grew a plot of poisonous plants whose simultaneous healing and toxic properties root us in ideas of survival, rebellion, and the coexistence of species. In October, she’ll be bringing a different facet of her project Into the Weeds to the Tabakalera art center in Spain, working with plants native to the area. Closer to home, in Staten Island, McCarty and collaborator Donald Moffett will present a previously unseen photo series from the 1990s in which they dressed up as two female-presenting pilgrims at the Alice Austen House, a 17th-century Dutch farmhouse, next spring; she described it as “a queering of the unsettled pre-revolutionary era.”

In our interview below, conducted by phone, McCarty talks about coming out, her work in the HIV/AIDS activism collective Gran Fury, and why she’s still working in ballpoint pen after all these years.

Hyperallergic: How old were you when you came out?

Marlene McCarty: I was in my early- to mid-30s. I spent the years 1977 to ’83 in Europe, which was a whole different mindset. This is all pre-internet, pre-fax machines, so information traveled slowly. In Europe, I was a little more involved in, shall we say, the sexual experimentation of the 1970s. So I had female partners, I had male partners — I didn’t think about it. I wound up with a man and we got married. Then when I got to the States in 1983, I was like, “Wow, okay! No wishy-washing this here!” It was really hardcore, about taking a political stance: Are you a lesbian? Are you gay? Bisexual? You had to claim a team. I was with my male partner at the time, so I was like, okay, I am straight. And then the world just kept exploding in front of us. Everything was very crazy. We were in the streets, there was lots of activism, lots of really saying what you thought. And in fact, when I started Gran Fury, I was publicly known as straight. Then I met my partner whom I’m still with, Christine Vachon, who is a movie producer. We fell head over heels, and so I “changed teams” in the early ’90s. That was interesting. I think given my spirit of that era I would have melded a lot better with today’s gender-fluid world. At the time, it was very intense having to make these kind of artificial decisions. By this point, I was already part of Gran Fury. I had already had a show at Metro Pictures — I mean, it’s not like I was famous, but in the small art world of those days, it was rough to switch your identity like that.

H: Do you think the art world now is more open to — how do I phrase this — the idea of fluid identities?

MM: I have to be honest with you and say that I don’t really know. Because the art world has morphed into this, like, seven-headed hydra compared to what it was in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I feel like there are certain aspects, or certain eddies, within the art world that are extremely open to the fluidity of identity. Maybe it’s not as much of an issue as it used to be. But are they open to actual fluctuations within gender identity? I’m going to say more so now than they used to be, probably, but I don’t know. The art world is just so expansive now, I can hardly speak about it as one thing. 

H: One thing I’ve always loved about your work is that it resists easy, tight characterization. You were making works with provocative slogans or phrases, but then you started to make figurative pen drawings. Can we talk about using ballpoint pen on a large scale and why you chose to do that?

MM: I’m going to back up a little bit and ease into that question from another direction. With the slogans, especially in the 1993 Metro Picture show with the big text paintings, I was really trying to take over the male venue of painting in galleries, which is why they were so huge. They’re all on canvas and were made by ironing; they’re not painted. I was trying to play with the idea of claiming power and exploring what it means for a woman to adopt over-the-top, sometimes aggressive language. But I didn’t feel satisfied with that work, because I felt like everybody’s conversation about it went right back to the binary: “Oh, this is a woman critiquing the patriarchy!” And, I mean, these were slogans like “I may not go down in history, but I may go down on your little sister,” or “cunt hunt,” or “she filled a hole my mother never could.” So I was like — maybe it’s a little more than that, a little more than just critiquing the patriarchy? I started thinking about the idea of power. You have to realize that at that point in time, men, White men, were in power everywhere. It was just a fact. And I thought maybe the only thing I could do to disrupt this thinking around my work was to make the active characters all female.

So somebody literally handed me a true crime book about Marlene Olive, who killed her parents. I read it and it resonated so much with me — here is this young woman trapped in domesticity and itching to get out, and she can’t. She’s young, she’s naive, she doesn’t have the mechanisms to liberate herself, and she turns to murder as her misguided answer to getting out. I knew there must be other cases of this, but of course, you couldn’t just Google something at the time —

H: You couldn’t just listen to one of a million true-crime podcasts?

MM: No! And they kept the names of minors out of the press to protect them. So I had to hire a professional researcher who works on movies, and we found 42 cases of young women who killed their mothers, or sometimes their whole family. And again, a lot of the time people try to make this work easy for themselves. They’re like, “Oh, these girls were abused so they lashed out and killed.” But I tried to stay away from those cases. I tried to stick to cases that were really about the mother-daughter dynamic. They were not being abused by male figures in their lives. There were a couple of cases where the mother was abusing the daughter, and I did use those, because they were the extreme of what I was trying to get at. I decided I wanted to do portraits of these young women.

First I did a couple of ironed-on ones, but I was just like, “Ah, they’re so wrong. They’re so Warhol.” Then, I was visiting my mom in Kentucky and she asked me to clean out a closet in our front hall, and I found this drawing I had done of myself when I was 17. It was completely tightly rendered, trying to make my hair look pretty. It would not have made you think, “This person might have a career in the arts.” But when I saw that, I was like, “This is how I have to represent these women. This is the way they would want to be represented.”

I started making smaller drawings of these women, but they looked like little Barbie dolls. They had to be life-sized or larger, because they had to be in your world, not a small object to look at and not take seriously. I did a couple of drawings just in graphite, but it was hard to get a lot of contrast at that scale, and that’s when I stumbled on the idea of the ballpoint pen. It’s so generic and so a part of the world. Using a ballpoint pen and pencil was a way of recording ideas, thoughts, concepts … It was not about visual sensation. There’s something spectacular about oil painting. This was not that, and I liked that. That’s how I wound up sticking to the material, even though it just about kills me.

MM 4828 Marlene Olive June 22 1975 2004
Marlene McCarty, “M26 (Marlene Olive – June 22, 1975)” (2004), graphite & ballpoint pen on paper, 50 x 73 inches (© Marlene McCarty, courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York)

H: Can we talk about Gran Fury a bit? How did you get started in it?

MM: A lot of it was about being at the right place at the right time, and having the right skills. I moved to the East Village when I came back from Europe and slowly, I wound up being really good friends with John Lindell and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. ACT UP was bubbling but not really totally functioning yet. I had a day job working at MoMA in graphic design. [Curator] Bill Olander asked ACT UP to do an installation in the window at the New Museum and John roped me in to help. My friends had started dying and the pressure was building — suddenly you realized you were going to a memorial service every weekend. The anger just started to build, and I thought, “Okay, I know nothing about treatment and data, but I sure do know how to put together a poster.” I started going to Gran Fury meetings around 1988 and was a core member, and I’m still a core member to this day. 

H: Did you have any queer mentors? Any artists you perceived as influential to either your identity as a queer person or your identity as a queer artist?

MM: No. How’s that for an answer? [laughs] There weren’t that many people around me who were dealing outwardly with being queer in their work. So no, I didn’t really have any art mentors, except for my peers. 

H: Was that hard?  

MM: Looking back on it, it was a little rough. I was so energized by the activism of the era — probably Gran Fury was my “mentor,” in that I really had to learn to be brave. My experiences in ACT UP, Gran Fury, and the Women’s Action Coalition all generated a momentum and excitement that propelled me forward, not just in activism, but also in my artwork. It wasn’t really like I had role models to look up to. As an artist, you look at everybody who came before you all the time. And then you look at everybody coming behind you. I looked at a lot of art, but there wasn’t that much speaking specifically to things I was interested in. But that’s a good feeling, too, because you’re doing something different. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to do as artists?

H: In line with that, I wanted to bring up your more recent project Into the Weeds, which combines large-scale drawings of plants and physical gardens. How did this series come about? 

MM: I was thinking a lot about empowerment and self-defense, and about plants as vehicles to get there. It became very evident to me that we’ve lost a lot of knowledge about the plant world, which surrounds us, and we see ourselves as quite separate from it. I started doing a series of drawings that were basically plants that could be weaponized for self-defense in various ways by women and female-presenting people. I went from drawings to working on exhibitions of these plants that were adjacent to the drawing installations. And all the plants in those earthworks were capable of really powerful interactions with the human body. Some are aphrodisiacs, others could prevent conception, induce abortion, bring on menstruation, some could kill, some are hallucinogenic … anyway, I just felt that our own loss of knowledge about these freely available powers around us has really paved the way for the church and the state and medical industrialization to take over or even to steal our bodies, especially for female people of color, queer, trans, and nonbinary people. Often people ask me what this has to do with my work, and to me there’s such a clear lineage — there were the Murder Girls, then they bled into bigger family units, and once I was dealing with families and close peer groups, I started thinking about humans and primates. From that, I got interested in the closeness of DNA. I mean, I didn’t even know plants have DNA, but they do. They also have neurotransmitters that are the same as ours. 

H: What is your favorite plant?

MM: I have some favorites. I really love datura, hellebore, aconitum, belladonna, henbane — these are all hallucinogenic plants. A few of them are deadly. And a number of them were used in one way or another in witches’ flying ointments. So I love the fact that they were used by women as a way to get out of this world. I also love achillea millefolium, which is known as yarrow. It’s been written since the druids that simply holding it will realign your chakras. It’s a plant that Achilles took into battle with him because it stops bleeding, and it was actually used on battlefields in Europe. It’s a very important plant that was used after childbirth. Another favorite is vitex agnus, also known as chasteberry. I love this plant because it makes men impotent and women horny. Oh, and the artemisias, which are named for the Greek goddess. They’re all associated with the moon, the hunt, wild animals, and childbirth. And interestingly enough, they’re almost all abortifacients. Mugwort is a really common one that grows everywhere around New York.

H: Since this is a series about Pride Month, I wanted to close by asking you whether it has any significance for you. Do you do anything special to celebrate Pride in June?

MM: For me, it used to be a lot more fun a long time ago. As it’s gotten more corporate, I’ve gotten less interested. Oftentimes my daughter’s birthday falls on the day of the Pride [Parade], so I’ve done that. But our favorite part of Pride as a family is the Dyke March. There’s just something … I don’t know, very personal and very exciting about it. And of course, it’s all women.

Pilgrams295 1
Marlene McCarty and Donald Moffett, “Untitled” (1994), Polaroid PolaPan positive (image courtesy Marlene McCarty)

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