Art New England, April/May 1995

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum/Boston


Video-installation artist Denise Marika has become increasingly visible to Boston audiences in the last year. Her controversial Crossing (1994) tied up traffic in Brookline Village and her 1993 Pacing was featured in the recent Wellesley College show Body as Measure.
At the Gardner Museum, Marika shows three site-specific video installations. Hug, installed in the special exhibition gallery, is an arresting work in which a nude man and woman struggle in ambiguous engagement, alternating between embrace and physical combat. The austere minimalism of the piece and the fact that we see only a twelve-inch slice of their bodies projected on a steel bar reinforce the feeling that we have happened on a private encounter that is essentially none of our business but at which we cannot help looking. Nameless is a photo-projection of men, women, and children lying beneath the concrete benches that line the museum’s courtyard. These images also catch the viewer unaware, becoming part of the museum architecture. In Animal, a projected figure crawls back and forth like a caged animal on two narrow columns of the courtyard. This tense prowling is reminiscent of Marika’s Pacing in Wellesley’s Body as Measure; both pieces involve movements that are obsessive and haunting. Animal is disconcerting: Who is this nude creature? What is its relationship to the static history of the garden and treasure-trove of art beyond? As with Hug, we experience the activity of this figure through a narrow aperture, our attention engaged by the need to make meaning out of what is being shown. Marika’s real gift is her capacity to rivet the viewer discomfortingly to the image, as voyeur, intruder, or reluctant participant.
Created specifically for the Gardner, all three pieces are remarkable for their originality and elegance. They reverberate visually and conceptually within the formalized museum setting. The human figure takes many forms in Isabella Stewart Gardner’s collection, as it does in the art-historical traditions that interested her. The museum is known for its important portraits, including the collector’s own by Sargent. Notable Greco-Roman statues and female nudes are sprinkled throughout the collection. Marika’s nudes recall Titian’s influential seduction painting, The Rape of Europa (1562), commissioned by Philip II of Spain and acquired by Isabella Stewart Gardner in 1896. The painting depicts an event of ambiguous physical exploitation very like what we witness in the video sculpture Hug. Zeus disguises himself as a bull and victimizes a fair Phoenician maid. The other side of the historical victim/victimizer coin is embodied in the Adam and Eve of the sixteenth-century Expulsion from Paradise, a painting after Lucas Cranach. These two works -mythological and Christian- remind us of the role of the nude as the highest expression in art and the dialectics of gender and power in all these traditions. Denise Marika skillfully appropriates the nude for her own uses and reclaims the body with authority. By putting a living artist’s work in the Gardner, a new and energizing dialogue, full of new meanings, emerges. Marika caused at least one visitor to assert in the visitors’ book that “Mrs. Gardner would never have approved of this work.” Perhaps not, but she certainly would have relished the vital discussion it provoked in her museum.