Boston Sunday Herald, November 13, 1994

Projecting naked experience onto public places


Wielding little more than beams of light, Denise Marika has infiltrated the cloistered elegance of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and breathed new life into its art filled spaces. Nude figures lie almost hidden under a row of concrete benches. Two marble columns support the narrow image of a naked man, anxiously crawling back and forth like a caged animal. On an aluminum bar bolted across the interior of a blood-red gallery, a man and a woman embrace, fitfully, groping for an equilibrium that appears to lie just out of reach. All these people are projections, slides and videos cast onto the museum’s very architecture. In spirit, too, they project private needs and desires onto a public arena and public situations onto what some might consider a sanctuary, safe from the tumult of the outside world.
Mrs. Gardner’s Italianate palazzo, set off by a wrought-iron fence from the neighboring Fenway, might seem an unlikely spot for this most contemporary of artists. And yet Marika, artist-in-residence at the Gardner this fall, focuses on the crossroads of art and life, territory dear to the maverick founder of this treasured museum. Jill Medvedow, curator of contemporary art, concedes, “I think that this installation will be a stretch not only for our audience but for our staff. But it continues Isabella Stewart Gardner�s support for the talent and risks of artists.”
This past spring, Marika unwittingly stirred up controversy in her hometown of Brookline with the creation of “Crossing” — a simulated crosswalk signal in which two illuminated photographs displayed a mother hugging, then releasing her small child. Even though the nudity of the two figures was utterly discreet, the piece was attacked as a threat to community standards.
The three works at the Gardner raise questions about the guidelines governing human behavior on both the individual and the community level.
Life-size and sculptural, the reclining men and women in “Nameless” both fit in and clash with their surroundings.
They are easy to miss, tucked as they are into the bases of the benches, between leafy marble Corinthian capitals. Feet of visitors shuffling by cast shadows across the figures, who are, after all, merely colored light. They call to mind homeless people, nearly invisible, part of the background scenery.
And yet the effect of light on stone lends these people a solidity. They evoke their historical predecessors, including the Greco-Rornan sculptures and sarcophagi ringing the museum’s courtyard garden.
A scar slashing the chest of one of Marika’s “Nameless” men calls to mind those injured by the forces in today’s society, as well as ancient religious martyrs — the sort who thrived in Renaissance painting and now people the Gardner’s walls.
Although static — like the museum’s unchanging collection � the figures in “Nameless” are subject to the movement of those around them. Marika’s two video pieces, “Animal” and “Hug,” confront the viewer with images that epitomize restlessness and barely contained confrontation.
The modern technology of these works may be new to the Gardner, but the sentiments they explore are as old as art and humanity� and familiar to anyone who has seen Titian’s “Rape of Europa” upstairs or John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Mrs. Gardner, considered too controversial when it was painted to remain on public display.