Films such as Pretty Woman, watched and re-watched over time, can become like familiar friends.
Elizabeth Harris | Ed Clare Deal | 11 May 2020
Those films are comforting, quotable, known. Sydney-based artist Tara Marynowsky, however, seeks to expose what lurks beneath these familiar plots, in Coming Attractions, a piece commissioned by Carriageworks, Sydney and first presented at The National: New Australian Art 2019.
Marynowsky’s main body of work consists of vintage portrait postcards, on which she applies watercolours and gouache, giving the youthful figures a ghostly, otherworldly presence. These Edwardian women who look out at us from the past may have been ethereal in their original, sepia existence, but with Marynowsky’s intervention become alien and stark in their vibrancy. A sense of nostalgia and remembrance (for what other purpose would these postcards have been sent than as a token of affection) become a shout from the past that protests life, vibrancy and the haunting presence of lives lived fully, but not entirely remembered.
In a similar way, Marynowsky’s use of 90s nostalgia, embodied by Pretty Woman, Indecent Proposal, Species and Shakespeare in Love in her four-channel video work Coming Attractions interrogates the use or presence of women as objects, heroines, and concepts in film. ‘Defacing’ the female leads of the four films with a knife and ink, Marynowsky inscribes an alternative face and interpretation onto familiar characters. It is an act of laborious aggression – the Pretty Woman trailer alone consists of 4,200 frames, each meticulous scarred by Marynowsky.
In this sense, she redirects and reimagines these films through the lens of Barbara Creed’s theory of the ‘Monstrous Feminine’, the conception of womanhood as a Gemini being of beauty and ugliness. Creed conceives of the Monstrous Feminine as the manner in which a woman – typically in horror films and thrillers – horrifies the viewer through her sexuality. Marynowsky physically etches this concept onto 90s cinema.
The ability to physically intervene in historical depictions of the Monstrous Feminine allows Marynowsky to ‘re-direct’ these films, giving the women in them greater agency – Demi Moore’s Diana Murphy is now highlighted even as her husband and billionaire admirer bargain over her, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola is morphed into a vibrantly verdant-skinned Medusa who captivates the men around her, a humorous reinterpretation of the woman as Eve, supposedly seducing men away from the righteous path.
The use of film strips is now obsolete with the rise of digital film, and Marynowsky’s tactile response to the depiction of women in the 1990s perhaps questions whether this characterization too is obsolete. One might consider the fact that Shakespeare in Love was produced by Harvey Weinstein, whose epithet is now ‘sex offender’ rather than ‘film producer’. In her reconceived Pretty Woman, Marynowsky transforms the eponymous ‘pretty’ woman into a scratchy, unidentifiable form- Vivian’s eyes look darkly out from a nest of bright lines scratched into the 35mm celluloid film strips. Richard Gere’s Lotus Esprit, adverts for Coca-Cola and the diamond necklace the heroine wears to the opera are all similarly obfuscated by lines eked into the film strips, highlighting the commodification of the female form.
Unfortunately for Carriageworks – the Sydney arts centre which commissioned the piece – questions of commodification have become all too monstrous in recent weeks. On 4 May, Carriageworks announced that it had gone into voluntary administration, citing the COVID-19 restrictions as the reason for an ‘irreparable loss of income’. The arts centre, which hosted events such as the Sydney Writers’ Festival and Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia, attracted one million visitors a year. It is the first major NSW arts centre to close its doors due to the pandemic. The Sydney institution is not dead yet: a Deed of Company Arrangement has been proposed by administrator KPMG as a way out of the crisis, and a takeover by the Sydney Opera House has also been floated.
Although the fate of Carriageworks remains undecided, the Carriageworks Journal – which hosts new and archived work from the centre’s artists, alongside interviews, essays, and films – can still be accessed online, including Marynowsky’s work.
About the Artist
Tara Marynowsky (b. 1979) is a mixed media artist, primarily known for her watercolour and gouache modifications to photographic portraits of women from the first half of the 20th century. In 2002, she graduated from the University of New South Wales with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Honours). She has been exhibited widely in Australia, and internationally, including at Chalk Horse Gallery (Hong Kong), the International Festival of Video Art of Casablanca (Casablanca), and Centre Pompidou (Paris). Tara Marynowsky is represented by Edwina Corlette Gallery (@edwinacorlettegallery) in Brisbane and Chalk Horse Gallery (@chalkhorsegallery) in Sydney.