While Exploring the Invisible Structures that Shape Society, Mary Mooney Confronts Beauty with Beauty
Red Arrow Gallery | February 11–March 5
by Sara Lee Burd
“Mooney’s work is that of an artist processing her struggle within the confines of cultural expectations that control definitions of beauty, value, opportunities, respect, and success for women.”
In her upcoming solo exhibition at the Red Arrow Gallery, Mary Mooney claims the visual language of feminine beauty. She shakes up the message and uses it to subvert gendered power dynamics that promote set notions of femininity as weak and frivolous. She approaches the tension between beauty and seriousness in her art by creating works of aesthetic elegance and sincere investigation. That she uses colors, forms, and titles associated with feminine beauty to mediate a tough message about the relentless, destructive journey many woman find themselves on is an intentional paradox: “I want my art to appear beautiful, but I want it to have more substance below the surface. Storms and discontent. It’s sort of an experiment to see if something written in this language can be taken seriously.” Mooney’s art is rebellious, and her grounding in feminism adds gravitas to her work.
The exhibition title, Denied Realities, comes from Mooney’s thinking of women as the original “other.” Mooney explains her series as an awakening to the idea that society is not naturally set up to advance women. Critiquing patriarchal society, Mooney realized, is not about putting down men; it is about being aware of everyday encounters we take for granted. Simply put, patriarchy relates to the fact that inheritance and family lines are passed through males. Serving these significant roles in society, the male voice takes authority and the position of women is accessory, and this power dynamic permeates family, religion, politics, law, and economic organization. Mooney explains, “Being a woman is different than other “others” because there isn’t a specific event that we can identify as the starting point. It is a legacy that extends beyond our cultural collective memory, which makes it difficult to define and harder to combat. Being secondary in a culture to the point that we don’t even recognize it as normal, it just IS.”
The visual artist explored her relationship with being a woman in contemporary society through books at first: The Beauty Myth, The Gender Knot, A Brief History of Misogyny, and We Were Feminists Once: The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. Mooney says that while she read, “I saw so many problems that I had that subtly related.” Filled with confusion and anguish, the artist continues: “There is some power in realizing that this is all part of patriarchal culture and some hopelessness in that because it’s not going to change in a generation even in my lifetime. I’m 30 years old and I feel ill equipped to articulate or identify so many things that are just people responding to the type of culture we live in.”
Mooney’s work is that of an artist processing her struggle within the confines of cultural expectations that control definitions of beauty, value, opportunities, respect, and success for women. The cultural obsession with attractiveness presents a blend of inaccurate concepts that women must contend with: 1. Beauty can be objectively defined. 2. The result of interacting with beauty brings positive feelings. 3. It is a significant goal that should be pursued, and 4. It is something innately desirable and good. Mooney explains the absurdity of maintaining physical beauty as a standard for women: “One, it’s wholly unattainable—there is no finish line to that, and two, it’s something that is also really vapid.”
To critique advancement of feminine beauty through her art, Mooney developed a visual plan that included creating a unique color palette that she calls “80s Rococo.” Turning to her studies in art history, Mooney selected her hues from the ultra-decorative, frivolous, and saccharine schemes of Rococo art that dominated late-18th-century Parisian upper-class culture. The 1980s appealed to Mooney because it was the time of her mother’s coming of age and is a reminder of when accomplishment moved away from being a good mother and counterpart of the nuclear family to having more roles in the working world. Good looks were key to entering and succeeding in the male-dominated professional world.
Mooney creates artworks using squeegees, ceramic tools, and other rubbery ended objects, which she uses to blend and pull acrylic paint across thick sheets of acrylic glass. She elicits visual tension in her abstract artwork through juxtapositions of contrasting and complementary colors, light and dark hues, and soft and hard lines. Through intuitive movements, she layers the pigments to form dynamic compositions with interplay between atmosphere, visual balance, and depth.
Some of her works include exclamations such as “NO”, “STOP”, or “F***” on the primary layer of her painting. She explains her subtle inclusion of words: “I like that they are hidden. The gold writing can be a visual element, but then there is also my presence, emphasizing my process of physically working behind a barrier building compositions with layers of acrylic paint.” The thought of coming up to the limit and working against it, for Mooney, is akin to the glass ceiling so many women seek to shatter.
In Selective Visibilities for example, Mooney wrote the word “NO” but anyone seeing the painting would read “ON.” The relationship between the two vastly different terms made of the same two letters opens room for interpretation. From the artist’s side the expressively written word appears as a declaration, the impulse to begin a work about societal pressure regarding feminine beauty. From the outside “ON” could be read as a call to engage in continuous activity or whatever associations the viewer may have with the word.
Advertisements for beauty products claiming things like light and radiance have created persistent visual tropes of femininity. Mooney’s titles communicate her concerns with the commodification of beauty. They include terms that call out ideals of physical appearance such as Radiant Light and also statements associated with struggle against dominant culture such as Subtle Battles, The Only Way Out Is Through, and Convenient Ignorance.
For her solo exhibition, Mooney is including an interactive installation above the gallery’s staircase. Plexiglas sheets suspended from the ceiling illuminate once a group of people arrive at a particular step along the path to the second floor. That a critical mass of bodies is required to make change and progress upward is a metaphor for the way Mooney understands the history and the future of women struggling for understanding and equal rights.
Mooney’s art is part testimonial, part social critique, but she is not trying to make political statements. “There are so many charged words like patriarchy and feminism, and I don’t want people to get lost in those terms. These paintings are really just a way for me to process my understanding of the world, and it is my hope it will encourage others to do the same.”
Mary Mooney’s Denied Realities opens on February 11, 2017, at the Red Arrow Gallery. Sara Lee Burd will host a conversation with the artist live at the gallery on Thursday, February 23. For more information, visit www.theredarrowgallery.com.