Self-Portrait with Bullet Holes

John Haber
in New York City

Maria Epes

Maria Epes's paintings pile grimness upon grimness, as if begging to be dismissed. They will not let go long enough for that—not until one has recovered other comforts and accepted their danger. A postscript more than a decade later helps clarify the comforting gestures and real memories that linger after one has accepted.

Poor, forked things

The most remarkable view may be right from the entrance. One's eye is pulled, or maybe wrenched, everywhere at once—and everywhere toward shadowy figures. La Mama, the experimental theater and performance space, was a New York institution well before this corner of the East Village became hip, much less before it became a corner of Soho as shopping district. Now it has a large two-tiered gallery, and these figures exploit it. Some bend forward by the gallery's entrance. Others twist away, as if desperate to escape by climbing the rear wall.

The figures seem just as desperate for human contact. Some barely fail to touch; some embrace; some appear at first glance to be having sex. Embrace is invariably from behind, as if two people could never respond on equal terms, or as if the only hope of sex in the age of AIDS carried with it stereotypical images of disaster.

Men and women appear in about equal numbers, but without the titles one would know them only as ungendered ghosts. (One may even be a self-portrait next to the artist's dog.) They appear as rough, pale stains, like photographic negatives or traces at a crime scene. Epes in fact drew their outlines while people lay on the floor. Later she painted them in with materials ranging from ink to menstrual blood.

Within the forms lie partial skeletons. One becomes painfully aware of how close a skull is to a complete outline of a head, how small and breakable a spine can be. Penetrating the larger shadow is like peeling away a thin veil of skin, and Epes occasionally heightens that impression with a double layer of painting—say, light traces on cheesecloth draped over a heavier surface.

Epes calls the series Spooners. Ironically, she is quaint enough in her own way to recall the days when this behavior was called spooning. In a statement, she puns on the human frame as a fork. Maybe the painting supplies the knife, or at least a napkin. These poor, forked things look like they must have measured out their lives in coke spoons rather than coffee spoons.


Two, sometimes three figures fill a single painting, but no one work fully detaches itself from the rest, in large measure because the fabric hangs without a wooden support. It would be wrong to call them exactly unstretched, as if they were traditional canvases. They include other odds and ends besides the cheesecloth, such as a bedspread. Along with the menstrual blood, the echoes of traditional crafts evoke feminist art, but not altogether its hopefulness.

The fabric looks more than roughly torn away. It looks marked by bullet holes, and it is. Epes took the works herself over to a rifle range on the west side. Unless she has very bad aim, she was not aiming at her people; their sense of damage stands quite on its own.

The darkness, the uses of sex and violence, could easily make this art a cynical or tired metaphor, the old dance of death. Epes thankfully doesn't have the detachment or fatalism for that. These are portraits of friends and self. They chose their own poses. On the floor, they must have sought simple, shared comforts or the reassurance of fetal position.

In fact, the clichés so far have been mine. I want to add that their poses are "natural," but the paintings make that word sound awfully lame. Like some of the best postmodern posing, they suggest that one is locked in some frightening old metaphors after all.

A postscript: the midst of life

A postscript has Epes returning to fabric in the most minimal of supports. She may not offer slick, revealing, or colorful outfits, but she still leaves the mark of her body on every one. She allows one to call even a Chelsea gallery a thrift shop, with a single rack for her own castoff clothing.

A shoe may bear her smeared footprint in paint or an image of bones. A dress may have handprints or a spine. Epes traces the exhibition to memories from age eleven, when the casting aside of her father's clothes brought home the finality of his death. Even now, the exhibition title says, "In the Midst of Life, We Are in Death."

One can see the marks as defacement, as on fur by David Hammons. One can see them as proof even to herself that she still exists or as a tender connection to what she must leave behind. One can see them as a feminist's understanding of how clothes and the body create a woman's image, as the evasion of someone else's longing, or as the absence that underlies even the most vivid portrait.

Has Epes fashioned her self-portrait before with that same warmth and closeness to death? Then, she left marks of her body in fetal position, hugging her dog, and shot them full of holes. Here the display makes her habits that much more familiar and distant. One can imagine oneself as a shopper, turning through the racks with one's own hand, in order to locate every image.

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Maria Epes showed at La Mama La Galleria in the winter of 1996 and at Ceres through April 21, 2007. Her shows in between, in various Soho galleries, allowed her to grow warmer—but no less rigorous and moving.


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