Meet Elsa Tomkowiak and Mary Sue—Creating Along the New Vectors of the Feminine

The Merchant House
Jan 25, 2018 3:21PM

By Marsha Plotnitsky, Founding Artistic Director of The Merchant House

Elsa Tomkowiak & Mary Sue's Exhibition Opening at TMH, 2017

The French academy background of Elsa Tomkowiak (FR, 1981) and Mary Sue (FR) and places them in the radical feminist art context—the profound critique of the male gaze and the urgent autobiographical message that the critic Lucy Lippard termed “body ego”—unveiled by great women artists from around the world: Louise Bourgeois, Yayoi Kusama, Eva Hesse, Barbara Kruger, Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramović, and Shirin Neshat, to name just a few. Both do start off self-referentially, free to play with quotidian womanhood: the sexed-up identity of the Mary Sue character ambiguously colors that of the hard-working artist, and Tomkowiak sports cat eye make-up and psychedelic stockings laced in black to color herself. In their art, however, it is the mediating visual surface that surges over and washes out into a potentially new wave of thinking. Flowing freely into arguably doctrinaire traditions, such as theater and high art, their work might be seen as expanding the female postures through independent agenda, and reaching out for new cultural forms of expression.

Mary Sue, Gloria, 2017. The Merchant House

Mary Sue is assertive in dedicating her astonishing craft and tireless attention at TMH to the subject of a housemaid in three videos and more than 20 objects. This has a strange end result of expunging its vernacular narrative in what Donald Judd described, referring to Kusama, as “obsessive repetition”; the seductive character and her storyline are played off againsta mechanistic vision of oppression, upsettingly lucid as it interweaves its multitudinous—externally imposed and self-inflicted—forms. Equally unsettling, Tomkowiak achieves her aims dispersively. Her take on the abstract expressionist machismo surprises by its dual effect. It is both a vehicle for the self-deprecating, almost maternal, support for the work of others—for doctors and patients in her hospital project or for the visitors watching Mary Sue’s videos at TMH—and a testimony to the overarching, timeless impact of painting. The joint exhibition derives its force from the audience’s enjoyment of the artful craftsmanship evident in the separate elements and of the art’s irreverent invasion of the distinguished non-art setting. Powerfully visual, the intervention resists typological placement of gender domains, and becomes a playful ground for ironic reflection and interpretation.

Mary Sue & Elsa Tomkowiak's Exhibition,  AAW 2017 at TMH

Sweeping though TMH’s walls, floors, ceilings, and terraces, the artists undertook a risky move that could have backfired as a ubiquitous but vacuous spectacle. The result instead shifts the boundaries between concept and affect, the visual, the sonic and the spatial. Taking everyday rubbish and household objects—brand detergents, rubber gloves, or foam—and giving them an experimental significance as still lifes, sculptures, and colored fields, they have created art objects that ascribe their real frequent-use equivalents (the “usual tools” of Mary Sue’s title) to timeless situations and mental constructs of feminine origins. Quite possibly, the path for this show was originally opened up by an artist like Kusama. Kusama’s discursive polka dots—the witty icons in shades of blue-green, red, and acid yellow, recognized by Judd and now adopted for the age of spectacle—had paradoxically contextualized meaning through abstractive obsessiveness and shaped surface. And quite possibly, in the future, the cleaning tools employed by the artists at TMH might become obsolete as genderless robots take over the tasks and replace women-washers, but would a human body continue to toil or paint for the sake of art and life? Bracketed by Mary Sue’s Revelation on a loop, installed within Tomkowiak’s painted arc, their vividly yet ambiguously articulated dialogue at TMH is both reconfigurative and revelatory of current directions in art.

The Merchant House