Mary Ellen Croteau
MARY ELLEN CROTEAU
Artwork by Mary Ellen Croteau
The art of Mary Ellen Croteau
, one of the most famous-if not infamous-- Chicago artists of the last two decades, proves difficult to describe and neatly categorize.
characterizes herself as a feminist artist, her
art production reveals the myriad contradictions and complexities of that elastic label.
A student at both the University of Illinois at Chicago
and later at Rutgers University
trained as a sculptor and confesses that she
finds painting "difficult.
art production of the last fifteen years, which consists in great part of large scale paintings, reveals unequivocally that Croteau
has overcome the technical challenges presented by the medium and imposed her
own hand and vision on the perhaps originally recalcitrant canvas.
embrace of the medium of oil on canvas might lead the viewer to consider the artist an advocate of traditional subject matter and artistic techniques, even a cursory examination of the artist's oeuvre reveals her indebtedness to the "appropriation art" of the 1980's, made famous by such artists as Cindy Sherman, Barbara Krueger, and Sherri Levine.
However, while Kolamar and Melamid's appropriation of components of Baroque and Renaissance art comments on the incongruities and instability of an art driven by fascism, Croteau's
faux-Renaissance paintings foreground the feminine body as a signifier of feminist struggle against a heavily edited patriarchal art history.
For instance, in her
powerful 1997 painting Annunciation, Croteau
wryly and elegantly subverts traditional High Renaissance presentations of the story of Gabriel's announcement to Mary
pregnancy with the Christ child.
Appropriating the diagrammatic compositional format, the saturated jewel-toned colors, and the stage-like settings of Italian Baroque painting, Croteau
interrupts one's art historical reveries with the disconcerting, even violent gestures of the two protagonists in the image.
Rather than fallen to her
knees in the posture of submission and reverence common to images of the Virgin in paintings of the Annunciation, the pointing hand of Croteau's Mary communicates a magisterial gesture of impatience and dismissal in the face of an angel suddenly angry and reduced to open-mouthed bafflement.
Artwork by Mary Ellen Croteau
Annunciation forms part of a larger installation, which Croteau
has titled Musée de la Nouvelle Renaissance or Museum of the New Renaissance
, an ongoing concept over which the artist has labored since 1995.
The meaning of the word renaissance is multivalent for Croteau
: it gestures to the artist's determination to re-present a history of Renaissance painting now stripped of the leaden weight of misogyny, a history in which such figures as the Virgin and Eve have agency.
In addition, Croteau's installation participates in the re-birth of feminist painting and art production at a point in art history deemed by some critics "post-feminist.
functions as a museum space designed for women, an area which repudiates what Croteau
calls the "misogynist rooms" of such museums as the Museum of Modern Art
in New York City.
In the MNR
, female beholders do not uncomfortably inhabit the male gaze, beholding images of victimized or sexualized femininity.
creates for the viewer a place where women emerge as subjects of, not objects of the gaze.
(Self-Portrait) as Saint Lorena of 1996 testifies to Croteau's predilection for incorporating references to the misogynist practices of the Catholic Church as well as her
efforts to address and alter art history's tendency to depict women as victims, vixens, and temptresses.
In Saint Lorena, Croteau
portrays herself as a canonized Lorena Babbit, beatifically looking upward at floating putti while grasping the knife, which ostensibly cut off her husband's violent and violating penis.
Commenting on the proclivity of wealthy male Renaissance patrons to commission artists to include their visage in religious paintings, here Croteau
pictures herself as both patron and subject.
In Saint Lorena, Croteau
ironizes the notion of sainthood, not evacuating it of meaning, but unmooring it from cultural and religious associations with sacrifice, submissiveness, and masochistic martyrdom.
The beheaded and castrated statue of a reclining male nude in the background of the painting attests to the literal disintegration of an outmoded patriarchal order.
Here, Croteau constructs, on the pictorial foundations of religious painting, a new notion of feminine sainthood linked to courage, even audacity in the face of abuse.
often uses laughter as a subversive force in her
determination to destabilize patriarchal institutions and the systematic oppression of women.
In Men I Have Known, a mason jar stuffed with what appears to be pickled penises, Croteau
foreshadows the themes of Saint Lorena.
Offering to the viewer an unsettling mixture of humor and rage, Croteau
renders the homely Ball jar suddenly uncanny, a site/sight of ravenous hungers and strange trophies.
In this way, she
undermines the kitchen's -and femininity's-- association with passiveness, safety, hearth, and haven.
Similarly, in the installation Creation of Man, Croteau
again represents traditionally feminine tasks, in this case ironing, as both productive and deadly.
In this work, an iron further flattens and immobilizes the flaccid skin of a man, his
gender marked by his
Here, as in Men I Have Known, Croteau
invests feminine chores/tasks and objects with the power to struggle against, to render ridiculous, a patriarchal ideology which relegates women to the private sphere and dismisses her
labor as women's work.
Although the female body is only implicitly present in Men and Creation, Croteau
revels in the color and texture of female flesh.
In the painting The Unrepentant Magdalene, Croteau
presents herself as the infamous biblical temptress, luxuriating in the display of the broad expanse of her
Rather than turning away from the viewer in shame, Croteau/Magdalene gazes directly at the viewer with a complicitous smile, her
open mouth about to receive a glowing cherry.
The symbols of vanitas on the table before her
, candies and jewelry, as well as the skull, a traditional memento mori, bear little rhetorical power as they retreat behind the joyous exposure of female skin.
In Unrepentant as well as Getting in Shape, Croteau
offers an alternative, celebratory discourse about embodied femininity whose contours far exceed the shape of the ideal American female body.
In this way, Croteau's
art refuses complicity with film, television, and advertising images, which endeavor to impose upon women a normalizing and oppressive aesthetic ideal which strips them of their flesh as well as their agency and visibility.
Artwork by Mary Ellen Croteau
most recent work also addresses issues relating to the body, but from a more metaphorical perspective.
In a 2000 painting entitled DeSoto, IL, the artist explores the ruins in and ruining of the American Midwestern landscape.
Photo-realist style images, including De Soto
and TV Nation
, suggest to the viewer that the way in which industry, commerce, and government abuse landscape is akin to the way in which patriarchal institutions oppress women.
While ostensibly a departure from her
earlier art historically based work, these newer landscapes continue the artist's exposure, her
laying bare, in her
words, of the way in which both economic and discursive production and consumption limit and deform different kinds of bodies, those of femininity and of the landscape.
In this way, Croteau
has expanded the terrain which she
has mapped so closely for the past two decades, now representing the laceration of the industrialized landscape as a both an actuality and another set of metaphors for a female body brutally assimilated to a what Croteau
terms a "sexist" culture.
is especially concerned in most recent work with the cancerous growth of hills of waste in an otherwise flat landscape, the results of the intrusion of the unnatural, the man-made into a once-prairie.
Stripped of figures and even signifiers of specific location, her
landscapes have a potent and melancholy lyricism sometimes missing in her
Works such as DeSoto
, TV Nation
, and Welcome
to Calumet City evoke emptiness and abandon, a sense of ruin peculiar to an American landscape both literally and figuratively scarred by commodification and the encroachment of waste.
According to Croteau
, even landscape, it seems, is disposable, or alternately, a cancerous and diseased body hidden from view.
(above left) 'Annunciation', oil on canvas by Mary Ellen Croteau.
(center right) 'Men I Have Known', mason jar, latex, mixed media by Mary Ellen Croteau.
(left) 'De Soto, IL', oil on canvas by Mary Ellen Croteau