Degenerate Art: Bonnie Marin
February 12 – March 6, 1999

a response to the exhibition by Szu Burgess

In another place, at another time, Bonnie Marin would be sipping coffee at a sidewalk cafe discussing montage with Hannah Hoch and preparing new work for an exhibition of Berliner Dadaists. Marin would likely have been a key member of the Berlin Dada Club, which changed the face of art in the first decade of the 20th Century; a group united by an ironic cynicism and a desire to provoke.

From a distance, Bonnie’s wood and wax sculptures evoke a warm, comforting ambiance – what could be more down to earth than wood & wax? – but beneath the warm exterior lies a sinister nether world of text and images that challenge everything you thought you knew about social This is just one of the dichotomies of Marin’s complex and engaging art. Marin’s work is anything but comforting. The swatches of text buried beneath the wax serve to narrate the piece and navigate your interpretation of the images, which are often repeated, stamping the image into the recesses of our conscience. But what you think you see and what you really see may surprise you…it may even shock you. Mixing explicit humor with implicit irony, Marin’s meticulous work demands your attention. Just try passing over this work without exploring it with a fine-toothed comb. Like a five-car pile-up, Marin’s collages will simultaneously amuse you and repulse you. You can¹t look away, for you are compelled by the work to look for every detail and read every word.

In Bonnie’s world, all things are “Queer”. Creating collages with everything from children’s books to 1950’s home decor magazines, encyclopedias to porn rags, she leaves no stone unturned as she deconstructs the typical (and generally accepted) social constructs of femininity and masculinity. Like Hoch before her, who relied heavily on images of women as mannequins, dolls and puppets to comment ironically on the cultural construction of femininity, Marin uses a myriad of ‘hyper-feminine’ images, created by the media in the 1940s and 50s, depicting women as subservient tenders of home and family on one hand and as pinup girls on the other. The social construction of masculinity is challenged and deconstructed in Marin’s work through both biology and sociology. Through the magic of collage, Marin performs more sex changes than RuPaul, but it is the inversion of gender by gay men that lies at the heart of this work. Using images of ‘hyper-masculinity’, Marin cleverly deconstructs what is seen by what is read, thereby challenging the spectators’ way of seeing. Many critical and theoretical treatments of gender promote the androgynous ideal as a liberation from constricting masculine and feminine roles – however, Marin indulges in hyper-images of gender while bending that gender with the use of text. Her work addresses and challenges homophobia, gay-bashing, homosexuality, femininity & masculinity along with the complicity of religion, childbirth and AIDS. But Marin’s work not only courts the spectator, it satisfies the voyeur in us all. Her art is almost too complex to name…is it farce? Propaganda? Pop art? Postmodern Dada? A combination?

Prolific and articulate, Marin has gone beyond making “fine art” sculpture and has created a set of encyclopedias. Building a set of wooden boxes the size of a volume of encyclopedias, with hinged, collaged covers and spines, she has created ‘pages’ with thick pieces of handmade paper which are enclosed in each box. Each volume is based on a theme, each page providing text and/or images, appropriated from popular culture sources. The encyclopedia serves as the pillar of academia, a source to which we go to find out the truth. Many homes have them, all libraries & schools have them, salesmen go from door to door selling them… in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, I went to the “H” volume of a set of encyclopedias to find out the “truth” about homosexuality, only to read that it was a “disorder” of some type, an “aberration”. Not only does Marin continue to deconstruct gender through the content of the “encyclopedias”, but her sheer audacity in transforming and transgressing this literary pillar of knowledge deconstructs the social iconography of the encyclopedia in and of itself. These art objects will engage you for hours.

“…one fundamental question is how women’s reading of conventional media representations and other visual images contributes to our experience of feminine identity. Another is whether or not, by producing new or reconfigured images of women (and men), it is possible to intervene and transform existing cultural conventions.

(This work) offer(s) provocative answers to both of these questions. (In these montages,) strategies of pleasure are coupled with the representation of anger to generate ideas of liberating, transformative utopias. The intriguing tension between anger and pleasure in her works, often manifested through an ironic humor, also raises questions about the interaction of critiques of present-day and utopian desires for the future in representation… these disruptive views of the present and involved viewers in utopian fantasies… have the potential to form an allegorical link between individual aspiration and societal transformation.”¹

I end with this quote by Maud Lavin on the work of Hanna Hoch, as it is an equally appropriate description of the potential and the complexity of the art of Bonnie Marin.

1. Maud Lavin, Cut with the Kichen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hanna Hoch, New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1993.