Merriam-Webster defines melancholia as “a mental condition… characterized by extreme depression, bodily complaints and often hallucinations and delusions.” It seems an odd title, given that the tropical foliage forming the lush backdrops within Marion Colomer’s work are normally the perfect antidote for a depressive state. Look more closely however and you catch glimpse of apparitions shimmering within the vines, seemingly caught in flagrante delicto by our spying eyes. The hallucinations depicted are further convoluted by shadowy skulls that float in and out of the background, sometimes looking down from above as in A Couple (No. 3)* and sometimes whispering in the ear as in A Tryiptch: A Woman, A Man, A Woman (Nos. 4-6). The carnality depicted–erections and labia are on full display—may momentarily overload the senses and be a source of discomfort for some viewers. But after viewing repeated variations of a theme, what lingers is a sense of foreboding, tempering lust with longing and even a sense of loss. Clearly Colomer has more than titillation in mind.
Leaves and vines play a pivotal role in the suite of works that form the artist’s solo exhibition at Gallery O on H. In her depiction of leaves, Colomer intentionally injects color onto the picture plane while laying the stage upon which her figures perform. A Couple (No. 8) depicts living growth on all four sides of the male couple, at times exceedingly dense and in other instances reduced to hazy forms. In those hazy, almost quiet moments at the top of the work, hue and form are achieved with a subtle wash of watercolor. Where the jungle grips the viewer, pulling us into its grasp, the color saturates the paper as it takes on attributes of acrylic paint. In A Couple (No. 11), swirling, intense color engulfs the couple from above and below, counterbalancing the negative space in the center of the work.
That thickness of saturation is heightened through varied use of embroidered elements within the work. A Couple (No. 1) features both jeweled elements and small, willowy feathers in the lower left corner that adds texture to the otherwise flat canvas. The use of gems within A Couple (No. 11) helps to define the shape of the female torso, again balancing the idea of thick underbrush against chimerical figures that seemingly float in and out of the jungle backdrop. The exhibition’s essay states that this could be seen as indicative of feminine craftsmanship. While that phrase illustrates the supposed hierarchies of craft vis-à-vis fine art, the connotations implied by referencing gender identity are more illuminating. The women who float in her Edenic landscapes showcase a languid sensuality free of shame, fully aware of their self-agency. These Eves stand in contrast to their erstwhile Adams, who appear slightly uncomfortable with their genitalia being on full display. Her depictions of coupledom include same-sex pairs who do not hide their physical intimacies from the audience. These observations lend credence to the notion that Colomer is keen to counter the hegemony of the male gaze, replacing it with one more to her liking.
Sensuality is intrinsic to her depiction of vegetation. The jungle-like canopy washes over the figures, hiding them–distorting them–within its grasp. The individuals and couples float, untethered from an earth with different gravitational forces than our own. Gaps in the foliage infer a rhythmic ebb and flow of nature, and where the vines reach around in front of the figures, we get a sense that forces beyond their control are pressing down upon them, impacting them from without as surely as their sexual pursuits draw their intimate attentions inward. In this regard, Colomer indicates we lead lives on a stage whose spiritual parameters wrap around us, unseen but inviolable nonetheless.
This inviolable hand of nature seems to be unnoticed by the figures that cavort within the jungle. In pieces featuring solo apparitions, the figures glance quietly into space, rarely making eye contact with the viewer; couples seem too involved with each other to notice our lurking gazes. That we can see their ghostly outlines at all is somewhat happenstance, as Colomer depicts her figures mostly as voids in space, with the barest of pencil marks to outline the contours of the body. Quick, choppy lines overlaid upon one another build up facial features, imply musculature and delineate acts of sexual congress. They are but a hazy mist within the heat of the jungle canopy.
This fluidity of corporality–of moving simultaneously between physical and metaphysical worlds–is a key component to understanding Colomer’s intent. Bodies hang between sentience and spirit, the pleasure they experience fleeting in nature. Pictured singularly or in varied, coupled units incorporating both genders, the figures experience pure physicality, as if inhabiting their bodies for the very first time. In that regard the sexual expression is not necessarily an act of love or lust, but a powerful surge of physical energy that breaks through the boundary of the physical and spiritual realms.
An emphasis on pure physicality over passing pleasure is depicted in the varying gazes and facial contortions of the men and women seen within the jungle canopy. While the woman in A Couple (No. 13) seems to be pleased with her coital moment, her eyes are also closed, as if she’s escaping into a world of her own. The eyes of the woman in A Couple (No. 10) seem completely disengaged with the actions transpiring below her neckline. The woman in A Couple (No. 7) may even be feeling a sense of distress. The men in her orbit feature an equally complex array of figurative expressions ranging from ambivalence to determination. Notable too are the depictions of men with wolf heads, such as the male forms in A Couple (Nos. 3, 2 & 13). Full of subconscious possibilities, the wolf heads are a way for Colomer to wryly communicate a base, animalistic desire to metaphorically consume prey.
In nature, wolves’ prey draws the short straw as the cycle of life abruptly, violently transitions. Not all transitions are this cataclysmic but they are inevitable. Colomer’s inclusion of skulls in virtually every work signifies this transition awaits all subjects. The inevitability of death is disconcerting, and perhaps some of that discomfort is reflected in the eyes of men and women we see hiding throughout the jungled landscape. The jungle itself is a microcosm of decay and rebirth, a phenomenon that becomes more apparent as the artist’s foliage builds and feeds upon itself, becoming not just a nest upon which those cavorting bodies lay but a cocoon that encases them, providing them a momentary Eden before casting them asunder.
Colomer’s seemingly innocuous titles underscore this depiction of the jungle as a momentary Garden of Eden, tossing biblical notions of transition into the mix. Do the characters’ libidinal desires signal a fall from grace? Perhaps not, though Colomer’s injection of la petite mort into the visual dialogue muddies the waters. The French phrase denotes that the moment of orgasm is akin to a momentary death, when the conscious world is lost behind the veil of physical sensation. The men and women in Colomer’s landscapes, hovering as they do on the edge of invisibility, live that moment—they cling to life–physically, emotionally and spiritually even as the decaying jungle vines that bear down upon them point out the folly of their pursuit.
In this vein the sex depicted entails more than the pursuit of pleasure. These sensual pleasures are a valiant attempt to cling to life in the face of eventual mortality. The languid sensuality of the jungle canopy is tempered by the flickering corporeality of the humans nestled within it, unaware of their inevitable deterioration back to dust. Invoking our sense of touch, Colomer reminds us that we are fully cognizant that we share the same fate as the fleeting graphite characters. With the melancholic specter of death at hand, make the most of your corporeal time she seems to say, if not libidinally then at least with all the zest you can muster.
* Numbers in parenthesis correspond to the works listed in the exhibition’s checklist.
Banner Image: A Couple (No. 13 – detail), 2018; Marion Colomer; Watercolor, pencil and embroideries on paper; 42.5″ x 78″; Photo for East City Art by Eric Hope.
Melancholia runs through February 23, 2018 at Gallery O on H. For more information, visit the galley’s website here.