Mary Weatherford Brings ‘Horror and Beauty’ to Venice

VENETI – It’s the kind of gruesome painting you’ll want to look away from: Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” shows a satyr – half man, half goat – hanging upside down while being skinned alive, while a dog licks his blood and a musician plays unmoved violin.

But the artist Mary Weatherford wanted to keep watching.

Fascinated by the work after seeing it in Antonio Paolucci’s exhibition “Tiziano” at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome some ten years ago, Weatherford of Los Angeles decided to one day create a body of work based on the painting. Now, that show — featuring 12 new canvases that Weatherford produced between January and March 2021 — opened at Museo di Palazzo Grimani on Wednesday, just as the Venice Biennale begins.

“I thought it was the most evil painting I’d ever seen,” Weatherford said in an interview at the palazzo. “Marsyas has resigned himself to his fate. My works have been about fate since 1986. I am interested in the choice to turn left or right.”

Dressed simply in a black sweater and ripped jeans, her straight hair parted in the middle, Weatherford may seem more subdued than the spritz-drinking art fashionistas crowding the Giardini. But at 59, with prominent galleries behind her — Gagosian, who hosted the show, and David Kordansky — Weatherford actually represents something quite rare in today’s overheated contemporary art market: a middle-aged, mid-career female artist who is slowly , has quietly earned her share of fame.

“Mary is like one of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of the Canyon,'” Kordansky said, referring to the song about a community of artists and musicians. “She is totally, completely brilliant and unfazed by trends. She’s just always doing her own thing.”

That “thing” has created lyrical abstract paintings, often punctuated by neon bars, which are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Tate in London—which have sold for as little as a whopping $450,000 at auction in 2018. That year, critic Roberta Smith, in The New York Times, called the works “ecstatic, pierced by rays of light, akin to Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of St. Theresa’.”

Weatherford has conducted surveys in 2020 at Skidmore College’s Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, in Saratoga Springs, NY, and at SITE Santa Fe, NM, as well as solo exhibitions at the Aspen Art Museum and LAXART in Los Angeles. “Mary is disgruntled in the best sense,” said Ian Berry, the director of the Tang. “She is a researcher who studies art history, science, architecture, gender.”

Those familiar with her work comment on Weatherford’s technical accuracy – the specific linen she uses for her canvases, the gestural nature of her brushstrokes, her layering of gesso.

“There’s something very specific about the way she applies the paint,” said Nicola Lees, director of the Aspen Museum. “It has such a playful quality, but it’s very precise.”

While Weatherford’s paintings often feature swirls of color, Marsyas’s works—on display through November 27—are shady and gloomy, with dominant hues of black, gray, violet, and silver.

The neon slashes function like “a cut on your eyesight,” Weatherford said, “a cut on your eyesight.”

With Titian’s painting, usually located in the Archbishop’s Palace in Kromeriz, Czech Republic, she wanted to reflect on the thorny questions it raises, as Marsyas challenged Apollo to a music competition, knowing he would likely lose and receive a terrible prize. Pay.

“Is Marsyas ignorant or is he overconfident?” she asked. “What’s the difference between ignorance and hubris?”

Weatherford often gets philosophical in conversations. With an unvarnished, personal way, her references range from the writers Iris Murdoch, Haruki Murakami and Leo Tolstoy to the films “The Godfather” and Luis Buñuel’s “Un Chien Andalou.”

Born in 1963 in Ojai, California, where her father was the pastor of a small Episcopal church, Weatherford has been making art since she weaved macramé with her mother at the kitchen table. She fell hard for museums on a school trip to LACMA. “I loved the smell, I loved the sound,” she said, “I loved everything about them.”

She was particularly intrigued by Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’ because of the threatening sky and soaring birds. “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I’ll have to understand why this is a terrifying painting.'”

As a student at Princeton University, Weatherford traveled to New York City to see art and visited the galleries of Holly Solomon, Leo Castelli, Paula Cooper, and Annina Nosei. Thinking she should pursue something “practical,” she planned to study architecture when a painting class taught by Professor Jerry Buchanan changed everything. “I was an instant convert,” she said.

After college, Weatherford joined Whitney’s museum studies program. Meanwhile, she made drawings in her studio apartment on the Upper West Side and attended art classes.

In 1990, The Times reported Weatherford in an article with the headline, “Fresh, Hot and Headed for Fame, These Are the Faces to Watch.”

“Her determination to transform abstract painting into a crossover art form, by imbuing it with both feminist consciousness and references to the performing arts fraught with female stereotypes, is full of possibility,” Smith wrote.

Weatherford said she wasn’t prepared for the attention that came. When she returned to California, she taught some at UCLA and Otis College of Art and Design, but found that “I couldn’t paint and teach,” she said. “Education would ask too much of me.”

So she did bookkeeping to earn a living – first for the Santa Monica Museum of Art and then for the artist Mike Kelley. “I like accounting because it’s a chemical equation,” Weatherford said. “I like astrophysics.”

She worked four days a week in the office and the other three on her easel, similar to playing roulette. “I just put all the chips on one number,” she said. “I have always made the choice to take the time to make the paintings.”

Her 2012 show at the Todd Madigan Art Gallery, at California State University in Bakersfield, “changed everything,” Weatherford said, garnering more attention from critics and collectors.

She describes her as Dan Flavin and meets Helen Frankenthaler, the art collector David Gersh – who owns one of Weatherford’s pieces with his wife Susan – said the artist has “developed her own vocabulary”.

But as solid as it seems now, Weatherford’s art career wasn’t something she ever really planned or could count on. “I didn’t really start selling paintings until I was 50,” the artist said, adding, “I just want to be a good painter.”

“It feels good to be this age because I’m not worried it’s going to go away and wonder how I’m going to make a living,” she continued. “If someone has success young, it’s a ghost.”

The late success has also given her the freedom not to worry about staying popular or pleasing the public. Komal Shah, who serves on the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and collects Weatherford’s work, said she admires how the artist continues to challenge herself. “She’s going to be Joan Mitchell’s heir,” Shah said. “Success is not easy for her, and she has established herself as a painter of gravitas.”

Part of what drew Weatherford to Titian’s painting was how it simultaneously attracted and repulsed, embodying the often painful complexities of life. She’s tried to capture this nuance in works like “Below the Cliff” and “Light Falling Like a Broken Chain” — both of which were featured in a 2021 Kordansky show. “The Sublime is the marriage of horror and beauty.” , she said. “It’s like going up the river.”

If there’s an underlying darkness in her work, Weatherford said, it’s because there’s an enduring sadness in the world. “It’s fleeting and I can’t stop time,” she said. “Even here in Venice I look out the window at a boat going by on the water and I think, ‘This is the only time we’ll ever see that boat go by.'”

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