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by Ana Finel Honigman
More and more, 26-year-old Brooklyn-based Alex McQuilkin has come to embody Sylvia Plath’s valediction in Lady Lazarus, one of her final poems: "Dying is an art like anything else/I do it well/I do it so it feels like hell/I do it so it feels real/I guess you could say I have a call."

Unlike Plath, literally dying is not in fact what McQuilkin is about. But in Plath’s tradition, she does make moving art out of the idea of death. In her DVDs and C-print stills, McQuilkin exposes the raw, tender ties between death, sex, desire and youth. Her work evokes an uncomfortable, undeniable blend of contempt and empathy, as her teenage protagonists (played by her) desperately flaunt their sexual desire, their desirability and their romantic wish for death. With roots in feminist theory, 1990s cultural criticism and popular culture, McQuilkin manages to produce work which avoids jargon and evades any purely intellectual reaction. Like Valie Export, Carolee Schneemann, Paul McCarthy and Sue de Beer, McQuilkin makes art that is like the strongest, sharpest parts of punk rock nailed through layers and layers of solid intellectual foundation.

While still an NYU undergraduate, McQuilkin’s DVD, Fucked, produced in an edition of nine, sold out at the booth of New York’s Modern Culture, Inc., at the 2002 Armory Show in New York. In a year where more than 170 international galleries exhibited work by 60,000 artists, Fucked was arguably the most talked about work on view. In the three-minute DVD, the then-19-year-old artist’s face and shoulders are pressed close to the camera as she struggles to apply make-up while apparently being aggressively fucked from behind. In a 2004 catalogue essay accompanying "Like a Virgin," a group show organized by artist Andrea Cooper at Canada’s Eastern Edge gallery, Cooper equates Fucked’s nihilistic excesses with theorist Rebecca Schneider’s idea of women as "commodity dreamgirls." As Cooper writes, "the dreamgirl promises sexual fulfillment, but as an icon or symbol, she cannot deliver; she is forever recreating the lust to buy again, in the hope of attaining fulfillment."

But McQuilkin, who was born in suburban Massachusetts and attended boarding school in California, has fulfilled the promise of her early success. Since 2002, she has exhibited extensively throughout Europe, completed a residency at 404 Arte Contemporanea in Naples and shown in Madrid with Galeria de Arte Carmen de la Guerra as part of PhotoEspana ’03.

Since Fucked, her work has grown more complex without growing up. For her 2002 DVD Get Your Gun Up, McQuilkin staged a tense Sergio Leone-style shootout between two slinky girls in skinny bikini bottoms decorated with sheriff badge-like leather stars, who, instead of drawing six-shooters, tug at their tiny drawers. In the DVD and C-prints for Teenage Daydream: Its Only Rock & Roll, McQuilkin, with bloodied bandaged wrists and a baby pink bob, furiously trashes her body around a light blue suburban bedroom decorated with posters of famous rock star suicide icons. Under Kurt Cobain’s feral grin, she bangs her head and toys with a gun. In the DVD Teenage Daydream: In Vain, blood seeps through lace bandages around her wrists while McQuilkin carefully and contemplatively applies a thick rim of greasy black eyeliner.

In Test Run, a 2004 video homage to suicidal revenge fantasies, the artist sinks below the surface of her bath in what seems to be a brief and futile attempt to drown herself. One of McQuilkin’s most vicious still images, and also her funniest, is her comparatively calm Untitled (Will Fuck for Validation), a self-portrait which features the artist, with a blond bob and tear-streaked cheeks, mimicking Cindy Sherman mimicking a generic movie starlet as in her 1981 Artforum spread. McQuilkin’s look of tragic glamour is given a self-conscious twist by the green glitter lettering on her white wife-beater, which reads, "Will fuck for validation."

During Mar. 23-Apr. 29, 2006, Marvelli Gallery on West 26th Street in New York’s Chelsea art district is showing two new videos by McQuilkin, Romeo & Juliet (I Wanna Be Claire Danes), her one-woman recreation of the final scene from Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s teenage romance, and Desperado, in which she croons the sad song of the same name (by the Eagles pop group) through hot tears.

Ana Finel Honigman: Do people worry about you when they see your work?

Alex McQuilkin: Yes, definitely. I’ve heard that a lot, especially with my newer work, which is really dark. Test Run has caused a lot of people to question what is up with me personally. I get asked a lot whether my work is autobiographical. I just don’t answer, because it doesn’t relate to the work. In school, I was always being taken outside class by teachers who wanted to know whether my work was a cry for help.

My family has been very supportive though. They didn’t necessarily like the work but they were supportive of it and now understand that my work is not necessarily representative of me as a person. 

I mean, the art is me, in that it’s my art and making first-person art is the only thing that makes sense to me right now. People are always asking whether I am suicidal and whether I tried to commit suicide, and that’s not what my art is about. It’s not therapy for me. I hate how people get stuck on the "me" as a person and then don’t see the work itself.

AFH: What are the larger issues for you?

AM: I want somehow to portray the overwhelmingness of being alive -- slow things down a bit to reveal what’s there. I am not more unhappy than other people, and I don’t spend more time crying that anyone else, but this work I am showing right now is all about crying and feeling sorry for yourself. I think it’s something we all do. Well, girls in particular do it and so do people who think too much and analyze things more, getting stuck in their own heads.

So, here I am taking a universal thing and going over the top with it -- to embarrass myself and embarrass the viewer by putting it all right up front.

AFH: Your work directly addresses sex and death. Those are pretty big themes, aren’t they?

AM: They are the biggest. My work is about the big themes that we can’t understand and can’t know so they frighten us.

AFH: Are there particular authors or theorists whose work you feel has influenced your art?

AM: Sartre and Camus blew my mind when I read them in high school. I read L’Etranger in French class and really related to it. And then I became very interested in psychology, Freud particularly and Lacan, but lately I’ve been reading a lot of phenomenology.

AFH: Do you relate to teenagers particularly well? Do you find them more interesting company than other people our age might?

AM: Not necessarily, but I love young people’s responses to the work. They aren’t afraid of just relating to the work and a lot of people our age only see it through a "grown-up" point of view, looking at it culturally or politically or something. Plus, adolescence just really influenced me. It’s a formative period for everyone. If I could remember the formative years from 0-5, then I would probably want to make work about that!

Another reason I think I started working with adolescent themes was that when I started making art, I was still close enough to adolescence for its problems to have meaning. Even as I was maturing out of adolescence, I didn’t really want to leave it. I don’t think I relate to it more strongly than anyone else though, and I no longer think I am using strictly adolescent themes in my work.

AFH: Would you say your new work about being in your 20s the same way your earlier work was "about" adolescence?

AM: Not really. Graduating from college was really traumatic for me. I found not being in school anymore really difficult, but my work now is not about being a girl in my 20s. It’s about hope and hopelessness, fear and feeling overwhelmed. I can feel that way at any age, but teenagers are different. The fear gets bigger and it’s different as you get older. Adolescents feel immortal.

AFH: What do you miss most about adolescence?

AM: I miss believing in things. I don’t miss the intensity; I miss really having faith in something. I miss believing something like rock stars will make things happen. I miss the inexplicable, naïve belief that. . . .

AFH: Kurt Cobain will change everything?

AM:  Exactly.

AFH: Contemporary adolescent culture is very different than when we were teenagers in the ‘90s. Do you relate at all to the glossy and Pop-y tween and teen culture today?

AM: The ‘90s felt very raw and immediate. I love Pop music. Music is a big thing for me and I carefully follow popular culture now -- but I certainly feel lucky that when I was 13 to 17, the Seattle Grunge Rock scene existed. It felt like it was making a difference and it never felt bubble-gum. It felt serious.

AFH: Were you involved in the political aspects of that era’s music subcultures? Especially, were you in to the "riot-grrl" feminist scene?

AM: I felt an affinity for it but I was a little scared of it. I was a teenager in a very conservative boarding school in California and I was just not ready for that yet.

AFH: Someone told me that before the Fucked video, you were exclusively an abstract expressionist painter?

AM: No, not at all, but that’s funny. I paint and draw. Those are still my favorite things to do, but I was interested primarily in video.

AFH: How did you start showing so early?

AM: Every year NYU has an open studio event. An art dealer saw my work my junior year. He invited me to show but I ignored him. That just wasn’t where my head was then. But he came back a year later and I didn’t loose his number that time. Not that much had changed, but he really wanted to show Fucked at the Armory and, since it was just one video, not such an overwhelming offer. I was interested in showing at the Armory, so I let him.

AFH: Were you surprised by how much attention the video got at the Armory?

AM: Yes. It is a really long time ago, but during the Armory show I was in Berlin working as an assistant for Sue de Beer and I got a letter from that gallery telling me that the video was sold out. I had never sold a piece of art before so I was just like, "Awesome! Money!" But I wasn’t really thinking about my future, my reputation or anything long term. I was just thinking it was cool -- but then things changed when I started looking critically at where I was going and wondering what to do next.

AFH: Where did you look for direction?

AM: I always joke how everything I do ends up in the work.

ANA FINEL HONIGMAN is a critic and PhD candidate in art history at Oxford University.