Galerie Hubert Winter

Mary Ellen Carroll at TZ'Art
Richard Vine — In: Art in America, May. 1995

Mary Ellen Carroll is something of a rarity – a socially conscious artist who operates with subtletly and restraint. Her first New York solo was dominated by A Modest Proposal/A Modist Prepozel, eight off-white surplus Navy Blankets (their military provenance evoking 20th-century conflicts) on which the text of Jonathan Swift's 1729 satire is stitched in black silk thread. This labor-intensive treatment of the facetious plan for solving chronic destination in Ireland (by redefining poor human offspring as a meat source) reates a disturbing visual and cenceptual hall-of-mirrors effect.
The viewer is not literally reflected in the 6-foot-tall hangings, of course. Self-recognition comes more dismayingly – as one begins to decipher the eight sucessive passages. Because Carroll has translated the 'Proposal' into phonetic English, our reading is slowed, rendering us (like grade-schoolers or non-native speakers) more attentive to each grimly hilarious word. Images of Irish children served up 'hot from the knife' to delight the palates of their gourmand landlords take on a fairy-tale vivacity. The monstrousness of Swift's narrator seems redoubled by cool rationalism of Bauhaus typeface. Indeed, Frank T. Boyle's essays in a book accompanying the work associates this machine-perfect type not only with the entireutopian (and, some would say, protofascistic) Bauhaus ethos, but also with social-engineering theories stretching back to Swift's contemporary, William Petty, the father of modern prespective economics.
Carroll proffers no visual corollary to the madness and savagery lurking behind 'publicspirited' eugenics. That horror is already convenyed in the author's deadplan (yet psychically lurid) literalization of the animal husbandry metaphor. As we make the unavoidable connections with contemporary American homelessness or African famine or Eastern European ethnic cleansing. It is soon clear, that by Carroll's lights, moral conditions have not changed significantly since Swift lambaste the complacency (and complicity) of Britain's shelterd classes two-and-a-half centuries ago.
The five smaller works in the show confirmed the artist's formal and intellectual cunning. One wall piece consists of four pages of biography flanked by the front cover of Franz Schulze's Mies van der Rohe biography and a photograph of the architect's famed twin apartment towers in Chicago. The far-from-obvious catch is that Schulze's actual bibliography has been displaced by Carroll's listing of articels on modern public housing projects, a subdued knee-slapper for anyone familiar with Tom Wolfe's From Bauhaus to Our House.
On the opposite side of an interior wall hung the original and photographic versions of an impaled fly, a Bible and a sign reading 'non-fiction', their dialectic made explicit by the title Truth is Created. Nearby two wall clocks bear the word 'telos' (Greek for 'purpose' or 'end'). Thus in many well-crafted, nonhectoring ways Carrolls reminds us that, because we are creatures of history, our future will never entirely outpace our past.