Unstill Life, with Ferret
Last summer a friend of mine sold all her dolls (and nearly everything else she owned) at a garage sale. A handful of others pitched in, throwing their discarded velour tops, thrift-store ceramics, and love notes from their art school days onto the lawn. My excitement over the score I'd just made at the sale one block over (vampire-themed lesbian porn, still in the wrapper, for a dollar) was quickly supplanted when I spotted an offering of oil paintings on canvas leaning up against the outside of the house.
The artist, Georgia Mravkova, sat smoking an American Spirit cigarette on a nearby stoop. Wearing broken-in jeans and a trendy top, she looked like any number of south Minneapolis residents over thirty. Her shoulder-length, chestnut hair looked as wispy in the wind as the smoke from her cigarette. She was watching passersby, and not guarding her paintings too closely, which gave me a chance to check out her work somewhat unobserved. These were not leftovers from someone's high school art program. They were the work of an accomplished artist.
While I recall hearing that Mravkova painted every day, and have seen her at openings, parties, and galleries over the years, I don't remember spotting her art hanging in any of them. But as I looked over the small selections of what I knew to be a larger body of work, I shook my head, thinking that it was criminal that she wasn't showing all over town. I suddenly wished you could bet on a painter the way you could, say, Seabiscuit. Or maybe you could, and this was my chance to get in on the ground floor.
Mravkova had five or six paintings on display that day. The canvases varied in size from 12 x 16 to 22 x 28 and were either entirely abstract or clearly figurative. I was particularly compelled by her figurative work, which is stark and dramatic, with the characters portrayed straight on, exposed for inspection, warts and all. In lieu of classic beauty, there was something endearingly freaky about all of them, perhaps some oddly sharp facial features, or the presence and proximity of an animal betraying an obsessive relationship with a pet. And seeing them captured on canvas was a treat, because they were exactly the kinds of flaws that these people might try to hide from sight if I were to meet them socially. These portraits removed the tea party inhibition, and gave us a chance to look at them as they might be if they were comfortable showing their real selves.
Mravkova's technical style furthers this theme of ingratiating imperfection. Her canvases are clearly well-painted in the academic sense. Her proportion, shading, and attention to detail are spot on. Yet she is willing to abandon it for a crucial stroke or two to underscore or elevate a particularly ironic aspect of the subject. For example, the laugh lines on the portrait of a young girl seem to change just slightly based on the mood or position of the viewer. At first glance the smile might appear symmetrical and perfectly formed, but a second glance, perhaps a longer look from the left, might leave one wondering if her lips aren't just the slightest bit wrenched, as if she is enduring some internally awkward moment. Similarly, the colors chosen, while vibrant and eye-catching, purposefully seem just a bit off. Rather than pink for the blouse on a woman holding her prize show dogs, for example, Mravkova chooses a hue somewhere between off-rose and a sort of funky salmon.
Within this collection of misfits I found the first painting I ever liked enough to buy.
Well, actually I traded the artist my old digital camera for the piece, a 24 x 18 canvas painting titled Bobbie and Flame. Bobbie, a preteen redhead, has perfectly shaped auburn brows and beautifully spaced eyes, a noble nose that harks back to a Grecian style, and a mouth anchored by an almost bloated bottom lip, balanced off by a top lip that's wafer-thin at the corners and plump in the middle. She wears a blue satin windbreaker with knit cuffs, an adornment most commonly associated with middle-American roller rinks circa 1976. She is holding her prize chicken, Flame, in her arms, the quirky duo captured mid-embrace.
Bobbie's expression is a glorious mélange of affection, bliss, and contentment, while Flame, though a fine-looking chicken, betrays no reaction toward his benefactor. The big cluck simply stares blankly at a space somewhere off the edge of the canvas, presumably at nothing in particular, leaving one with the impression that while beloved, he is likely as dumb as a box of hair.
The features of the girl are fresh and clear. She wears no makeup. Her hair is simply brushed and parted in the middle, with no ceremonious style--not even a cowlick or an unruly wave--to enliven it. The small parting of her lips reveals a pair of slightly misshapen front teeth thrown into greater relief by an otherwise barely perceptible overbite. The effect is not deforming but notable, the kind of thing a mother would think is darling, but that a grade school classmate might find taunt-worthy. With subtle shifts in composition, Mravkova left me with the impression that this girl is, perhaps, a bit of an outcast, in the garden-variety preteen way, and that her relationship with her pet rooster is a safe haven from a world in which she feels just a little out of place. And it's probably not surprising that an accomplished painter selling off her old work at a friend's yard sale is keenly attuned to this outsider element.
Wanting to confirm my pet theory, I asked, "Who is this girl?" Mravkova replied, ""Oh, I don't know. I found their picture on the internet. The web page said the chicken's name was Flame. I call the girl Bobbie."
When asked, Mravkova sums up her curriculum vitae in similarly offhand fashion, saying, "I think I graduated from MCAD in 1991. I was a fine arts major, concentrating mainly in painting. I flunked shop and every printmaking class I ever took, but that's where I learned to see and think and feel." Like many art students, she had a lull in her work just after graduation, but with encouragement from friends and fellow artists got back into the habit of painting every day. "I had been doing abstract work for quite a while, and that was really good because I learned a lot about painting, but then a friend encouraged me to do figurative work. At first I didn't want to do it, because I had this idea that figurative work wasn't postmodern art, and really dumb." Postmodern or not, she began a series of figurative paintings based on photos she found by Googling key words like "swimming ferret." While she didn't undertake these works as a collective endeavor, her daily attention to this exercise yielded a set of canvases that, when viewed stacked in her basement or hanging on her friends' walls, feels very much like a series.
To date she has at least eight paintings of ferrets (either alone or with humans) from photos she found online. And while she protests that they are nothing more than a study in figurative work, her passionate, detailed description of them makes plain her interest and personal investment.
"I think I decided I was interested in ferrets because they're beautiful, but they're kind of creepy to a lot of people. They're serpentine and fairly...do we use the world 'penile'?" But more than just the anatomy, it's the spirit of the creature that draws her to ferrets. "They're really crazy!" she enthuses. "They'll take the socks off your feet or they'll take your diamond ring and then dig a hole in the couch and hide your ring where you'll never find it. And, I read somewhere on the internet that they do the Ferret Dance of Joy. When they get really happy they pogo and screech."
Her fascination gradually extended to the ferrets' human companions she discovered online. One such ferret lover is immortalized in Mravkova's painting Sea Lady. "She's like all these anonymous people on ferret sites," Mravkova explains. "I find them extremely endearing. They don't want to be on The Swan. They don't want to be famous. All they want to do is be on the internet with their ferret, posting a photo and saying something like, 'Here's Sparky. He's five.'"
Actually, Mravkova hasn't interviewed, or even met, any of her subjects. She's not actually sure that they didn't try out for The Swan. Her fidelity to the real lives of the individuals shown online seems to end with their physical representation, and even then Mravkova infuses them with her own imaginative interpretation.
In that sense, it's ironic, and revealing, to hear Mravkova explain why her chosen name is not the one that appears on her Hennepin County marriage license. When they went to pick up the license, the county evidently couldn't honor Czech tradition and let her adopt the feminine form of her husband's family name, Mravek. Instead of Mravkova, the county insisted she take the masculine form and then apply for a name change--which requires going to a court with a witness and paying $250--at a later date.
"Look, in any country other than this one my name would be Mravkova," she says, still irate over the matter. "I don't want to be Mravek, because that makes it sound like I'm a man, and while I support other people's gender choices, I want to be Mravkova because it makes me sound like a Russian ballerina." Later, she returns to the subject with a firm declaration that resonates with her art. "Look, I can call myself whatever. There's this one weird artist named Gelatin, you know? You can reinvent yourself to be anything in America."
Many of the characters in her paintings are likewise reinvented, a product of her own intuitive understanding of the photos, or an affectionate fable she develops on or around them for her own purposes. "When a painting is realized," she says, "you should have a total understanding of what you're painting. You could show sympathy and affection for your subject, but also distaste or unease with what's going on with that person or animal."
When asked how she thinks her anonymous, unwitting subjects might feel if they saw her work, Mravkova answers, "I think they'd be really flattered and they'd love it." Then, after an elongated, ferret-length pause, she adds, "Well, that depends on how much vanity goes into it. I didn't try to make them look pretty."
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