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Michael Mararian's Kinder Kavalcade at Hallwalls

From "Kinder Kavalcade" at Hallwalls

Darkness Darkness

Michael Mararian is a skillful figurative painter. Influenced by the dark side of photographic portraiture, humorous illustration, and graphic art, his work is weighted with content. The installation of paintings is a procession of ethnically diverse children shown carrying the burden of complex concerns, such as fear, violence, addiction, and consumerism. He uses artifacts of American life to creates scenarios that provoke both chuckle and cringe. Many of his subjects stare blankly or in terror with brilliant blue eyes. One of his muses, the photographer, Diane Arbus, once said: “The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.” Mararian’s work exemplifies this.

In time for Halloween, on view are renditions of boxed costume sets many of us recall finding at the W.T Grant Company store. Instead of goblins, ghosts, and witches, we see his Famous Faces Series. The Post Mort Series features gruesome infantile faces on magazine covers. The Phobia Series is devoted to illustrations of an array of fears—chins, spiders, bees, shellfish—along with their pathological name. Clowns laugh and cry at the same time—fearing them is coulrophobia. The dark shelters us—fearing it is lygophobia. Keep in mind that the crying boy covered with stinging bees is just a painting.

Another revised artifact is the Snow White Series, representations from the fairy tale of each one of The Seven Dwarves. Mararian’s methods of distortion arrive at just the right amount of creepy. He paints on the covers of vintage books to cleverly alter the original meaning of the title. Many of the larger works show detailed figures that appear to have been cut and pasted over flat decorative backgrounds of cheery patterns. This technique adds appeal to the in-your-face imagery and makes it more compelling. Be warned...there are weapons, bruises, and tearful children. The subjects are often shown as both consumer and commodity, wearing branded t-shirts, such as The Smiths, Lou Reed, Yale, or Free Winona.

Despite the abundance of youth populating these paintings, this is not a show for the whole family. If it was a movie, the rating would be “R” for disturbing subject matter. The paintings provoke a response. They are not pretty pictures, nor are they incomprehensible art objects. The artist expresses himself directly in the language of our world. Once the initial reaction subsides, you may appreciate seeing a cultural commodity that moves beyond bland and dares to challenge. You will walk away with something to ponder. Loss of innocence is not a new realization. Every generation notices the deterioration. I recently pulled out an old postcard with a photo from the 1950s showing a police officer talking with a group of clean-scrubbed school kids in a classroom of posters with hopeful messages that promise safety. Never Ride with Strangers, Avoid Dark Streets. Know Your Policeman. If only following such simple rules could keep us safe today. Mararian’s children function as actors in his depictions of universal emotional and physical conditions. Despite this distinction, one is left wondering just where the line of exploitation rests. Children may be the adults of tomorrow, but until that time, they have no voice in our world. They are left to receive what is provided to them by their elders who are increasingly infantilized in a society of shrinking opportunity. There is a long history in art of the child figure as messenger. In contemporary times, Keith Haring gained notoriety in the late 1970s with his atomic baby, a simple line drawing that the artist marked upon subway walls. You may have seen Bansky’s street art wall of a tiny girl crouching on the ground below the words “No Future.” An upcoming New York show curated by Eric Fischl, Disturbing Innocence, explores these ideas further.

Our times are accompanied by a multitude of visions—a parade of imagery, including graphic violence of the daily news. In order to be seen and heard over the interference, art is called upon to be stronger—more than entertainment, decoration, or beauty. Mararian’s work rises to this task. Psychology instructs humanity to embrace the shadow side of our nature to allow for more light. Horror films continue. An attraction to ghoulishness and gore remains. Despite the flood of well-meaning books for children, Grimm’s fairy tales have not been forgotten. There is also an appetite for reality. The accompanying monograph written by John Massier offers a useful commentary about the show with the concluding words about Kinder Kavalcade: “They are humorous. And very dark. Because life is.”

The exhibition at

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