January 9, 1998
By ROBERTA SMITH
Art rarely strays far from life, from the feelings and character of the person who makes it. But sometimes it sticks so close to individual experience as to become a virtual shadow, different in substance but identical in outline.
This is the case with Marilee Stiles Stern, a 47-year-old American who lives in Seattle and is having her first solo show at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in SoHo. Well-known as a ballet dancer (she was discovered by George Balanchine), ballet teacher and choreographer, Ms. Stern turned to art as an aid in her psychotherapy, which followed a diagnosis in 1989 of dissociative identity disorder, as multiple-personality disorder is now called.
A few years later Ms. Stern became aware of the phenomenon of outsider or self-taught artists when her therapist showed her an issue of Raw Vision, an art magazine devoted to the subject, and she started acquiring back issues. Drawn to the art reproduced in the Kind Gallery’s ads in Raw Vision, Ms. Stern got in touch with Ms. Kind last February, asking the dealer to look at her work. In May Ms. Kind made a detour to Seattle on a trip to the West Coast and saw Ms. Stern’s work. A result is this exhibition of fantastical drawings in red, black and yellow felt-tip markers that Ms. Stern made on graph paper between 1989 and 1991. They depict swirling, cursive figures and figures-within-figures trapped inside intricately patterned backgrounds. They are almost as beautiful as they are harrowing.
Full of semi-abstract phalluses extravagantly rendered and repeated in ways that start out decorative and soon become startlingly explicit, these drawings seem to diagram encounters of a violent and sexual nature. Bound hands are a repeating motif, as are splayed bodies and stylized faces that can seem either dazed or screaming. Imbedded letters occasionally spell out words: ”Kill” or ”Please help me.” Rarely has violation been made so visually mesmerizing.
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