Overtaking the elegant confines of Les Yeux du Monde gallery, “Big Heads and Small Giants” unleashes a colorful cast of oversized works that dominate their surroundings. Artists Megan Marlatt and Margaret McCann play with color and scale, vividly and often comically depicting cerebral subjects in unnatural hues and improbable arrangements. Though a serious undercurrent concerned with economic- and gender-based power structures can be detected in many of the pieces, the show’s overall effect stretches beyond lurid sarcasm to spirited whimsy and gleeful joy.
The titular “big heads,” Marlatt’s papier mâché creations made during the last three years, greet visitors from atop pedestals and peer blankly out from shelves in each of the exhibition’s two rooms. The carnival masks represent a wild mix of characters: Queen Elizabeth II, a two-faced mouse-frog, a devil, a hare and “Everyman—My Heavenly Host of Angels,” a conglomeration of exuberant cherubs fused together by their gilded wings and halos. Caricaturing a trio of major art figures, “Critics at Large” outfits Jerry Saltz, Roberta Smith and Hans-Ulrich Obrist with retro gas station attendant-type name patches and, perhaps uncharacteristically, unrestrained smiles.
The heady theme extends to Marlatt’s paper and linen works as well. Many of her oil, gouache and ink portraits reveal otherwise believably bodied humans grinning from extra-large transformed heads, as if Marlatt’s papier mâché works were organic representations of an alternative reality. “Everyman—My Big Artist Head” has the artist seated with the tools of her trade, top-heavy, wide-eyed and as high-spirited as a mascot at a major sporting event. “In My Big Buxom Blonde Head” and “My Big African Head” Marlatt imagines herself with different shapes and skin tones, but similarly stationed before canvases with mouth agape in an unnatural state of delight. Are these iterations of her simply having too much fun making art? Or are they frozen in this moment with feigned happiness, desperate to remain cut off from life’s ugly realities?
Works on paper from 2016 obsess over massive skulls, but inject varying emotional properties. “Earth: Rabbit” closes up on an off-putting hare, a close cousin of the show’s papier mâché version. Safe in its subterranean home, the animal’s crafty escape leaves behind a labyrinth of trails beneath a field of nebulous human edifices reminiscent of smokestacks, oil derricks and antennas. In “Fire: Ache”—arguably Marlatt’s darkest—the big head spotlights a four-eyed, arrow-pierced and spike-brained victim, a pained, torso-less head tormented by bells while being pulled by a dark crew of circus people across a burning environment in a surreal display of physical torment as entertainment.
Marlatt’s works serve as a vibrant counterpoint and thematic complement to McCann’s intriguing paintings: female giants reclining across landscapes and psychologically charged portraits-meet-still lifes. Her 16 pieces weave traces of influence recalling the distant buildings and barren piazzas of Giorgio de Chirico and the torso-faced nudes of René Magritte. “La Grande Arche” and “Over the Edge” place gargantuan headless Venus sculptures across empty cityscapes that mix the real with the imagined; the Sydney Opera House floats off in swirling topographical impossibilities that support the weight of these enormous bodies without incident. In “Bella,” an upside-down female form crowned in long dark hair occupies the space of a woman’s face—a cyclopean joke carried out by a medallion in the shape of a heavily lidded eye that hides its genitalia.
Throughout McCann’s paintings, cartoonish and realistically portrayed women explore their sometimes threatening, sometimes peaceful, urban and pastoral locations. In “Global WarNing” a concerned figure runs through a city besieged by industrial smokestack pollution, attempting to flee the empty world of fast-food capitalism and institutional religion. “Waking Giant” and “La Grande Lectrice” situate female subjects who are undisturbed by the trappings of civilization, as their respective sensuality and intellectual pursuits proceed undisturbed by the world around them.
McCann’s larger-than-life figures are only rivaled by her “headworks,” self-portraits “with architectural configurations piled on [her] head” that offer a challenging view of the artist and her thoughts. The captivating perspectives “Carmen Miranda Still Life” and “Do I Dare?” show the artist as a determined model. In the former, her take on the Portuguese-Brazilian actress’ famed tropical hat becomes a collection of wax fruit over a tabletop balanced on her head; in the latter, the exterior of the Guggenheim Museum intersects with the Statue of Liberty’s crown, all somehow staying put atop the artist. With a look of total seriousness, she stares back at the viewer, never winking away this grand, but very dry, comedy that buttresses the entire exhibition.