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By Monica McGivern
After years as a lightning rod for controversy, shock-meister Marilyn Manson has swapped the microphone for a paintbrush, strutting his gloomy goth vibe into the art world. In his jarring exhibit, showing at the Design District's fresh-squeezed 101 Exhibit space, Manson serves up a steaming pile of the abject with grisly panache.
"Trismegistus" features nearly 30 medium- and large-scale watercolor paintings that are as provocative as Manson's lyrics and riff on the cult of celebrity, mutilation, dementia, and homicide.
It's the debut show for 101 Exhibit, which opened during Art Basel. "This isn't going to be the type of place where people will find watercolors of lilies on the walls," says Sloan Schaffer, an architect who bought the building a year ago and plans to follow a model he calls atypical for a gallery, focusing on "Gothic, pop, and surrealist art." Indeed his debut exhibit stands out like an amputated thumb in the nabe full of swank design shops.
"It's going to be more of an exhibition space than a gallery. We are more interested in exhibiting powerful work," Shaffer explains. "That's why we chose to open with Manson, irrespective of his celebrity. His work is really strong. In a way we are looking at this show as sort of a soft retrospective." The exhibit includes Manson's paintings from the past eight years, ranging in price from a whopping $38,000 to $160,000. Collectors have already snagged seven of them.
Sloan is presenting the show in collaboration with Cologne's Galerie Brigitte Schenk, which hosted Manson's exhibit this past summer in Germany. While in town for the opening, Manson was allegedly booted out of Cologne Cathedral for his unnerving getup.
More than likely, Cologne's religious elders were protesting Manson's morbid opus from which his exhibit takes its title.
Named for an ancient occult alchemist, Trismegistus depicts a decapitated three-headed Jesus Christ dripping gore down the antique embalmer's table on which the image is painted. The Savior's bloody mutant noggin is crowned with so many thorns it looks like he's wearing a porcupine.
The piece is perhaps the weakest in the show and seems shoehorned into the exhibit by a conceit of the artist. It also occupies pride of place at the rear of the gallery and is ensconced behind velvet ropes as if considered the holiest of holies. Unfortunately the result is more schlock than shock, and it backfires.
Manson's other works, however, are better and show both his promise and shortcomings as an artist. In another room of the gallery, for example, he has re-created several images of Elizabeth Short, better known as the Black Dahlia, on an autopsy table.
Short was the victim in one of Tinseltown's most famous unsolved murders. The 22-year-old woman's nude body was discovered severely mutilated, sawed in half at the midriff, and drained of blood in a vacant Los Angeles lot in 1947.
Her face was slashed from the corners of her mouth to her ears, giving her a nightmarish appearance. In lush paintings that creep under the skin, Manson deftly conveys the savage act in Elizabeth Short as Snow White (A Smile II), featuring a closeup of Short's face with her blood-stained pearlies peeking through the wreckage of her lips. The victim's raven tresses prop up her features like a pillow and contrast eerily with the painting's ornate frame. Hiding the horrors inflicted upon Short's torso, Manson has applied an almost romantic insinuation of flesh using a sad wash of faded pink hues at the bottom of the picture.
Manson gives sway to his darker demons with another Short homage, this one depicting the slain victim as she was photographed at the medical examiner's office.
Elizabeth Short as Snow White, "You're sure you will be comfortable?" shows the butchered woman pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, her torn flesh and gutted cavity exposed with grotesque ruby blooms of color.
On a nearby wall, Manson further mines the celebrity/crime angle with a portrait of JonBenét Ramsey as Sleeping Beauty, in which the girl appears as a blissful princess rather than a murder victim.
Manson, who in the past has expressed an interest in the writings of Nietzsche, displays his twisted sense of irony in a painting of Christopher Reeve, where the actor appears wearing his Superman tights while sitting in a wheelchair.
Manson also employs humor in Die Deutsche Kampferin, one of his older works in the show, where a naked Hitler stands with a limp tallywhacker and B-cup boobs while clutching his hands behind his back. The Führer's gob is coated in a mercurochrome smear that heightens the menace. Oddly, Manson tones down the bile by placing a patch of purple and gold irises growing at Hitler's side.
He also focuses his gun sights inward, painting himself as a grizzled absinthe-drinking crone in When I Get Old, rendered in moss greens and sickly purples. His back is bent like a bobby pin from the apparitions and grotesques that crowd his mind.
Even Manson's stab at painting an innocent baby gets a fright-night shellacking. Ready or Not Tot features a megacephalic tyke with a droopy eye and putrefying flesh.
Next to the rotting infant is The Man Who Eats His Fingers, which Manson professed to have painted using caffeine-free chamomile tea. The corseted mook in the picture sprouts strawberry nipples and hollow eyes set deep in cadaverous cheekbones above a crimson craw. He holds up the bloody stumps of his hands while flies swarm like Japanese Zeros behind him.
Walking through the gallery, one notices two things: The show is uneven, and Manson has some artistic talent. But like his music, this exhibit isn't for everyone. One of the paintings, aptly titled Masquerade, depicts a man wearing a gas mask and could be an apt metaphor for how spectators might react to Manson's artistic overtures. Some folks will either love them or think they stink to high heaven.
Others will find them well worth the visit and an intriguing revelation into a conflicted soul.