America Still Screams: The Art of Liz Markus

America Still Screams: The Art of Liz Markus

By Kimberly Brooks for The Huffington Post - 16 April 2009

I didn’t expect to laugh as hard as I did when I watched Will Farrell’s “Your Welcome, America” this Saturday night featuring himself as George Bush. It felt great. 

It is almost the sixth anniversary of the start of shock and awe campaign of the Iraq war this Friday. I’ll always remember that because it happened on my birthday. And that day in my studio I just sat in front of a huge canvas and painted the word “war” with a blog sloppy dripping paint brush and left early. For pretty much all the artists I know, with their antennaes out there blowing in the wind, it was impossible to not let the war— everything—all seep into our thoughts and work. It was also almost impossible for me not to write about the election and view art in terms of of politics and what was going on in the world. 

When Obama got elected, I felt as if my mother finally kicked the abusive stepfather out of the house and started dating a cool new guy that I actually liked. I still can’t quite believe that they live together, let alone got married. Yet in spite of finally feeling freed from the last administration and the politics leading up to its ouster, I welcome any kind of therapy I can lay my eyes on. So in addition to laughing at Will Farrell’s rendition of 43, I was just as relieved to discover the works of Brooklyn-based artist Liz Markus.

With rapid brush strokes and streaking paint, Markus creates images that bring humor and light to sensitive and charged subjects. Her restrained use of saturated primary colors prevents these images from being too candy-hued-psychedelic, and are instead bold and resonating. She pours paint onto her canvas and lightly controls the flow of the colors, resulting in haunting images that make us think we are sure of what we are looking at...or not. We wonder, “Have I seen this portrait before?” “My G-d, is that Nancy Reagan?” Calling images stored in our subconscious to the forefront, Markus engages viewers in an interplay between memories of the past and present, fact and fiction. 

Kimberly Brooks: What was the single moment that led to this body of work?

Liz Markus: During the 2004 presidential election I would get up at 6am everyday and paint on paper in a very stream of conscious way while listening to Air America. As I became increasingly frustrated by the Bush administration as well as the corporate office job I still had, a hippie appeared in my work. It was an image that immediately resonated with me. It represented freedom, rebellion, down to earth values, in short everything that I wasn’t seeing or experiencing around me. This moment was the beginning of a very rich vein that completely took over my studio for the next three years. I was interested in the arc of the hippie experience, from innocence and optimism through psychedelia to the Manson murders, Vietnam and drug burnout. I imagined a burnt out hippie wandering around in Mexico with his motorcycle and painted those subjects in somewhat abstracted ways.

Kimberly Brooks: I think I met that hippie several times over. Definitely while growing up in Marin County and attending UC Berkeley. I think he lives in a lot of us. What inspired you to paint Nancy Reagan? 

Liz Markus: Too young for a first hand experience of the 60’s, I was 13 when Reagan took office. My knowledge of Nancy Reagan was limited to her penchant for red Bob Mackey dresses, her just say no anti-drug campaign, and the obvious power she held in the white house. My parents ingrained in me a distaste for the Reagan administration but I didn’t think much more about Nancy until I came across a classic photo of her in Vanity Fair several years ago. I knew immediately that I needed to paint her, there was something about her face that was compelling to me. Initially I had hoped that she wouldn’t read as Nancy but as a generic WASP-y woman of that era. Nope. Everyone always knew she was Nancy. I’ve painted her many times and wondered why I have this attraction to her image. Looking back at Nancy now, I still absolutely dislike her politics and think she must be very tightly wound up inside. However, I can see that she was a strong and powerful woman in a time when there weren’t a lot of Hillary Clintons or Michelle Obamas around. She fascinates me.

Read the full interview