A pig stands on his hind legs atop a grotesquery of flora and fauna and cuts pork chops from his stomach. A man lies under a tree while a bikini-clad woman inflates his erection with a bicycle pump. An ominous pyramid of skulls appears. A woman lifts her dress to urinate on a nest of eggs. In the distance, a great fire burns through the city.
These are a few of the scenarios, surreal and fantastical, playful and irreverent, that populate the work of Marina Roy. They are found on the sides of books, hidden behind the veneer of her paintings, and animated in her videos. Roy’s cast of unruly characters resists the politesse of artspeak or academia. They appear throughout her work, unsettling predictable narratives in favour of haptic connections informed by the unconscious, the extraordinary, and the quotidian.
It is impossible to define Roy’s practice, as the material form of her work — drawing, painting, animation, performance, photography, sculpture, printmaking, bookworks, and writing — is as complex and varied as her subjects. Her work draws broadly from the study of language, psychoanalysis, nature, literature, art history, cartoons, and pornography. The vast scope of media and subject matter in Roy’s work indicates a restless intellectual and artistic curiosity, an unwillingness to conform to the conventional disciplinary and academic boundaries, and a drive to disrupt and unsettle the foundations of knowledge.
I first became familiar with Roy’s work in 2000 with Thumbsketches, a series of drawings that adorn and deface the cut edges of paperback editions of familiar books. Referencing the long tradition of fore-edge painting, the drawings are furtive: the images are exposed only when the leaves of the book are fanned, otherwise they remain hidden. Classic tomes, such as Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, or The Complete Poems of Keats are undercut by Roy’s drawn interventions that are at once surreal, puerile, and subversive. The series underscores the idea of books as intimate objects and as containers of secret and transgressive knowledge, and they disrupt our understanding of revered texts with impious, pornographic, and scatological defacements.
In 2008, Roy completed Apartment, an hour-long animation that weaves together images and sounds with aristocratic interiors as settings. Apartment uses the structure of Georges Perec’s 1978 novel La Vie mode d’emploi, in which he describes a Parisian apartment block in exhaustive detail as if seen without a façade, exposing every room. In Roy’s animation, creatures move from one space to another as a knight moves in chess, taking over the building in a culminating series of transgressive acts — battling, defecating, fornicating, and otherwise defacing the decadent interiors, as if the entire space had succumbed to a contrary logic. Nature slowly invades the rooms, dissolving any distinction between inside and outside, natural and constructed. Apartment evokes an alternate, strangely utopic world, where the rules of society are thrown out the window and all scenarios, however unlikely, become possible.
Broadly speaking, Roy’s work examines how language, images, and materials produce meaning. While the content of the images might appear at first glance absurd, even adolescent, the bawdy humour in her work belies a sophisticated and sustained investigation of the unconscious, and the means by which we may visualize it.
It is Roy’s Spill Paintings where these interests become most evident and complex. Titled after the large pools of jet black enamel paint “spilled” onto their surfaces, this series extends the investigations of her drawings and animations into the medium of painting. The panels perch on the floor and lean against the wall, unceremoniously. A number of recto-verso images are painted directly on glass: the recto shows random pools of black paint on the foremost surface; on the verso are carefully detailed figurations painted directly behind the black pools. The mirrored backdrop, leaning behind the glass, reveals these hidden images, but from an oblique angle only.
Viewers must physically move, crouch, and squat to get a glimpse of these characters in the reflected panels. In the process, they become voyeurs in the animated act of looking that Roy’s work invites. Moreover, it is impossible to look at these works without also seeing oneself in the mirror. Thus viewers are made aware of their own position, quite literally, in relation to the works and the activity of viewing. The opticality of Roy’s paintings extends the surreal investigations from her drawings and animations into the space of the real: the gallery space itself mirrored in the paintings; and the Real: the virtual space behind the black spills.
The experience of these works is difficult to describe. Several different things are visible at once: the abstract forms (the black spills), the figures (painted behind the spills and reflected in the mirror), ourselves looking at the work (in the reflection of the mirror), and the space of the gallery in which the work is placed (also in reflection). Toggling between focal distances, our eyes move between these different facets of the work but cannot see everything at once, frustrating the desire to see the work in its entirety. Roy’s paintings thus remain furtive and fragmented, and act metaphorically to render meaning incomplete and unfixed. Like her animations where the figures are fleeting, or her books where figures are hidden in their pages, her paintings strike a careful balance between concealing and revealing the images beneath their surfaces.
In the preface to her 2001 book, Sign after the x_________, Roy offers a cautionary note to the reader. “Idle reader” she writes, “I must warn you that this book is far from complete. In many respects it may seem to lack any centre or purpose. It is riddled with lacunae. It is crazed and fragmented. A dispersal of random, arbitrary facts.”
Such a statement reads more like a provocation than a disclaimer to the curious reader. The book promises to be a comprehensive index to the letter X and its myriad references. Yet Roy’s preface warns us that this book will thwart expectations, it will not follow a script or predetermined logic. It will undermine any encyclopaedic ambition and it will embrace failure. This sensibility can be used to describe Roy’s practice as a whole, one that resists conventions at every turn, be it the form of the book, the surface of the picture plane, or staid structures of thought. Roy’s work instead surprises and provokes our imagination by reconnecting ideas and images in unexpected, lateral, and associative ways.