Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Marvelous Marilyn Monroe: Commemorating 90 Years!

I created my art quilt entitled “The Marvelous Marilyn Monroe” (Composition 2011-2014) in honor of the iconic Hollywood actress Marilyn Monroe and wanted to be sure to post it to help commemorate her 90th birthday week (June 1, 2016). It is inspired by one of her most famous performances of all time, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blonds(1953). I remember seeing the singer Madonna’s video for "Material Girl"(1984) when I was a preteen, which references this classic performance by Monroe and became a metaphor for thinking of and referring to Madonna as a singer and cultural phenomenon. Back then, I didn’t have familiarity with Monroe’s performance as the background that inspired Madonna’s in the video.

The latter is intriguing for epitomizing what the theorist Jean Baudrillard describes as the potential of the simulacrum (See Simulacra and Simulation, 1981) to displace and overshadow the real. Ultimately, Monroe emerges as a kind of mentor and muse for Madonna. The unapologetic emphasis on materialism as a basis for establishing relationships is not ideal, but it is interesting that both songs invoke the theme in attempting to school women on dating and relationships. Madonna’s song offers the reminder that “the boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right.” Marilyn’s song is amusing to the extent that it advises younger women, in instances when they are doing the unthinkable and dating married men, to “get that ice or else no dice,” kindly confiding to them that “he’s your guy when stocks are high, but beware when they start to descend. It’s then that those louses go back to their spouses, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” The most iconic images from that singing performance show Monroe surrounded by young men in identical black suits, but it's also important to recognize the role that young women dancers dressed in pink play in the scene, including the mentoring relationship that Monroe establishes in relation to all of them. The pink roses that trim my art quilt honoring Monroe allude to them and to this latter woman-to-woman dynamic in the scene, along with the larger roses positioned around its edges, which recall the flowers that they all wore in their hair. This song's main message is later invoked in songs such as Herb Alpert and Janet Jackson’s “Diamonds”(1987). Liz Taylor profoundly suggested it as well.

No woman has ever as fully embraced Marilyn Monroe’s legacy as the model Anna Nicole Smith, who recast it in visually stunning and compelling ways. All of that visual play intrigued me from an artistic standpoint. Years ago, I enjoyed watching the reality show with her beloved dog Sugarpie to get a better sense of who she was. Now, I look forward to checking out the photos of the attire that her daughter Dannielynn and the child's father Larry Birkhead wear to the annual Kentucky Derby, the major public event that Dannielynn has grown up attending. What I find most interesting about the song "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," and the reason that I like it and even believe that it holds some feminist implications, is that it urges women to resist ways in which some men attempt to discard, dismiss and devalue them over time by urging women to keep their focus on the big picture and to invest in themselves instead of seeking elusive or ephemeral forms of validation. In her song, that something as materialistic as a diamond emerges as the "friend" that sticks with and stays true to a woman over time in life, in a way that a man may not, is a limiting message and vision in the end, however. What a Friend We Have in Jesus, to invoke the Christian hymn by that name, is endlessly and supremely powerful and true.

Marilyn Monroe is an inspiration for having reinvented herself and become such a powerful and enduring icon, though the persona that she created limited her and held her captive in some ways. I like her and value her legacy for the cultural impact that she made, then as now. As a preteen, it was interesting to see a character like Paulette Rebchuck in Grease 2(1982) who was so obviously influenced by Monroe in styling and demeanor. Monroe epitomized the "bombshell" model of femininity described in Laren Stover’s book The Bombshell Manual of Style (2001), which affirms that beauty and brains can go together and discusses the characteristics of this type of woman in detail across its rich and revealing chapters. Monroe intrigues me because, in all her uniqueness, she makes me think comparatively about modern womanhood, and reflect on its complexity and diversity at other levels, to the extent that she embodied and helped to set the standard for the modern woman in her time, including what was possible in the way of self-invention and self-definition, even as her iconic, youthful, pale, platinum blond aesthetics ran counter to those of many of her contemporaries who were living life in their own ways outside of the Hollywood limelight and who lacked her global platform, including, say, women who were not as privileged in terms of class or whose lives were defined by a rural, agrarian aesthetic and temporality. In my "Portraits II" quilt show featuring 60 quilts(2015), Marilyn Monroe’s impact on the American cultural imagination as a woman during the 1950s is also important to think about in juxtaposition with Rosa Parks as a woman who changed the world during that time by catalyzing an international freedom movement in 1955 when she remained seated on the city bus in Montgomery. My quilts of both of them that are included in the show underscore these points. My art print cards, as sets, also often juxtapose figures that ideologically don't fit together or that serve as radical and critical points of contrast. For example, I framed Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara (who, with Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, inaugurated the Hollywood Series in my 2008 debut show), alongside Malcolm X, who was represented in the Political Series.

In the early stages of developing this art quilt in 2011, I was thankful to see a wax figure of Monroe on a trip to Los Angeles, as well as her tribute on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and to take pictures. In my “Portraits II” quilt show, the art quilt featuring Marilyn Monroe was a multi-year installation-style project in its construction and falls into the category of “torso quilts,” which draw on principles of engineering, architecture and geometry in their design and incorporate a soundtrack component. Several works in this category, which are replete with lighting and sound effects, help to ground the show, whose centerpiece, at this level, is the Debutante Triple Quilt Installation featuring my grandparents and aunt. Like the quilt featuring Dorothy Dandridge, the Monroe quilt is veiled, which adds to its drama, mystique and theatricality. The quilt of Monroe, which is double the standard weight of my typical torso quilts, is literally shaped like a diamond, in juxtaposition with the rectangular shape of the Dandridge quilt and the triangulated ones in the debutante series. In gallery space when the quilts are on public exhibition, audiences are able to ponder the quilt of Monroe (replete with bosomy cleavage) in a continuum with the one featuring my grandmother formally attired in more reserved evening wear in the debutante series, and to consider the differing and contrasting ways in which both figures beautifully embody what it meant to be a “lady” and “woman” in previous decades. Similarly, in thinking about American culture more generally, one encounters the Kennedy Brothers in the Political Series. However, one is also led to reflect on the great legacy of Marilyn Monroe as an actress in the Hollywood Series. I use an official Monroe costume as the attire in developing this quilt. The beautiful red manicure had to be filled with architectural inserts for pliability and then covered with the gloves, but I know it's there, like so many features on my quilts that are time-consuming to work on and ultimately hidden, covered up and never seen again. The intricate and exhaustive workmanship is important to me to achieve and is part of the creative process that I most savor.

The hot pink on pale pink color scheme was particularly fun to work with as an artist. I kept several Victoria’s Secret shopping bags on hand in my art studio for inspiration in the process as well. The Victoria’s Secret bag is one that I envision as one of the greatest marketing tools ever! I am truly intrigued that the beribboned bag seems to be quite captivating on its own terms for some people who make purchases there. It’s as if one of the main highlights of shopping in the store is to be able walk out with the bag itself, whatever the precious treasure might be that’s carefully tissue-wrapped inside. My preferences for lingerie, and the brands that I like most for their prettiness and comfort, and wear most, are Chantelle and Hanky Panky with dreams of Dior. However, living away from major department stores as I do here in Ithaca, New York, I’ve had to mix in some items from there. One of my cousins once worked there part time when she was in college. My grandmother saw me wearing a Victoria’s Secret nightie (I have about 7 and feel most comfortable sleeping in them) and wanted to know where I got it, and when I told her, asked for something from there for Christmas one year, and so we bought her pajamas to add to her many pretty sets, and a bag from there was among the gifts for her under the tree.

The Victoria’s Secret bag is such a fascinating item. I always cut off and save the ribbons on them and other store bags in that category and put them in a special box that I keep among my art fabrics and textiles, before recycling the bags, for in a world in which so much is needlessly wasted, those cloth features can be reused in a creative way and for art projects down the road. Its typical hot pink/pale pink color scheme mirrors the one in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the basic color scheme for this quilt. The pink colors are some of the main ones associated with love, roses and events like Valentine’s Day. I enjoyed making this art quilt and learned a lot in the process. I am posting it on this blog now in tribute to Marilyn Monroe’s 90th birthday week, and for her fans. Blessings to her eternally in the Lord.

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