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Distorted Transmissions

Baltimore Artist Marybeth Chew on Process, Play and Movies

Interview by Jess Bither

Lately, I’ve been watching a few films a week. Titles, names, and plot points become blurry, but sometimes I recover faces from the blur. When I see a memorable face in a film I think of Marybeth Chew’s work. I wonder—has she seen this? Would she paint this face? One of my favorite oil paintings by Chew is from a loose series she refers to as giant head studies.” It’s a portrait of Sister Ruth (played by British actress Kathleen Byron) in a paused moment from the Powell and Pressburger film Black Narcissus (1947). In the 24” x 24” painting, also titled Black Narcissus (2020), Sister Ruth’s head nearly takes up the entire canvas. She looks like a fiend—her skin is startlingly red. She displays her teeth like a feral animal, moments before lunging. Beautiful rose gold highlights splash across her face.

Black Narcissus, oil on canvas, 2020.Black Narcissus, oil on canvas, 2020.

Black Narcissus has a molten quality, and I got the chance to see it glow on the wall at Exeter Gallery (it was featured in a group show, Something Wonderful is about to Happen, in October 2020). More recently Chew’s work has been on view at ICA Baltimore, and the Sondheim Semi-Finalists Exhibition at School 33 Art Center (2022). Chew settled in Baltimore after graduating from the Hoffberger School of Painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). Before receiving her MFA at MICA, she studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA). She has shown her work in Maryland, Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and New York.

Chew’s encyclopedic knowledge of both classic and underseen cult movies is a primary source of inspiration in her output. Her experiences working in a video rental store (the beloved regional chain Video Americain) and movie theaters (including the Charles Theater in Baltimore) supplied her with a constant flurry of compelling images, and she continues to have a voracious appetite for genre films. Chew is on the hunt for moments when filmmakers use color gels to punch up intensity and emphasize otherworldliness. She is drawn to scenes of emotional excess, scenes in which a character widens their eyes, yowls, or bares their teeth. On a gray afternoon, right before Halloween, I caught up with Marybeth Chew at her home and studio.

Jess Bither
The faces you render using oil paint, could you talk about those for a moment?

Marybeth Chew
The giant head studies, they are emotional works. They’re about catharsis and release. It all comes out in the physical act of painting. I think the oil paintings have more of an interactive quality because of their three-dimensional surface. They’re latent anxieties being translated into a fleshy form.

Untitled, oil on canvas, 2020.Untitled, oil on canvas, 2020.

JB
Could you talk about the images you work with? Where do they come from?

MC
I take photos of my screen as I watch something, or I take screenshots on my laptop. I used to pause my VHS player and take photos of the screen. I think it’s a different feeling now, to be working from a completely still photo rather than a photo of a jumpy, paused television screen.

JB I love the ways you reveal to the viewer that you are working from a paused image on a screen—the distortion of the face, or lines fragmenting a scene for instance. It seems like this effect appears in your watercolor grids more often.

Farther Out, watercolor, 2021.Farther Out, watercolor, 2021.

MC
I prefer creating that effect using watercolor. There’s variety to the images in the watercolor grids. Some are more painterly, some are simplified, and some are made to look like screens. I want there to be a bit of ambiguity to where the images came from.

JB
Where does your process begin? Do you start with medium first? Or do you find yourself wanting to work with a particular image?

MC
I normally start with medium and match an image or images to that. While I am collecting images—which I do all the time—I will intend them for a certain medium. There are things I want to do with one medium and not another. For example, I have never wanted to do a giant head study in watercolor. The giant head studies… I feel the need to give those moments fleshiness using oil paint. And watercolor—it’s semi-transparent, it has more of a screen feeling to me. The watercolor grids feel more contemporary. They feel like the internet—lots of disjointed images seen rapidly.

JB
You said you’re collecting images all the time… You must have quite the archive of images to sift through. It sounds overwhelming.

MC
I have thousands of saved images from films. I don’t have a defined system for keeping things organized. That continues to change. But right now I do have a few categories. I have folders labeled hands,” screens within screens,” fast-forwarded film,” for example. I enjoy the process of discovery, going through all the images. It’s nice to be surprised by ones I had forgotten about.

JB
Let’s focus on one of the watercolors, the one right here since you have it out. Planet X.

Planet X, watercolor, 2021.Planet X, watercolor, 2021.

MC
There’s some Russian sci-fi in this one, and some crowd shots from a Godzilla movie. There’s an image from a horror anthology film called Monster Club. And the bird in the gloved hand is from Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.

JB
Do you have a method for sequencing your images?

MC
I begin with an anchor image, then try to achieve balance while working outward. I think about rhythm, movement, and focus. I implement different techniques to guide the eye. I’ll alter the amount of detail in one image, and in another I’ll adjust the color saturation, so that one image isn’t overpowering the others.

JB
Do you ever try to suggest a narrative?

MC
I don’t want it to feel too directed. But there are enough clues that you can infer a story. I like the idea of a distorted narrative.

JB
I like that, too. It’s more mysterious. And it ends up feeling playful, like a game, coming up with a story.

MC
Like maybe in the lower right, the four images in the corner… the woman has psychic powers. And she is using her mind to blow things up.

JB
And her psychic abilities are disrupting the airwaves, messing up the television signal. I love the distortion in this section.

detail from Planet X, 2021detail from Planet X, 2021

MC
I sometimes try to buffer threatening images. I’ll create a motion blur effect, use that on an image of an explosion, to make it less horrific. Then it becomes more of a vague anxiety than a specific one. Even though I’m drawn to horror, I don’t want to make something that’s actually horrifying and depressing.

JB
I see some moments of humor, something lighthearted here and there.

MC
I try to go for a comic book feeling at times. Like with the monstrous face in Planet X, up towards the top right. I’m drawn to horror and sci-fi films because they are outlandish. I want to have that feeling in here, too. Entertainment, and some humor. Like the robot hand!

JB
That’s where my eye wants to go first in this one. Whenever there’s a close-up of a hand in a movie, you know something dramatic is going to happen. It’s a great reveal.

Is there an image in this grid that you would consider your favorite, like maybe one from a film that is special to you? I guess in a roundabout way I am asking for a recommendation…

MC
Yes! The face with the scary teeth is from a horror-comedy called Blood Diner, directed by Jackie Kong. It’s one of my favorites.

Marybeth Chew

IG: @marybeth_chew

Jess Bither

IG: @angela_tremble

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