Part I

If you have seen just one of Emilie Stark-Menneg’s paintings or short videos, you begin to understand that your eyes have glimpsed a special world like no other, like nothing else encountered of and in this world, the one you thought you knew. It is all there, no secrets withheld, the wonder of it all. Her friend and fellow artist Katherine Bradford tells us, “You’ve given us a sinister beauty that comes from one of the biggest hearts full of whimsy I know.” Unafraid of clichés—or anything, reallyshe wears her heart not on her sleeve but on fulsome, complex, how-the-fuck-did-she-do-that, canvases. Born in 1984, Stark-Menneg has been a full-blown artist since early childhood pleas imploring her parents “to draw my dreams” (both parents are artists, too). And, any artist who begins her career by convincing a friend to accompany her on a road trip for the sole (and soul) purpose of dancing their way across the country in random laundromats was destined to take us places we have never been—or seen. She thinks of her paintings as a kind of “performance art,” combining and rehearsing moments of photography, film, sculpture, drawing, childhood, theatrical gesture, classical myth, pop culture, and personal passions. And, there is something of Yoko Ono’s stated intentions: “By actively inserting a useless act . . . into everyday life, perhaps I can delay culture.”

Her high-keyed color has been aptly described as rambunctious. Rich, saturated blues traverse skies, Day-Glo “popsicle” colors land in grass, flowers and fruit, and the occasional swimsuit. There is a mediated sense of color pulled from glossy travel magazines and internet advertising. A kind of flashing fast pace and movement and spontaneity are occasioned by the odd drips and splashes of paint looking for their source brushstrokes. “X” not so much cancels a cloud as marking it for another time or purpose she is still thinking about (or not). Alice and friends chasing rabbits or orange-red sunfish need no pills here. Her larger canvases envelop peripheral vision; we follow her rabbits into magical worlds, happily, complicitly. We are warmly invited to participate in fun, fantasy, and unexpected leaps from one subject, mood, medium, or emotion to another—often within the same painting. These energetic, irrepressible canvases are at once familiar and strange, cheerful and subversive.

She often references her own short videos, drawings, and sculpture in new paintings. Hers is an advanced cross-referencing toolbox. Visually scanning one of her mural-sized canvases in person—noting the vast variety of materials and processes, to say nothing of discovering the effects of layering, both physical and intellectual—is a commitment of more time and thought than most audiences today are used to or able to give. It is why we need museums to return to over and over again in order to experience anew favorite works of art that are, in Stark-Menneg’s case, inexhaustible, uncontainable.

Like dreams, her work in both video and painting often elide from joyful laughter into demonic shrieks in high-keyed colors. Boundaries dissolve, place is ambiguous, intense color suddenly fades to underlying foliage or indeterminate backgrounds. Transparent figures slip uneasily into landscape, become landscape. Precise realism gives way to swelling, indistinct form, contours collapse into a surrounding amorphous haze or forest undergrowth. While there is much in her work that partakes of “the unconscious, the unknown, the unsaid,” it is also joyful, playful, and fully conscious—of itself and of a fraught world implicating our own slipping, unnameable thoughts and fantasies.

Emilie Stark Menneg Bold Coast

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Bold Coast, 70 x 70 in., 2022.

Stark-Menneg’s large paintings, many presenting her body gracefully posed in classical, dance-like positions, float in crowded, gravity-less compositions that “appropriate” her image from digitally altered photos of herself and her life partner, artist John Bisbee. Her painting, Bold Coast, imagines herself and Bisbee—both nude and accompanied by their own shadows—relaxing on a rocky, shoreside outcropping. They are engulfed and adrift in oceanic waves of blue and appear to face the wave. They are blithely aware of the vigorously scumbled whitecaps and broadly brushed water as paint, as transformative, abstract gestures. Survival is not assured and the humor is a nervous laugh at a moment of physical closeness as abstraction invades realitynatural forces mirroring emotional states that are often beyond conscious human control.

Emily Stark Meneneg Sleighing 2023 80 x 100 copy

Emily Stark-Menneg, Sleighing, 80 x 100 in., 2023.

Movement is a central aspect of Stark-Menneg’s practice, implied and actual in the paintings and her video art respectively. Sleighing whooshes across strawberry fields/sky, driven by a woman out of a cinematic tracking shot from some silent-era film where the movie-camera eye carries unspoken content. Her artist-passenger in the back seat is intent on finishing a copy of 16th-century Mannerist artist Pontormo’s grisaille painting of Apollo pursuing Daphne. Movement, artistic pursuit, chasing how the past sometimes catches the present and then points to new places, glide past in the artist’s racing imagination.

In her collaborative video, Sing Us to Another Sound, she and Bisbee are castaways endlessly rowing to nowhere on a seriously un-seaworthy raft. Both artists work tirelessly—the oarlocks are perilously configured out of old string and flimsy driftwood. Both “actors” are clothed in rags. They interact wordlessly, against a soft country-rock musical accompaniment—perfectly tuned to the gentle rocking of the raft—sound that is lovely but as raggedly sung and narratively inscrutable as the filmed imagery. They appear to have been rowing for days, weeks, months? Sisyphean figures of what? Lost at sea? Abandonment? Orpheus and Eurydice escaping from a watery Hades? The video concludes with a snowy owl watching from a snowbank that cuts to flickering blackness like the scratch marks at the end of an antique 16mm film reel signaling when to change projectors. It’s funny in the way that a head-snapping double-take and whistling-by-the-graveyard might be in a recurring dream.

In Cat Nap, a black cat, eyes wide-open, drapes itself across a flowering tree branch above an Ophelia-like nude figure floating face up in a lily pad-littered pond. A quick cat nap this sexually intense, this colorfully charged, would startle anyone awake and, perhaps, to drift into new dreamscapes. Could Stark-Menneg’s painting possibly be an art historical mash-up of John Everett Millais’s Ophelia, Hiroshige’s Wisteria at Kameido Shrine, and Monet’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies, with a nod to Manet’s proto-Impressionist cat in his once scandalizing Olympia? Probably not. But now we can imagine all of those artists dreaming it.

Emilie Stark Menneg+Cat+Nap 2022 70 x 70 copy

Emilie Stark Menneg, Cat Nap, 70 x 70 in., 2022.

Images of the artist’s hand and arm on fire in the video Dream Hollow or sprouting tendrils of a plant or tree in her painting Primavera not just recall, but reenact Greek myth and an archetypal, unconscious state of becoming. Her work simultaneously tells of her own cropped, collaged and fabricated dreams, and her generation’s vital, restless energy and sense of fleeting impermanence. She channels a mediated, post-pixelated visual culture through feminist ardor, dancing colors filtered through whimsy, and a sensibility given to cinematic montage animated by an insatiable curiosity. She tells of the artist’s hand and arm as creative vehicle for transformation, her body as generative brush—shamanistic bringer of fire and fertility, destruction and renewal, love and death. She says, “I’m trying to deal with that simultaneous fear and thrill of becoming something else,” and what Bowdoin Museum co-director, Anne Collins Goodyear, describes as the “porosity . . . between fantasy and the everyday,” as a central theme of her work. Stark-Menneg speaks of “shattering structures” and a “kind of epic joie de vivre and also a vandalism to it, a subversiveness . . .”

Emilie Stark Menneg+Primavera 2021 80 x 100 copy

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Primavera, 80 x 100 in., 2021.

Part II: Thread of Her Scent

Her most recent work, currently on view at the Farnsworth Museum (Rockland, Maine), is a series of paintings rather loosely based on the famous Unicorn Tapestries at the Met Cloisters in New York, as well as a series called The Lady and the Unicorn from the Musée de Cluny in Paris. Both sets date to circa 1500, and are examples of late-medieval storytelling serving both sacred and secular narratives—Virgin Mother and Princess Bride. The Cluny series includes six panels devoted to the five senses: touch, sight, smell, taste, and sound, plus a sixth tapestry with the words, “À mon seul désir” (To my only desire), variously interpreted as referring to love or free will or knowledge. Interpretation of the tapestries, both those in New York and Paris, is a subject of much scholarly analysis and debate—which for Stark-Menneg allows her own untethered take on the nature of art and its making. Her series of unicorn paintings offers an essential open-endedness and unknowability that could have been the original tapestry artists’ equivocal intentions in an age rapidly transitioning from Gothic mysticism to Renaissance humanism.

The Met tapestries are believed to have been commissioned to celebrate a noble marriage. Both Met and Cluny tapestry inhabitants—hunters, ladies, dogs, birds, and other animals—are set into “millefleur” or “thousand-flower” background designs symbolizing the abundance of nature. And while the Unicorn tapestry-makers remain unidentified, harvesting raw materials including dyes, the spinning of thread, and other preparatory processes for tapestries were almost certainly performed by women. Weaving and fabric arts generally have been universally associated with women since the origins of civilization and almost certainly before.

Stark-Menneg’s reinvention of these monumental late-medieval masterworks can be viewed as a kind of combing through the artist’s own idiosyncratic bazaar of personally meaningful images and materials—portraits of herself and her life partner, flowers and foliage, honey bees, the full moon’s reflection on the night sea, rabbits, even loose drawings perhaps plucked from fondly recalled TV cartoons. There are flocked textures, glitter, and recurring unicorns throughout. We seem to be rediscovering the stuff of growing up in the eighties and nineties.

Her unexpected use of flocking for leafy tendrils in Daylily Rider calls to mind grade school art projects as well as the centrality of texture in the making of antique tapestries—as does the small, lonely bee pulsing across his thousand-flower garden. We might muse on this bee in our environmentally stressed world—not yet a unicorn, perhaps, but becoming dangerously rare. Thick patches of paint squeezed like frosting through a screen-like filter mimic woven tapestry. There is even a sense this bee serves to remind viewers of the collective rigors of group fabrication and collective constancydozens of workers requiring long months and even years of endlessly repetitive handwork. The very word “fabrication” originates in the 15th century meaning “to make from fabric,” perhaps alluding to the newer looms requiring ever larger spaces and increasing numbers of workers, the proto-factories of their age.

Elsewhere, a light dusting of glitter suggests the airy, lingering remnants from the slightest wave of an invisible fairy’s wand. The silver glitter also recalls how silver threads were woven into the original tapestriesserving as worldly reminders of ornate courtly splendor, emblems of wealth and opulent array. Such tapestries were then nearly as valuable as the entire villa or manor house they were destined to decorate—and nearly as rare as unicorns. The everyday is ever-present in Stark-Menneg’s work, too. The artist’s studio is located within the first cotton mill in Maine to make yarn (at Fort Andross, which opened in 1809 on the Androscoggin River and powered by the adjacent Pejepscot Falls). Threads of history and the present day are woven into, entwined within, the very place and process of making the paintings.

It is telling that the unicorn is the most elusive image in Stark-Menneg’s riffing reprise of the original series—it appears to emerge or peek behind or from beneath other surfaces with a kind of holographic translucence. The animal is momentarily present in some panels; there and not there in others, depending on whether or not you find heads, limbs, horns, and other features hiding in the paint. Watery blue-greens wash over large expanses of individual panels. Stark-Menneg struggled with unifying the series with individual panels moving from hot sunny oranges to deep purple, dark greens and bubbly blue against Barbie pink. Oh, these are natural colors after all. They conjure the moist lambent of light of summer in Maine—the wild scattering of rioting daylilies, lilacs, blueberries, and strawberries are where we expect to find white-translucent unicorns trying to escape notice. In the original telling of the unicorn stories the spiral horn can purify the sources of water it touches. It is why it is hunted and sought by high-born ladies, the emblem of their chaste purity and rare, sensual beauty. The artist reminds us, too, that sources of water are everywhere on the Maine coast, flowing past and under her own studio. Water has long been a recurring motif in her work. Ricocheting allusion aside, capturing unicorns amounts to what novelist John Fowles once characterized as the black paradox at the heart of the human condition: the fulfillment of desire is at once the death of desire.

The titles for each large canvas allude to each of the five senses, but are also rather interchangeable. Nothing is fixed, certain, final within these sweeping visual narratives of post-industrial to post-internet landscape. Her panel for The Thread of Her Scent is “smell” but can be simultaneously viewed in the context of all the other senses. For Stark-Menneg the five senses are agents of transformation and of interactive and varied ways of seeing and making art. Collectively they become “À mon seul désir,” hers and ours.

emilie stark menneg FINAL Tailspin copy

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Tailspin, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 80 x 100 x 1.75 in., 2024 (photo: Luc Demers).

emilie stark menneg FINAL Flutter Song copy

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Flutter Song, acrylic and flocking on canvas, 70 x 49.75 x 1.75 in., 2024 (photo: Luc Demers).

emilie stark menneg FINAL Hunter Slumber copy

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Hunter Slumber, acrylic on canvas, 80 x 100 x 1.75 in., 2024 (photo: Luc Demers).

emilie stark menneg FINAL Lilac Wine copy

EmilieStark-Menneg, Lilac Wine, acrylic, glitter, and flocking on canvas, 108 x 117.5 x 2.5 in., 2024 (photo: Luc Demers).

emilie stark menneg FINAL Sun Stroke copy

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Sun Stroke, acrylic and glitter on canvas, 30 x 24 x 1.5 in., 2024 (photo: Luc Demers).

emilie stark menneg FINAL Daylily Rider copy

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Daylily Rider, acrylic, glitter, flocking, and fiberglass on canvas, 108 x 125 x 2.5 in., 2024 (photo: Luc Demers).

emilie stark menneg FINAL Thread of Her Scent copy

Emilie Stark-Menneg, Thread of Her Scent, acrylic, glitter, and flocking on canvas, 108 x 111 x 2 in., 2024 (photo: Luc Demers).

I won’t comment here on the unicorn horns growing out of Bisbee’s head in Sun Stroke and Lilac Wine except to notice that all great art is local and personal. And here it is loving, too. Quoting Philip Guston, Stark-Menneg begins from a place where “the paintings will tell you period what to do.” And informs us, as if this wasn’t immediately apparent looking at her art, “I fully believe in fantasy.” Like the unicorns being endlessly chased on merry-go-rounds or prancing across medieval tapestries, she deeply loves “things that are impossible.” Perhaps, the only conceivable impossibility for Stark-Menneg is not painting, not dancing in the tumbling, cleansing, transformative laundromat of her wakened dreams.

Emilie Stark Menneg +Strawberry+Unicorn+(white) 2021 70 x 84 copy

Emilie Stark Menneg, Strawberry Unicorn (white), 70 x 70 in., 2021.



Emilie Stark-Menneg is featured in the current exhibition Thread of Her Scent (through 22 September 2024) organized in cooperation with Farnsworth chief curator, Jaime De Simone, with a new body of work that reimagines the stories of the unicorn in The Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum’s Cloisters in New York and The Lady and the Unicorn at the Musée de Cluny in Paris, France.


Image at top: Emilie Stark-Menneg, American Popsicle, acrylic and oil on canvas, 48 x 36 in., 2017.