Hybridization in the Art of Marta Thoma

by Alfred Jan

Hybridization, along with critique of representation, plays a major role in postmodern artmaking, just as the belief that no essential human nature exists. Instead, human identities are socially constructed by various cultural discourses. Theoretical aspects of hybridization which inform Marta Thoma's painted assemblages include theory of the unconscious and feminist philosopher Donna Haraway's cyborg. According to Freud, repressed unconscious material takes in the manifest dream by two processes, condensation and displacement. Condensation occurs when many latent thoughts are presented in a single image, and displacement disguises and distorts unconscious material by representing it via contiguity or association; both processes produce not wholes, but hybrids. Haraway's cyborg is a cybernetic being, part technology, part nature, part human, part machine, part science fiction, and part social reality. This concept squares with Thoma's use of industrial found objects and technological processes in addition to traditional painting technique.

One type of assemblage consists of mechanical found objects attached to canvas and often painted a single color of automobile enamel. Then a meticulous sharp focus surreal scene is painted on the object or canvas surface. The enamel coated parts, exemplifying the manufactured, are re-represented within the decal-like paintings in odd, disjunctive juxtapositions. The loaded found objects serve as overdetermined items of condensation or displacement. Jacques Lacan's reinterpretation of Freud's posited metaphor (substitutional relationship) as linguistic counterpart to condensation, and metonymy (associational relationship) for displacement. Thoma employs these visual tropes to break down gender dichotomies by hybridizing them, as in Gender Accident. On a very red canvas, unpainted real hubcaps segue into an exact painting of hubcap into halo surrounding the head of a Leonardo Da Vinci virgin: her head, in turn, is grafted onto a child's body, whose hands yank the neck of cartoon character Olive Oyl. Woman as saint, clown, and nurterer is constructed by this assemblage, the last evidenced by a real red canvas sleeve puff that mirrors the left one of the painted girl's dress. However, the hubcaps are examples of displacement, since they are associated with cars, and by extension, masculinity. This technique of including painted versions of attached real objects acknowledges Freud's primary (unconscious) and secondary (conscious) processes, as well as the charged nature of the object itself.

The second major group of assemblages are more personal, concerning her role as mother. By introducing the sunflower motif, applying wax to the surfaces, and affixing color photocopied images, media hybridization is achieved, along with reconciling dichotomous oppositions of male/female, nature/culture, primitive/technological. In Love Me Spilt Milk #2, a color photocopy of a Frederic E. Church Native American village serves as background for six sunflowers, one which contains a baby's face. Drips and splatters of wax complete the surface activity. The sunflowers are metaphors for the birthing life force, and breast areolas which give milk, symbolized by the wax. On the other hand, sperm is also brought to mind by the wax. Giving birth does not need to be romanticized as primitive nature, but can be retained and valued in a technological era.

Thoma hybridizes on many levels in her painted assemblages in order to deconstruct many commonly accepted binary oppositions. Using Freudian dream interpretation and Haraway's cyborg as conceptual backdrops, she invests her assemblaged objects and painted images with subconscious significance. Hybridized images, such as male heads on female bodies, or adult heads on children's bodies, and hybridized media, such as assemblage and painting, hand rendering and machine photocopy, as well as images from art history, personal life, and popular culture show that no single phenomenon defines Thoma as woman and mother. Instead, her identity is discursively constructed with signifiers from many arenas. Hybridization short-circuits totalizing modes of belief inherent in binary oppositions like man/woman, nature/culture, where the first term is privileged at the expense of the other.

Alfred Jan is an internationally published freelance art critic based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He holds his MA in philosophy with a concentration in Philosophy of Art.

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