Flamingo, Barbie, millennial, pastel, hot pink, bubblegum, fuchsia, ballet slipper. At her first solo exhibition entitled “Remember? Remember,” currently on view at Arena Social Arts Club in Capitol Hill, Lex Marie highlights the themes and memories of her girlhood by her color palette.
“I want my work to look like a woman painted it,” the Prince George County-based artist states. “I don’t want there to be a doubt, and the pink erases the male gaze. Pink better enforces the feminine.”
The exhibit consists of 15 paintings and two art installations, and in her large-scale self-portraits, varied shades of pink color Marie’s girlhood dresses. A Barbie pink vanity is the backdrop for another childhood self-portrait. Old report cards and school documents printed on pastel pink, light yellow and soft teal paper form the basis of Marie’s graduation gown in one portrait, and halo her head like a cherub in several others. She wears a fuchsia dress and cotton candy-colored bow standing in front of the U.S. flag, hand over her heart, with the words of the “Pledge of Allegiance” scrawled in a childish hand.
Collectively, the series appears nostalgic, innocent and quite literally rosy, all bright smiles, good grades and happy moments captured first on film and then in oil. The portraits then may first appear saccharine but are more bittersweet.
But they also represent memories that are lost: Marie admits she is too young to remember many of the occasions. Kenmoor Elementary School, where Marie was a promising student and budding artist, no longer exists. Her childhood apartment has been demolished and the mall where her mother worked as a professional photographer, so beautifully capturing her daughter’s joy on camera, is also gone. Marie would research the history of these places lost to gentrification, speaking with her older sisters — who frequently appear in her works — to recover memories of these family photos.
“How I was raised, where I was raised, Black history and my history,” Marie explains. “Taking this journey of my childhood that I don’t remember well and that’s lost now. That’s what ‘Remember? Remember’ explores.”
While the portraits are realistic, Marie asserts that she has taken liberty with what was once captured in a 5×7 photo and what we see on a 36×48 oil and mixed media canvas.
“I don’t ever paint them exactly as they are, but to capture the expression on the face or how I may have felt at the time. There are layers — not only literally because they are often collages — but because of the stories they tell.”
Marie usually works on two or three pieces at the same time, and with the extended process of collaging and layering oil paints, it often takes three to four weeks to finish a painting. That’s spending a lot of time with her childhood self, and rendering a small photograph into a work that’s almost a life-sized portrait of herself as a young girl.
She sometimes even abandons those self-portraits for a time and returns to them later when she feels she is ready for the memory. Some of those works excluded from “Remember? Remember” as they were unfinished at the time have since appeared at Umbrella, the multi-day arts festival planned by No Kings Collective: a portrait of two young girls sharing a stroller ride, her son sitting atop a green utility box giggling, her self-portrait “At His Daddy’s House” all displayed against a millennial pink sky and bright green grass.
Family Portraits Mid-Pandemic
“When Covid first happened, I started painting my son in costumes because he was the only model I could find,” Marie explains about another series she developed in 2020 with her son Aiden front-and-center. “Dressing him in costumes was an escape, a chance for us to play.”
The paintings, unlike the “Remember? Remember” series are depicted in vivid primary and secondary colors: red, greens, yellows and blues. Aiden, now four years old, appears as Woody in a desert-painted bedroom and Buzz Lightyear in a bedroom with twinkling glow-in-the-dark stars in complementary portraits, as well as frequently in a Spiderman costume representing his favorite superhero.
In other portraits the familial becomes political: a toddler in diapers wearing a Black Panther mask while clutching the figurine in one hand and making the Black Power fist with his other hand; a haloed boy wearing a “Black Lives Matter” mask and green hoodie in front of a red background; or, wearing a “I Can’t Breathe” mask and red hoodie, clutching at his chest.
“A lot of the portraits of him are timely, capturing his joy,” Marie says. “But as 2020 took a turn for the worst, it became a way for me to capture the moment. As Buzz Lightyear, he is reaching up to the stars but a vine is trying to hold him back. The Black Panther portrait was my way of being on the front line for our kids, making him revolutionary, a Black hero when we need one.”
Frida + Madam Vice President
“Forever? That’s how long I’ve been painting,” Marie shares.
In high school, she already knew she wanted to major in art, and after briefly considering graphic design she returned to her vocation. She graduated in 2013 with her Bachelor’s degree in studio art from the University of Maryland College Park, then worked as an art consultant and art teacher. She currently runs the social media and arts for the Prince George Parks and Recreation Arts and Culture Department, which affords her stability and the freedom to go to her studio to paint.
After giving birth to her son, she was both elated and exhausted, inspired to capture little intimate moments of motherhood in smaller paintings: breastfeeding on the sofa, attempting to pee with a toddler walking into the bathroom and potty training.
The series depicts the humorous, exasperating and tender moments between mother and child. But this earlier series is distinctive — the portraits are all-black silhouettes without faces rendered in bright domestic spaces. These are portraits of Marie and Aiden, an infant but also archetypal, depicting any mother and child.
“Everything changed with motherhood and I wanted this to be universal,” Marie says. “I wanted the viewer to see themselves. Every mother relates to these themes, these struggles.”
Yet, Marie has turned toward realism in her portraits recently, beginning with an uncompromising self-portrait entitled “At His Daddy’s House.”
“When I painted myself as an adult, it was a transition in my art and I fell in love with self-portraits, this opportunity to tell my story authentically. Once I painted myself as an adult, I knew it was the next step for my career.”
“At His Daddy’s House” depicts Marie lounging nude on an orange sofa, her hair wrapped, enjoying a lazy afternoon of reading. A shaggy petal-colored throw lies under Marie, a soft white pillow props up her head, a vase of flowers blooms on a side table near a cup of tea. Peeking out from under the couch is a reminder of her son: his Spider Man doll. It’s intimate, unguarded, authentic and fearless.
“It was my love of Frida Kahlo that allowed me to explore painting faces,” Marie explains (she dons a tattoo of Kahlo on her bicep.) “When I’m looking at five of her self-portraits, it’s like five different women, but it’s always still Frida. This allowed me to have that freedom to capture the essence of the person or the emotion there.”
This realization and subsequent self-portrait offered Marie a new approach to depicting faces and especially those of her younger self, her son and her sisters.
But Marie’s most well-known portrait in the district may already be in your liquor cabinet.
She was commissioned by the woman-owned, crowd-funded Republic Restoratives Distillery to paint the portrait of Vice President Kamala Harris for the distillery’s “Madam” whiskey. Surrounded by a gilded oval frame, Harris wears a pink suit and a string of pearls. She appears in a three quarter profile with a determined expression and the slightest Mona Lisa smile: regal, poised and ready for her new role.
“If Madam Vice President needs her portrait painted for the National Gallery, I’m ready.”
“Remember? Remember” is on display at Arena Social Arts Club at 507 8th St. SE until January 2. Visit arenasocial.org for gallery hours or follow on Instagram @arenasocialdc. Follow Lex Marie on Instagram at @thelexmarie or visit lexmarie.com.