Mary Ellen Croteau's life as a Catholic ended at Quincy College in the late 1960s, after she was raped by a fellow student whose friends had made bets on whether he would score with her.
There wasn't a name for date rape in those days. Most victims kept their mouths shut and tried to put it out of mind. But Croteau went to someone she believed would help--a school counselor who was also a priest. "I was pouring out my tale of woe, and when I was done he said, 'Would you like me to give you absolution?' That was the end of the Catholic church for me, right there."
The oldest daughter and "workhorse" in a south-side family of ten children, Croteau dropped out of college, married, and had two sons. Her husband, "a draft dodger when I married him," joined the navy and shipped out, leaving her to support the children on a monthly dependents' allowance of $100. "I was living in a $70-a-month housing project, and then I had $30 a month to feed myself and these kids," says Croteau. "It was hideous." When she found herself pregnant again she got an abortion and felt lucky to have the option. The Supreme Court had ruled on Roe v. Wade less than two months earlier.
After that marriage came to its inevitable conclusion, Croteau met and wed Steve Bild (still her husband), gave birth to a daughter, and became an energetic foot soldier for liberal causes. For a long time, she says, "I was antiwar, antinuclear, antiapartheid--without any particular commitment to women's issues." Then, in the late 1980s, "when the assault on abortion rights became so obvious," her political focus narrowed. "I decided women had been the backbone of all of these movements, and here we were ignoring something that was extremely important to ourselves."
By then Croteau was back in school, finishing the art degree she'd started at Quincy, taking her newly galvanized feminism as muse and subject. Now she's wrapping up a graduate program at Rutgers University with a ribald installation that spoofs Renaissance painting, bending its patriarchal Catholic conventions to her feminist will. Dubbed "Masterpieces From the Croteau Collection," it's on view this month at Artemisia Gallery.
Croteau's "masterpieces" are eight sizable oils, painstakingly executed and ornately framed. They hang in a mock museum gallery, on walls painted the requisite dried-blood red. They have the deep hues, detailed backgrounds, and richly draped fabrics of the Italian Renaissance, but in Croteau's Annunciation the angel wears the bespectacled face of antiabortion activist Randall Terry; in God Creating Man a black woman labors over a small monster of clay, her Mylar-threaded turban catching a halo glow; in Madonna and Child the holy tot is Korean and clearly female.
In most cases, Croteau has enlisted family and friends as models for her revisionist scenes, tracing their projected photographs onto her canvases. She appears three times herself, most notably as the Unrepentant Magdalene, flaunting a sumptuous ass and rolling a bite of chocolate-covered cherry between tongue and teeth.
Croteau, who has shown pickled "penises" as Men I Have Known, knows the power of a belly laugh and goes after it with humor as blatant as the sexism it addresses. For her, feminist art is work that empowers women. Victim art--Renaissance or contemporary--doesn't make the cut. Her St. Lorena (as in Bobbitt), knife in one hand, severed penis in the other, was inspired by an art trek to Italy, where "they really have a thing for mutilated women," she says. "Saint Lucy would be holding her eyeballs, and Saint Agatha would be holding her breast on a plate, over and over, along with other martyred women. I thought, well, if you're going to venerate somebody for bodily mutilation, let it be the right person."
"Masterpieces From the Croteau Collection" runs through November 29 at Artemisia Gallery, 700 N. Carpenter. Hours are 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday; admission is free. Call 312-226-7323 for more information. --Deanna Isaacs
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mary Ellen Croteau photo by Katrina Wittkamp; "St. Lorena", "Madonna and Child".