Renee McGinnis: The Lazarus Fleet

Their faces are, for the most part, turned up in the universal angle of defiance—haughty! powerful! the coquettish imperial bearing of models, trusting—fervently praying—that what they have heard, what is whispered and shouted and injected into their very marrow is true, that their beauty is their birthright, that the aesthetic will hold, that pulchritude is a redoubt, impossibly thin but improbably strong—their noses aimed slightly forward to the sky, their strong, powerful lines—slavish lines, lines built with all of the force, knowledge, technology, hubris humanity can offer—their vanguard and leading edge, a knifing into the eventide they are doomed to forever ply, no, should!, should forever ply!, but are not, are resting ghoulishly atop the waves, and who could deny The Girls their defiant turn, their dangerous angle, being dead as they are? It is their final wish, their visual hagiography, the last cruise of the Lazarus Fleet, the dead risen from the depths, their opulence decayed and wearing gilt upon their prows, singing a mournful banshee's song, the churn of the screw and the pounding of the sea accented by the rhythmic clang of a skeletal pelvis hanging from the rode…- B. David Zarley, Chicago Contributor

Renee McGinnis | MS Sea Horse, 2013, oil on mdf panel, 48 inch diameter. 
Photo courtesy of Renee McGinnis

The titular subjects of The Girls, Renee McGinnis' portraits of immaculate, sometimes-sailing shipwrecks at Chicago restaurant-cum-gallery The Cotton Duck, are impossible; affronts to reality and the realities of the physical world, they are the inevitable avatars of a vicious cycle of horror and pulchritude, one which has spun as long as civilization, powered by wind, sinew, and steam but with the desires of humanity always the engine. That ships have been the subject of art since their inception is of no surprise; their immense size and even larger service to society, combined with their comeliness and the intoxicating beauty of the sea, makes them the most romantic of vessels, with the train perhaps a distant second; that this is so even in an age of more technologically impressive—and seemingly magical—vehicles like airplanes with wingspans like Rodan or the space shuttle speaks to their combative nature and colossal size as being integral to our continued infatuation.

Massive ships are born of the engineering equivalent to abyssal gigantism; operating as they do in the nearly limitless expanses of the oceans—and lakes; look across any Great Lake from shore and be sure that it has a finite end—the engineers avail themselves of displacement and buoyancy to create some of the most largest freely moving constructs the world has ever seen; these true leviathans, under our beck and call, inspire the feelings of awe and fear which all true monsters must. Witness Isambard Kingdom Brunel before the chains of his mighty SS Great Eastern, and feel a tremor of fear—immensity! beguiling immensity!—and excitement; unlike, say, the distances between stars or the cold, throbbing cavity of the Pacific ocean, this is a construct of near inscrutable size which can be directly attributed to us; each prow is the tip of a spear thrust directly into, as Melville deemed the Pacific, “the tide-beating heart of the earth.”

And the spears sometimes break.

Renee McGinnis | MS Ceruleanne,2013, oil and Swarovski crystal on mdf panel, 48 inch diameter. 
Photo courtesy of Renee McGinnis

A shipwreck is among the most fearsome and aesthetically pleasing things in existence; it is tragic, bizarre; alien yet familiar, violent and regal, materializing from the depths, not only of water but of imagination and fear. They are living mausoleums, encrusted in sea life; that anything so huge can be devoured by an even larger entity, devoured and disappeared and cast cruelly to a cold blackness, is at the forefront of the mind with each visit to the ghostly cathedrals.

McGinnis' shipwrecks are not content with silent memory; they crash above the waves, their draft impossibly high, a spectral lack of weight, and they come down upon the observer and their resting places like axe heads. The portraits come mainly in two types, those depicting the ship in profile and round paintings showcasing the haughty bow. It is the round portraits which feel most sepulchral; made to recall submarine portals and the fine china plates which so often defined an opulent cruising vessel—and who have caused the death of more than one diver wishing to gather just one more for the mantle and the inches of his dick—they also call to mind Victorian post-mortem photography, the elaborate staging of the recently deceased as to appear living.

The Girls do indeed appear to be almost living, even beyond their apparent position above the waves—the vessels exist in a world where above and below the surface are not always apparent; imagery bathysmal, terrestrial, and heavenly all mix in a feverish, beautiful melange—lacking, as they are, the adornment of sea life which would quickly encapsulate them. Their faces and flanks remain unblemished; their names are still legible, their chains hang properly, they appear almost perfect save their savage, never-healing scars and some rust.

Renee McGinnis | MSS Rosebud, 2013, oil on mdf panel, 48 inch diameter. 
Photo courtesy of Renee McGinnis

McGinnis' portraits are lovingly framed, each rendition—the dignity of the powerful dead—adorned with accents which relate to the vessel's name; the gold overlay of the eponymous fish which traces its brilliant lines over the split smile of MS Goldfish, for example, or the wreath of roses which surround MSS Rosebud. Some of these instances are humorous; MS Cerebella superimposed over a brain coral, for example, the delicate folds folded into the ship's superstructure, or the fearsome bowsprit of the SS Narwhal.

Renee McGinnis | SS Narwhal, 2012, oil on birch panel, 48 inch diameter. 
Photo courtesy of Renee McGinnis

Each portrait hides a wealth of detail; the emergence of some new accent with each successive visitation causes the paintings to be explored as shipwrecks are in real life, slowly and from a tenuous sort of familiarization (that the sharp silver, corners, and elbows of diners and tables must too be navigated further enhances the observer-as-wreck-diver experience). The giant roses and spectral moray of MSS Rosebud are obvious; noticing that the ship has had her chains replaced with a chain of roses, winking like blood droplets in the depths, requires a conquering of fear and the ability to look beyond her magnificent hull and yawning wound. The Narwhal, beyond her mighty bowsprit, has a nightmarish figurehead of lumbar spine, ribs, and pelvis, the ilium resembling the grotesque wings of a butterfly, while the heavenly clouds above her seem to pour from her stack. Notably absent, aside from the skeletal adornments (the bones are female, a nod to ships being referred to as “she”), are people; the Lazarus Fleet sails with no crew.

Renee McGinnis | A Particular sort of Heaven, 2011, oil and silver leaf on clay board, 30 x 54 inches. 
Photo courtesy of Renee McGinnis

A Particular sort of Heaven and Fire in the Belly of the Stricken Marquessa read as more than memorials to fallen vessels; these ships, split to the water line in a jagged fissure, stacks akimbo, are monuments not to an individual—the ship depicted in Heaven does not even have a name, although it is similar in appearance to the famed Olympic-class super liners—but to their ideals; the blanched, riven bones of the broken vessel's superstructures stand like cracked tombstones in a flooded, ornate garden. The sulci and spires of the garden, the machinations of humanity wrought upon nature in a more controlled setting—topiary brought to heel—are the seemingly harmless manifestations of our intellect and industriousness; swamped, they stand in stark juxtaposition to the ships which lay broken atop them, pink clouds billowing behind the stacks, a cheap pantomime in defanged death, the result of our intelligence and industriousness battering against a force beyond our control and snapped like so many twigs, opulent affronts to nature dead and dying.

Renee McGinnis | Fire in the Belly of the Stricken Marquessa, 2011, oil on linen, 41 x 85 inches. 
Photo courtesy of Renee McGinnis

This combination of the magnificent, the glorious and luxe and powerful, with the funerary lends The Girls a fatal grace; these ships, lifted from the depths in which they sleep, are eulogy and warning both; they are foolish attempts at setting our own creation adrift and inevitable casualties of the sea, but they are beautiful, beautiful and romantic and wonderful beyond what any ghoul could hope to be. 


B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) and at


Recent posts

Thursday, December 22, 2022 - 18:17
Tuesday, August 3, 2021 - 15:19
Friday, June 26, 2020 - 13:03
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 - 14:02
Tuesday, March 10, 2020 - 14:55