Some of the most hauntingly beautiful pictures I’ve seen in a long time are on view at Studio 10 through December 17th. Commonplace yet unsettling, Robert Marshall’s dreamlike images are derived from fleeting, fragmentary glimpses of the passing land- and cityscape, seen through the window of a moving car or train. The territory is not as familiar as it sounds. Marshall’s contribution to on-the-road photography is unique, and transcends both the genre and the medium.
“Car Window 16” (34 by 45 inches, latex ink on silver vinyl mounted on Dibond; 2016) is a passenger-side view of dashboard, air vents and wiper blades that are cropped to near-abstraction and crammed into the lower half of the composition. The high contrast, low-resolution photographic information is printed on reflective vinyl film, so the upper half — the sky, or anyway a featureless background — is a misty expanse of mid-tones in which the features of the exhibition space itself are dimly reflected.
Or is that fog on the inside of the windshield, close enough that you could wipe it clear with the palm of your hand? Pictorial space is profoundly indeterminate in these layered, utterly engrossing works, shifting wildly in response to local conditions such as lighting, whether direct or ambient, and the viewer’s movement.
Still-photo documentation of this work is not merely inadequate but misleading, as you really need to be in motion — or at least, to look from more than one location in space — to begin to comprehend them visually. This fact is ingeniously appropriate for the subject matter: those aspects of the built environment that frame our automotive infrastructures. More broadly, the work suggests that situating yourself in relationship to something (maybe anything) requires continuous testing, sampling, and monitoring, as with some kind of psychic GPS. It seems that Marshall is primarily concerned with how the world looks and feels as we pass through it. How often, really, do we pause?
When printed on smooth, aluminum-clad Dibond (or, as in the case of “Car Window 16”, on vinyl mounted to Dibond), the dark tones of the source photo remain shadowy but the mid-tones take on a luminous shimmer and the image merges with its surroundings’ reflection. Where there is no tone at all in the photo— those rare, pure white areas — the substrate reflects like a mirror.
The allure of Marshall’s source images isn’t hard to figure. Shot on a cellphone camera, they are blurry and indistinct, the kind of snap you might trash immediately for want of proper focus or composition. Something off-kilter in their framing convinces you that they were taken on the fly, as the landscape glided by outside. Yet they are exquisite; the bits of visual information punctuating the perimeter of “Wires 2” (53 x 40 inches, latex ink on silver vinyl mounted on Dibond; 2016) dance around a drooping scrawl of power lines as casually weighty as any offhand-but-not-really Cy Twombly painting, while an unexpected silver orb just inside the bottom edge — possibly, a finial atop a distant spire — is incongruously volumetric.
The rest is overcast sky, which the silver vinyl support transforms into a gleaming field or an endless void, depending one’s angle of view (and one’s mood, I suppose.) The source of natural light in Studio 10 is a wall of multi-paned windows, and its reflection in this and other works further complicates what is already a layered, tantalizingly ambiguous representation of space.
The more sparse the information, the more telling the details — particularly in “Car Window 23 (JFK)” (32 x 43 inches, latex ink on silver vinyl mounted on Dibond; 2016), which is among the most deceptively simple works in this show. This vertiginous view is centered, again, on an overcast sky (or at dusk) seen through a windshield. You decipher that the black triangle in the top right corner is the inside of the car’s roof, and so the silvery band (in the shape of a straight razor) hanging below it must be a pull-down sun visor, its melting tonalities doing subtly splendid things against the clouds.
Across the bottom and curving up gently toward the right, approaching but not meeting the roofline, is an equally hefty black shape that, in soft focus, recedes in space: a raised roadbed with a single blurry streetlamp, dark. Pale, shimmering dots in the vicinity could be distant beacons or droplets of rain on the window. Only by shifting your head from side to side can you be sure that they’re not reflections of the gallery’s floodlights.
The language of painting — in which Marshall’s work also participates — includes Robert Rauschenberg’s “White Painting” (1951), a landmark of audience engagement, a receptacle or screen for chance effects of light and shadow, including those of the gallery’s visitors. Long before that, Duchamp’s “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even” (1915-23) has enlisted the participation of onlookers from both recto and verso. For some time, Ron Janowich has been working with multiple glazes to produce jet-black surfaces that are nearly mirror-like, and Carrie Yamaoka, using poured pigmented urethane and other resins on reflective mylar, prompts the viewer to move about in search of a particularly advantageous vantage point.
To this family of techniques, Marshall introduces the photographic image. With the theme of motion in full swing, it’s pretty funny that the only work obviously not based on a picture taken from a moving vehicle is “Waiting Room 1” (45 x 33 inches, UV curable ink on mirrored Dibond; 2017), which depicts a place where you’re meant to stay put for a while. Seen from behind, a pair of chairs seems to dematerialize behind a gauzy curtain. Relative perceptual certainty — in this case, of bland, bulky furniture — evanesces into an aura of doubt and unknowability.
Marshall’s underlying romanticism takes a supernatural turn in “Train Window 1 (The Apparitions)” (40 x 50 inches, latex ink on silver vinyl mounted on Dibond; 2016), pushing beyond mere garden-variety subjectivity into the realm of hallucination and paranoia. All we see of this window is its splotchy film of grit and grime; beyond, in the gathering gloom, an arbitrary silhouette of trees, buildings and who knows what else begins to resemble a faceless horde. The beholder’s reflection is likely to appear, dim and wraithlike, somewhere in the vast, unfathomable sky — a ghost among ghosts.
Robert Marshall: Passing Through continues at Studio 10 (56 Bogart Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through December 17.