The changes that Joshua Marsh has made since his debut show at Jeff Bailey in 2010 — which I reviewed for the Brooklyn Rail (October 2010) — should be mentioned. In As If, his second exhibition at the same gallery, he shows drawings for the first time — thirty works on clay-coated paper measuring 5 ½ x 7 inches. Marsh relies on scribbling and shading to locate forms. Some drawings are airy and open, while others are dark and dense, where he has gone over an area countless times.
While the drawings are of various subjects — an alarm clock; a drinking glass and spoon; a glass pitcher lying on its side; a hand coming from the drawing’s top edge and poking something with its index finger; three heads derived from a painting by Andreas Mantegna — Marsh limits himself in his paintings to lowly objects associated with house cleaning and domestic life.
The eleven paintings in the exhibition range in size from 8 x 8 inches to 30 x 35 inches. Don’t be fooled by the modesty of his subject matter or the scale of his work, because Marsh is a fiercely ambitious artist. In both the drawings and paintings it is clear that he doesn’t have it all worked out, doesn’t have a style or a signature way of apprehending his subject matter, which is based on observation. In the paintings, the perceptual state he focuses on is both optical and volumetric, a tension between solid form and ethereal light. Using a high-keyed, hothouse palette, he makes his forms tremble and even undulate between silhouette and shadow, thing and ghost. They seem to be there and not there at the same time.
The high-keyed palette places Marsh’s forms under extreme pressure, as if the technological light of LED screens, surveillance cameras and airport security machines is consuming them. In some of the paintings — “Reflection” (2013) and “Dustpan” (2013) strike me this way — the forms hover between legibility and illegibility, dissolving the boundaries separating representation from abstraction. In other paintings — such as the square “Pitcher” (2012), and “Not” (2013) — it is as if the form has dematerialized into a shadow casting a shadow. There is something eerie and disquieting about the work.
The spectral glow that Marsh attains in his paintings evokes our fearful world after 9/11. Looking at some of the “pitcher” paintings, I was reminded of airport x-ray machines scanning luggage. Anything can be dangerous, even an empty glass water pitcher or a dustpan. And yet, even as I make this connection, I do not feel that this was Marsh’s intention; he is not a didactic painter.
Marsh likes to lay down the paint like a gentle caress, and to tightly nestle one color or tone next to another. As he finds the form, what seems to interest him is not the pitcher, which he often depicts upside down, but the interaction between its curving shape and the surrounding light. A glass pitcher both reflects and allows light to pass through it.
Overturned, the pitcher can be read as the fate of painting; it is a transparent container that has been emptied out. How does one go about filling it? How to press forward without either fitting in or straying into eccentricity?
In one of the “pitcher” paintings, Marsh used at least five different hues of magenta. “Pitcher” (2012) is eye-catching, confrontational, enthralling, sensuous and irritating — a wonderfully contradictory experience. It literally gets under your skin (or should I say eyelids) and stays there. The curving pitcher seems to exist in some netherworld of color, as if swaddled in paint, light and vibrant color. Lying on its side, it is a corpse that refuses to be absorbed by the ground, even as it eludes apprehension.
Marsh’s paintings keep opening up spaces in which we might consider our relationship to reality. He is able to elevate a ubiquitous, overlooked object into something the viewer reflects upon. The dustpan, broom and rag are instruments we routinely use to defer entropy, even while tacitly acknowledging its inevitability. This, I would suggest, is one connection that Marsh is making between painting and his subject matter — both recognize the unavoidable even as they try to contain the disorder, enough so that we might gaze upon it without immediately turning away.
Marsh’s paintings are all about concentration, his and ours. In this he shares something with Giorgio Morandi, who also focused on a limited range of subjects. But Marsh’s intentions are very different. Can we focus and sustain our attention when the colors border on truculence? Can we look at these lowly things and realize how necessary they are to our lives? The artist certainly does and, in that regard, challenges viewers to do the same. He has synthesized his formal preoccupations with philosophical possibilities. In the largely yellow “Rag” (2013), the artist has picked a soft, flopped form, an abstract shape, and given it definition. It is both a new direction for Marsh and one of the highlights of the show.
The thing that struck me in Marsh’s first show, and continues to be a strong factor in this one, is the amount of close attention the artist pays to the surface of his paintings and the colors he places there. He leaves nothing to chance and takes nothing for granted. Some might call this craft, but they would be mistaken. There is a difference between craft and necessity, and Marsh’s paintings and drawings arise with some urgency out of the latter. He has absorbed Jasper Johns’ attention to “things which are seen, but not looked at, not examined,” and made it all his own. Marsh’s dustpan underscores the destination we all share.
Joshua Marsh: As If is on display at the Jeff Bailey Gallery (625 West 27th Steet, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 4.