Facing Catastrophe With Calm

BEACON, NY — I have been following Joshua Marsh’s work ever since I saw and reviewed Ten Things, his first show of paintings and drawings at the now-defunct Jeff Bailey Gallery in the fall of 2010. Then, in 2017, I reviewed Joshua Marsh: Paper Garden at Jeff Bailey Gallery, after it had relocated to Hudson, New York. Two things struck me about the latter exhibition.

The first is that Marsh is creating two distinct bodies of work: pencil drawings, where textures are articulated with a hallucinatory precision, and tonally saturated paintings, in which form and dissipation, materiality and immateriality, create a site of contemplation. The second is that Marsh, who started the drawings in Paper Garden while he was an artist-in-residence in the Troedsson Villa in Japan, which is located on the grounds of a former temple in Nikko, a city north of Tokyo and UNESCO World Heritage site, has experienced some of the landscapes recorded by Classical Japanese artists.

Marsh picks up on a theme common to Classical Japanese and Chinese painting: the meeting of water and stone. Even though he is inspired by traditional Asian art, his acrylic paintings of water and rocks are as distinct in their own way as, for instance, Morris Graves’s late visionary still lifes.

Joshua Marsh, “Fall” (2020), graphite on paper, 6 x 5 inches


From Asian landscape painting and Catskills waterfalls to the staring eyes of Philip Guston and Jasper Johns, to luminous color to mist, water, stone, and otherworldly light, Marsh has fashioned a world where a sweet, wise humor in the face of mortality and inescapable change prevails.

Viewers should be prepared to encounter another world in the exhibition Joshua Marsh: Seven Cascades at Mother Gallery (July 10–August 15, 2021). According to the press release, in the 12 paintings on view, Marsh used “a strict palette of four colors: cobalt blue, permanent green, bone black, and titanium white.”

Later on, we learn:

The paintings are primarily 22 by 17 inches, with one being 11 by 8.5 and another 44 by 34 inches — all based on proportions derived from the dimensions of common copy paper. Two paintings, “Incipit” and “Exeunt,” which function as the entrance into and exit out of this series, incorporate a fifth color: cadmium orange.

Complementing the paintings are five small pencil drawings on paper.

By establishing a strict palette and proportions, Marsh made his own set of rules within the restrictive ones imposed by the past year’s quarantine. I was reminded of the French writer Georges Perec’s lipogrammatic novel, La disparition (1969). A lipogram is a form of constrained writing that excludes certain common letters. In La disparition the letter “e” is never used. Red and yellow — warm colors often associated with landscape and sunlight — do not appear in Marsh’s paintings; this is a world that exists between sunset and sunrise, a twilight dream world.

Joshua Marsh, “Incipit” (2021), acrylic on canvas over panel, 22 x 17 inches

The paintings beckon viewers to shed their worldly cares and anxieties and enter a flattened domain where water continually spills and falls, so they can contemplate constant movement, change, resistance, precariousness, solidity, and dissipation.

In the lower two thirds of the spatially shallow “Incipit” (2021) (from the Latin “it begins” and defined as “the opening words of a text of a medieval manuscript”), we see the outline of a shoe print filled with cobalt blue water set into cadmium orange and bone-black mud. We also see two different paw prints, one in the mud and the other filled with blue. The painting’s spatially flat upper area contains a large, outlined, pale-blue thought balloon with stylized horizontal streaks of cobalt blue, permanent green, bone black, and titanium white hovering in its corners, and an ambiguous shape with a large tongue (or is it falling water?) in the middle. A skull made of green water seems to be staring at us.

Marsh’s paintings transport us to a liminal space, where we are not quite sure what the rules are. Its territory borders the one that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about in his opium-inspired, visionary poem, “Kubla Khan,” which opens:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

In “Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible” (2021), Marsh stacks two vertical rows of four forms, each within an amorphous space suggesting waterfalls, fuzzy atmospheric light, mirages, and computer screens; a smooth, matte black circle on the top dominates the row on the left. Just below is a small, cobalt blue shape edged by a fuzzy light-blue sliver, implying volume. Below these forms is a pillow-soft blue shape whose edges seem to be dissolving. Finally, supporting this stack at the bottom, we see what looks like a large eyeball staring at the base of the parallel row.

Joshua Marsh, “Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible” (2021), acrylic on canvas over panel, 22 x 17 inches

This configuration reappears in the upper right-hand corner of largest painting, “Passage” (2021), which is a view of multiple cascades. What is the eye looking at? Is this Marsh’s representation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball,” taking in everything reality has to offer? How are we to see the world of melting ice caps and rising waters and the coming deluge? Marsh’s paintings touch on so many subjects and issues without claiming to be about any of them, which is what is remarkable about them. He inspires the viewer to become introspective, even as the paintings take you elsewhere.

Marsh’s motifs raise questions about what we are actually seeing: hoof prints, spreading puddles of color, quotation marks, an outline of a skull’s profile with a bulbous clown nose, four large incisors, large boulders supported by tiny rocks situated on a steep incline, and thought balloons. What is real and what is illusory, and where is the border between them? This line of questions inevitably leads to asking where Marsh has invited us. And where have we gone?

The American cultural landscape is inundated with escapism, reality TV, and affectations; mortality is something Americans have trouble facing. Think about how few artists have dealt with time and mortality in their work. When artists establish a signature style, they are acting act if time has frozen. I think Marsh knows this, and in choosing the eyeball as a motif, beyond its function in the paintings, he is recognizing Guston and Johns as artists who deal with the consequences of time’s passage.

Joshua Marsh, “Section” (2020), graphite on paper, 7.5 x 9 inches

Alongside these paintings, but in a separate area, Marsh shows five pencil drawings, all dated 2020. None of them are larger than 7 ½ by 9 inches. “Section” feels seen and staged, observed and imagined. The drawing is framed on both edges by tree trunks, which help us focus in on what is between them: a log balanced atop the far edge of a boulder. A few mushrooms are popping out of the dead log, and Marsh has depicted an acorn on the boulder in front of the log. His attention to the surface textures of these things enlivens them.

By conveying the immediate time of the rushing stream and the larger cycle of time evoked by the dead tree trunk, mushrooms, and acorn, Marsh underscores that those who live for the moment and immediate gratification ignore the larger consequences of this socially sanctioned blindness.

In the drawing “Fall” (2020), we can see one of the sources of the paintings. But what Marsh did with his sources was unexpected, challenging, and, frankly, exciting. He raised the stakes. It seems to me that he has been building toward this breakthrough moment since he first began showing his work a little more than a decade ago, and that what he has attained in these paintings and drawings is a unique and specific vision, one that has nothing to do with being of the moment. For him, art is not about making a shiny distraction, but about peering at the ongoing and impending chaos and not blinking.

Joshua Marsh: Seven Cascades continues at Mother Gallery (1154 North Avenue, Beacon, New York) through August 15.

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