On ViewMother Gallery
July 10 – August 15, 2021
In titling his current show Seven Cascades, Joshua Marsh invites comparison to Ten Things (2010), his New York debut. Paintings in that show were more than pictures of everyday objects, but objects themselves, recalling Man Ray’s photograms in their flat arrangements of silhouettes, reflections, and negative shapes. Their luminous surfaces celebrated the modernist picture plane. Drawing on the same modernist toolkit—Marsh’s insistence on 8 1/2 by 11 inches as a proportional module ensures that the new works remain, conceptually, everyday objects—the 12 modest paintings on view at Mother Gallery take on the ambitious challenge of Asian landscape painting. They are accompanied by five small but richly worked graphite drawings that hark back to Marsh’s 2016 residency at a garden north of Tokyo, where he experienced an autonomous realm of design based in nature.
Developed from drawings of stacked boulders and luminous waterfalls made in Japan, and inflected by his recent life along the Hudson, the new drawings inform the watery landscapes of Seven Cascades. Each is a crucible in which the flatness of the Western picture plane confronts the verticality and spiritual elevation of rivers and mountains in Chinese landscape painting of the Song and Ming Dynasties. Marsh’s earlier roots in drawings from Breughel and Flemish miniatures are evident as well in hybrid works like Left (2020), where worm-infested fruit on a table in an everyday interior blends, dream-like, into a rocky landscape with luminous waterways. Marsh has coordinated the controlled illumination of paintings and drawings by limiting his colors to a cool, tonal palette of blue, green, black, and white, with cadmium orange injecting an earthly element into Incipit and Exeunt (both 2021), which bookend the series, even if there’s no chronological order to their hanging. The smooth, burnished stones of drawings like Else (2020) resonate with those of small paintings like Iota (2021).
Language assumes a visual role. Without writing Chinese characters, Marsh evokes the image-inflected gestures of brush painting in the rich sfumato of his drawings and translates it into the challenging medium of quick-drying acrylics via dry-brush scumbling. Meanwhile, abstracted graphic forms of the Roman alphabet emerge, spelling words and interacting with other signs: punctuation marks, squares, hoofprints, and splashy water reflections, transformed into shiny memes and combined with abstracted boulders in a hybridized environment. His work extends the appropriation and stylization of Chinese landscapes by Japanese artists of the Kano and Rinpa Schools, who added colors and graphic references. View (2021) collects these icons as though on a computer screen, today’s version of the modernist visual field.
Such icons merge with the body in these utterly sensate landscapes. Evoking the immersive phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, reflective boulders can become staring eyeballs and possibly return our gaze. Floating dots within bright circles of light recall Stan Brakhage’s “closed eye vision,” merging viewer with image. Diving deeper, Marsh conflates the Chinese landscape with the grotesque body of Flemish painting. Shiii… (2021), as its suggestive title implies (the “t” emerges below, from the flow of green paint), correlates the flow of water to other bodily functions, recalling Philip Guston’s images of vomited objects. Shh (2021) proposes a view down someone’s throat and introduces an auditory component, addressing us directly, while in Unquote (2021), the word “ONE”—decidedly fractured in its fluid typography floats in a mouth, under boulders shaped like teeth. Marsh seems inspired by Deleuze’s reorganization of bodily functions, who he quotes in an epigraph to the press release to preface the non-linear process of free association at work within and among his paintings.
The four-square arrangement of boulders in Shiii… , which juxtaposes the color pairs of black/white and blue/green, resembles a structuralist grid from Rosalind Krauss and highlights Marsh’s speculative ambitions. These color interactions generate optical exuberance in Asymmetrical Synthesis of the Sensible (2021), where two columns of stacked boulders emerge, transform, and dissolve against a reflective, mist-shrouded field. Marsh reproduces this composition in Passage (2021), a larger-scaled work in the show, and a compendium of selected motifs. Its charged network of rocks and streams is anchored on the lower left by a recurring motif of anthropomorphic boulders, stacked unstably on a steep incline—apparent surrogates for the human travelers often included in Chinese landscapes. Its diagonal composition also recurs in Wayne Thiebaud’s cartoon-inflected California landscapes, and Marsh’s ambitious scope encourages comparison to Thiebaud’s vertiginous vistas of mountains, rivers, and farms, inspired by Japanese and Chinese traditions as well as by Breughel and Bosch. But Marsh’s landscapes are striking for their remote, internalized stance: for all their bodily references, they rely more on indexical traces than visceral embodiment. Exeunt evokes the inscrutability of Jasper Johns with its footprints and sunken shapes in sand and what seems to be a dental x-ray of a head. This union of high modernism and Eastern transcendence comes with an ominous sense of preparing for loss.