By NOAH BECKER, APR 2016
Marcus Jansen’s intense colors, combative textures and calligraphic marks draw us into his enigmatic paintings. Jansen shows his large-scale works at international galleries and museums with regular frequency. His presence in museums is due to his style being a careful balance between modernism and historical painting. Jansen’s color sense is a major aspect of this — a combination of bright arbitrary fauvist color in contrast to naturalistic color, all within the same work. This approach can be traced back and found in the work of certain 19th century artists. His compositions are modernist and historical in the sense that they break up the canvas into areas of color but also function as representational space.
Jansen has stated on numerous occasions that he is completely obsessed with painting and highly driven to constantly produce new work. It’s an obsession and a search you could compare to someone like John Coltrane’s musical output — a non-stop ever-searching work ethic in paint. Jansen like the great jazz saxophonist and all highly productive people, goes at his work with complete seriousness, striving for maximum intensity in his art. He relies on chance and the physical act of painting to bring forth surprising results. Like jazz improvisation there is a format to work within when painting and certain pre-conceived devices to utilize during the process of making a work of art. Through his razor sharp awareness of the moment and a willingness to embrace the accidental rhythm of creative discovery, Jansen finds new forms and new ways of expressing hidden meaning in art.
The painterly complexity found in Jansen’s modernist landscape style provides him with a myriad of ideas for new paintings. Jansen’s imagery is gripping, loaded with content and post-apocalyptic in feeling, reminding one of war zones or post-nuclear destruction areas. The human figure can appear in a Jansen painting walking around or interacting with the space. As figurative painting, his work presents a balance where landscape and figure share roles as antagonist and protagonist of any given scenario. Historically, painting is genres such as still life, landscape and portrait. The strong aspect of Jansen’s work is that he balances the genres without being stereotyped into one area of art. His variety of themes and his characters are partially responsible for the balance found in his compositions. Elements such as automobiles or military vehicles appear in a painting, details floating through an atmosphere of color and shape. Images like a wrecked school bus half buried in the ground, tagged with graffiti, nose down in the dirt and teetering on the edge of collapse. A girl resembling Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz wears a gas mask and walks through a destroyed city street under skies running with bright oranges, blood reds and deep blues. Deserts strewn with rubble and post combat zones; a floating pig hovering nearby, shadows a silhouette of the human figure dwarfed by a massive violet interior; Military tanks battling for position in a topsy-turvy ruined landscape, fire on all cylinders as we view a Jansen painting.
You get the sense in a Jansen painting that a great power or an unknown destructive force is at work, ravaging the landscape. This force could be the military complex or it could be nature taking back the planet through global warming. Other aspects seen and felt in a Marcus Jansen painting are levels of control. The feeling of servant vs. master, groupings of figures vs. chaos and the sense that we are viewing a world out of balance or a world out of control. The scale of the human figure in his paintings is an aspect.
It has been proven that humans relate the scale of everything in a painting (and in life) to the size of the human figure. Jansen’s figures (with the exception of his large portraits), are painted small scale in relation to the surrounding landscape or cityscape they are placed within. The concept of figures dwarfed by large-scale landscapes is something that can also be seen in the work of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890). Specifically Van Gogh’s painting entitled Landing Stage With Boats (1888), where tiny figures work on docked boats in a harbor of azure water. The scale of the human figures in this painting directly changes the scale of the boats. They are normal size figures made small, not tiny per-se but seen from a distance so that the surroundings seem monumental. The deliberate scalar situation put forth by Van Gogh plays optical tricks in terms of scale and how scale is perceived. Without the figures set on the boats and rendered in this way, the boats would appear rowboat size, or smaller. In the case of Van Gogh’s tiny figures, the rowboat size boats appear to be the size of great ships moored in a harbor.
Jansen is also working in a similar tradition of human beings versus the immensity and unpredictability of the natural world — the sublime. Other examples of the sublime in painting can be seen in the work of Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840) and Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851). In Friedrich’s paintings the human protagonists are at times heroic. In Jansen’s work we are not sure if humans are evil-doers or victims trapped within a war zone or catastrophic event. In this sense Jansen’s landscapes and city scenes are about nature challenging humanity with its endgame as opposed to humanity humbled by natural forces or in awe of the natural world.
There is little symbolic movement or narrative in Jansen’s figures. He does not work with mannerism or figurative distortion. His figures function more as compositional markers or dividers than any attempt at heroic gesturing or grimacing. Aspects of his figures disappear or flicker out of the frame like a TV with fuzzy reception or an overheated movie reel about to burst into flames. This kind of chaos is no stranger to Jansen’s psyche as he was a soldier in the Iraq war. His military background is both a character and a shadow in his works. His large portraits are an interaction with this military legacy as well. They appear as apparitions of military men — haunted ghostly figures in official poses, both man and monster. It could be the faceless heads and the splashes of color above that bring this feeling forward. There are spray can moments that spring directly from the graffiti tradition. Lettering stretched around shapes appears and halo-like blasts of color surrounding blasted-out faces are foregrounded. Sprayed-out areas of faces or partial backgrounds exploding like painted bombs behind obscured generals and commandos complete the scene. It is through his physical and psychological interaction with surface and an obsession with painting that Marcus Jansen continues to produce images of astounding force. WM
Noah Becker is an artist and the publisher and founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. He shows his paintings internationally at museums and galleries. Becker also plays jazz saxophone. Becker's writing has appeared in The Guardian, VICE, Garage, Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art and the Huffington Post. He has written texts for major artist monographs published by Rizzoli and Hatje Cantz. Becker directed the New York art documentary New York is Now (2010). Becker's new album of original music "Mode For Noah" was released in 2023.
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