Joshua Marsh: Seven Cascades
July 10 through August 15, 2021
By DAVID AMBROSE, July 2021
“Because I love the language. Words have temperatures to me. When they reach a certain point and become hot words, then they appeal to me. . . . Sometimes I have a dream that if a word gets too hot and too appealing, it will boil apart, and I won’t be able to read or think of it. Usually, I catch them before they get too hot.”
Ed Ruscha interviewed by Howardena Pindell for “Words with Ruscha”, July 22, 1972
Victor Hugo in a telegram to his publisher Hurst and Blackett
Hurst and Blackett’s response, 1862
The twelve acrylic paintings and five graphite drawings by Joshua Marsh currently on view at Mother Gallery in Beacon, NY may also be in need of a thermometer. Not because they rise to a fever pitch threatening to “boil apart”, but because of quite the opposite. The paintings are so cool as to almost produce icicles. A fact reinforced by an ice cube/rock motif that rattles around and balances precariously on edge or a ledge in many of these modest-sized canvases.
All the work in the exhibition is dated to coincide with the pandemic and subsequent lockdown. Marsh created this body of work not only facing restrictions on movement and contact, but also with a self-imposed restricted palette. The chill I initially felt resulted from those color choices: cobalt blue, permanent green, bone black and titanium white. Only the first and last paintings of his duodenary sequence (Implicit and Exeunt) are allowed a hint of warmth with the addition of cadmium orange, which sets up a sublime back and forth between restriction and recovery. First, you step into this pandemic series, and eventually, you will step out of it. In both cases, you will leave tracks, be they bipedal (shoe prints), quadrupedal (paws or hoof prints), or emotional (emoji impressions or punctuation marks).
Yet for all their color rationing, Marsh’s paintings somehow remain incredibly pleasing to the eye. It is a testament to his sense of craftsmanship that he can pull this off. His brush glides across each icy surface blending out virtually all discernible brushstrokes. Marsh’s deft touch also manages to produce delicate, soft, pliable edges. In a way, it is as if he is child-proofing his painter’s forms like living room furniture. An appropriate analogy since this group of paintings was clearly made with adults in mind, not children. There are no shortcuts to be found. They reward slow, considered looking. Each image is tightly conceived from corner to corner. You follow his trail throughout these compositions one muddy step at a time as your eye hops from stone to stone or cloud to cloud. Each painting builds a bridge to the next. It is underneath these visual bridges that Marsh’s “Seven Cascades” flow.
In the series, Incipit (2021), the first painting delivers a sense of direction as we step into it via a series of footprints, paw prints, and hoof prints. However, the implied depth is ultimately denied by the painting’s ultrasmooth, matte surface. Space is then compressed as a thought bubble squeezes into the upper third of the painting. The contents of the thought bubble introduce us to his primary color elements: bone black (fire), titanium white (air), permanent green (earth), and cobalt blue (water). Hovering in the middle of those four colors swatches is the first sign of menace; a minty skull. The skull's bone structure cascades from frontal bone to nasal bone to a set of glistening, watery teeth at the center. The vanitas brought to mind the anamorphic skull from Hans Holbein’s, “The Ambassadors”. Then, rising from the bottom half of the painting, our muddy path is warmed by introduction of cadmium orange. An opaque sky-blue hue in all the impressions denies any sense of depth and confounds our sense of equilibrium by matching the painting’s ground color.
Marsh arranges his compositional grids like an artist who suffers from vertigo. His rock formations tend to fluctuate in size as if they are being weighed by a sliding scale. Their roles changing from natural outcroppings to the pips on the side of a die. In the largest work in the exhibition, Passage (2021), repeated forms with rounded pillow-soft edges act as stepping stones. Waterfalls cascade down the composition like melting ice in springtime, perhaps implying that post-COVID lives, once frozen in place, have now begun to thaw and are returning to normal.
In Shiii…(2021), the same four color-coded boulders set up shop on opposite banks of a central body of water. Reflections in that water complete the title of the painting’s spelling by adding a “t” after the third “i”. Along the right edge, a single die is frozen in place like one of Gustave Courbet’s leaping, snowbound deer. Chance has rolled a snake-eye as it awaits the appearance of its second.
A set of teeth also make a chattering appearance in Unquote (2021). Four upper incisors, showing signs of decay or erosion, bend across the top half of a cobalt blue ground. Above each tooth, a gum line is highlighted by a puffy cloud formation, a bird and quotation marks. Their matching lowers morph from four teeth into three letters spelling out “one”, as a tiny eyeball and a far-off galaxy make distant appearances. The word “one” reflects in a watery pool and seems to be cascading out of the picture plane. The forms appear simple, direct, and playful like a series of emojis; a shorthand for emotion in a silent field. Yet just underneath the surface is a lingering sense of danger. You have to spend the time to look for it and not just at it, as if it were a computer screen or a smartphone. The words may eventually be spelled out, but their intent isn’t.
Tucked away in the back of the gallery are five small exquisite drawings all completed in 2020, predating the painting series. Oddly, I found the drawings more painterly than the paintings that would follow. Their mottled, smoky forms seem to drift in and out of focus generating concentrated pockets of insistence here and there. You get a sense that the artist searched for answers on how to pick up a brush during a pandemic and proceed with his work. And through his drawing practice, like water, he eventually found its level. WM
David Ambrose is an artist and critic living and working in Bound Brook, New Jersey. He has exhibited both nationally and internationally. He is the currently the subject of a mid-career retrospective entitled, “Repairing Beauty”, at the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, New Jersey. He has taught at Parsons, The New School for Design, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute for Technology.view all articles from this author