Nick Marshall: _e_scapes
Hartnett Gallery, University of Rochester
Rochester, New York
November 20–December 14, 2014
The work in Nick Marshall’s recent exhibition, _e_scapes, is full of subtle wit, allusions to illusions, and humorous commentary on our relationship with escape. Seven photographs-of-photographs lined the left wall of the gallery; four paintings, in which the paint is the subject, lined the right side; and a hybrid work combining the media and concepts of both was positioned in the sharp corner of the triangular space. A continuous line of horizon lines connected the works in one floating flow from one side to the other.
Marshall’s work meditates on intangible meeting places: of the horizon, and on the tension between transcendence and authenticity versus fabricated experience. There is historic weight in our relationship with the sea, with wide evidence in literature and art. Marshall says he is interested in the romantic perspectives we have of the sea, and where that illusion falls short—how we strip away its transcendent quality and engage with it in a fabricated, temporal way, through “vacations” or by painting the walls of a space with particular idyllically named hues.
Within the photographs-of-photographs, there is an illusion that the images are dimensional, suspended within deep color fields (with hues sourced digitally from each of the images), due in part to a trompe-l’oeil quality in the twist of a photograph, and Marshall’s choice to print on high-gloss paper, which lends the illusion that the works are behind glass, perhaps in a shadowbox, or as if the image is suspended in a fluid.
The photographs were drawn from Marshall’s own family photo collections, although the work is not about his family. Each features the sky-sea horizon, viewed from a cruise ship or a gray coast. In one image, a sunbathing man’s identity is obscured by the forward curl of the photo’s corner, which effectively removes him as subject and returns the focus to the horizon. In these images of images, the ways in which the photos have changed over time—the wear and tear of the objects, and the colors, which did not age well—are held in suspension, immortalized.
The paintings mark a new direction in Marshall’s work. He prepared wood panels with select colors from interior paint manufacturers, painstakingly sanded the edges to perfection, and paired panels with sky-named and water-named paints to mimic oceanic horizons. The titles of each of the works all refer to their color code for specific companies: the color blocks in Crisp Morning Air 780 over Caribbean Blue Water 255-30 (2014) are from Benjamin Moore’s paint selection.
This work has emerged from Marshall’s interest in vernacular photographs as objects, but also from a fascination that arose from the duties associated with his current position as manager of exhibitions and programming at George Eastman House. The artist spends his days planning and constructing ephemeral settings in support of photography exhibitions, choosing paint colors and preparing walls for exhibitions. Through this work, Marshall gained an unlikely fascination with the mundane absurdity in the naming of paint colors. “They’re all given names, like “Crisp Morning Air,” which don’t necessarily describe a color,” he says.1 The stacks of paint swatch books in his office began to reveal a prevalence of colors with names that described air and water, he says. “Both are very fluid, and ephemeral, and to try to pick a specific color to represent the sky in Utah . . . there’s just kind of a level of absurdity to it.”
The differences in the paints used for Utah Sky over Clearest Ocean Blue (2014), also from Benjamin Moore, are almost undetectable, with only a slight edge of warmth emerging from the upper panel. “What I love is that almost the exact same color is used to describe water and air,” Marshall says. Another panel pairing makes use of “Utah Sky” (over “Seven Seas”), but this paint is from Behr, and represents an entirely different color interpretation from the other manufacturer. The Utah sky is not fixed, after all.
The work is also about creating physically impossible terrains, Marshall says. “You would never see a Utah sky over seven seas, because that’s just not possible. At least yet.” The works on either side of the sharp corner converged and were tied together thematically with Sunrise, Sunset, Shadow (2014). Combining aspects of both the photos and paintings, Marshall framed a stock image of the sun, hanging low on an oceanic horizon, and anchored it off center to a panel painted vibrant orange. The panel leaned on the right wall, looking as though a section of someone’s living room was sliced away and transported to the gallery, and the wall behind the work was painted gray to mimic the shadow cast by the position of the panel. Marshall meant for the title to read ambiguously, without specifying if “sunrise” and “sunset” referred to the photograph or the color of the paint.
The underscores found in the exhibition’s title are placeholders for letters, which if present would spell “seascapes.” This revelation came only from picking up on the subtlety that Marshall installed into one corner of the triangular exhibition space, where the missing “s” and “a” of the high-placed vinyl lettering are present, and stuck lower on the wall, and at the base of the wall where it meets the floor, as if caught mid-fall.
Rebecca Rafferty is an artist, freelance writer, and the arts & entertainment staff writer for Rochester City Newspaper.
NOTE 1. Nick Marshall, interview by the author at Hartnett Gallery, December 13, 2014.