Monday, December 1st, 2003

Lorna Marsh: Cage Paintings

Aldo Castillo Gallery
233 W. Huron St.
Chicago, IL 60610. (312) 337-25
October 17  November 15, 2003

Lorna Marsh Woman with Head in a Box 2003 mixed media on canvas, 36 X 24 inches Courtesy Aldo Castillo Gallery, Chicago
Lorna Marsh, Woman with Head in a Box 2003 mixed media on canvas, 36 X 24 inches Courtesy Aldo Castillo Gallery, Chicago

In the two years since 9/11 mainstream American artists have failed to confront the tragedy in any significant emotional depth. Peter Plagen’s statement in a 2002 Newsweek web exclusive, that “so far no impressive works about the attack have made it to public view,” essentially remains true. Arguably, it is the deconstructive bent of the art world with it’s focus on irony has suppressed the possibility of direct emotional content. In contrast, contemporary South African artists like William Kentridge, Marlene Dumas, and Lorna Marsh have made emotionally significant art about trauma and social tragedy. Just as these artists have developed their perceptions on the periphery of South African society, so, it could be argued, their expressionism remains outside the conceptually based mainstream of contemporary art. Both forms of marginalization are a source of strength.

All three artists share a similar artistic background, with the classical approach to drawing which was standard in South Africa. The emotional impact of their work comes from shared desperation born of social and political turmoil but tempered through the perceptions of individual lives. “It’s because of the social repression,” Marsh states “that our emotional core is the same. It’s pretty much the same experience the German Expressionists had. The social mindset was very “verkrampte’ which means narrow minded in Afrikaans.” Lorna Marsh continues by saying that South African society was “controlling, repressive and very Calvinistic in a way that people in America don’t have a consciousness of. You don’t want your sexuality, place in society, and personal choices legislated for you, and this is what they did.”

Lorna Marsh Mounted Head 1996 mixed media on paper, 22 X 30 inches
Lorna Marsh, Mounted Head 1996 mixed media on paper, 22 X 30 inches

Marsh avoids postmodern distancing devices. Consequently the emotional invective found in her work does not become anemic or insubstantial. This point cannot be underestimated, particularly because the narrative elements in her work is informed by the unsettling pulse of the artist as a living witness to unresolved dilemmas and dangerous turmoil. Marsh creates parables of a destroyed world using invented symbols and situations in much the same way that Eastern European animated films from the 60’s and 70’s commented on the folly of human nature trapped within the political Communist dystopia of that time.

In her current exhibition, Marsh examines the repercussions of living in a state of imprisonment. As in her previous exhibits Africa Within and Birds of Prey, Marsh uses animals to express the condition of society while portraying human beings as insubstantial shadows bent on their own self destruction. A similarly bleak and unredeemable view of humanity is found in Kentridge’s animated films where the only symbols of hope are the constellations in the sky which are far from earth. Previously the animals in Marsh’s paintings portrayed the violence of instinctively wild predators, or became prey as decapitated or limbless victims. Her current images are ghostly disembodied forms of animals who are muzzled and caged. They are imprisoned as much by literal cages as by symbolic ones of social iconography, where mounted heads and tamed “bunnies” exist as empty signs of the animals wild counterparts. With instinct lost, the animal’s memories of their previously wild nature does not survive the conditioning process they have been put through. Comparing previous exhibits to the current one, it is as though the volcanic intensity of the artist’s burning landscapes have erupted into a white blanket of ash that has covered the stage of her work, freezing feeling imbedded within her painting’s surfaces and snuffing out the sense of life.

Marsh’s work has also always engaged issues surrounding the role of women within rigidly Calvinist South African society. This is a theme she shares in common with Marlene Dumas which is most acutely portrayed Marsh’s Eve series from 2001. The current exhibit portrays women as caged and conditioned creatures in much the same way her animals are portrayed. In Woman With Her Head in a Box a nude female has covered her head in a box so as not to see a menacing snake twined around her ankles that threatens to violate her. Clearly Lorna Marsh is presenting a cautionary tale about women not taking a part in their own empowerment; by accepting repressive socially dictated roles women can also become blind to the social and cultural traps which victimize them.

Marsh adopts a direct approach to her materials, refusing to fetishize them. Her handling of paint and media shows a kind of rawness and brutality that reflects the society she wishes to portray. Her scratched, smudged, and scumbled surfaces become a metaphorical way of showing the dirty underbelly of the world, presenting it as edifice supported by rusted scaffolding which has cracks in its plaster. In the Cage Paintings series her formerly expressive colors and marks on the canvas surface have curdled into a disquieting snowfall of numbness.