Jonathan Marquis: Earth Eaters
The works of Jonathan Marquis stand out as having a rather singular quality about them in the arena of contemporary art today. Whether drawing is mobilized as a documentary form, or abstraction is utilized as a type of process-based realism, or even if the dynamics of installation art appear to be motivated by the naturalism of the world outside the wide cube, one could still say that the diversity of methods associated with Marquis's art practice demonstrate a kind of virtuosity that is rare in the field of cultural production. But more importantly however, is the fact that when one walks into a gallery space composed by Marquis's works, one not only gets the feeling of being in a total work of art but even of becoming part of the composition itself. And, it is usually the composition of a living work of art, often made of porous materials that serve as a composite picture, or even a type of "picturing" of analogous operations at play in the world all around us.
All of these considerations are often held in a state of tension that can be attributed to colliding a series of historical notions about how art functions in the expanded field of praxis and meaning production. There is first, the idea that in Marquis's work, we encounter something like the image of the journeyman, which is to say, evidence of a skilled craftsman in many different mediums. In this regard his work is the very best of what working in the "post-studio condition" represents today, i.e., that of being an artist who not only uses form in service of content, but who's selection of materials becomes content, rather than merely remaining part of an art practice that is defined by genre specific limits. The second sense in which Marquis is a journeyman is that the word itself carries a heavy set of connotations by being linked with terms that are as diverse as manufacture, technical know-how, and even specialization. You will see this kind of interplay exercised between mediums amongst Marquis's most challenging exhibitions, where every piece acts in service of creating deeper connections, always without any one piece stealing the show. And the third sense in which the figure of the journeyman might be said to apply to Marquis's selected motifs is in how his aesthetic inclinations place us within worlds of meaning and making that rehearse art historical themes from the last few centuries without being reducible to their original referents.
By drawing new associations out of familiar structures through so many time-based operations, Marquis's works aim to take us on a journey past the world of abstruse reifaction and toward a confrontation with the real contradictions of our contemporary life-world. That is most in evidence in Marquis's oeuvre where art often functions as record of acts and actions; of time spent and journeys made; of trace elements and material enclaves --- all of which are coordinated in a way that helps us to rethink the gallery space as a place where the conditions of history are circumscribed by varied and even conflicting notions of aesthetic experience. Touching on different times and places, Marquis's work engages with the period of the Enlightenment as he negotiates his way through working with the vistas of the sublime; from abstraction Marquis samples the best strategies for making from both the monumental and the provisional; and from video art it could be said that Marquis's working program underscores an attenuated sense of suspended passage that is defined by the split between the slowness of natural time and speed of cinematic temporality.
Beyond these particular instances of genre specificity there is the way that Marquis's use of medium specificity upends the confines that are regularly attributed to both object and producer. This is most decidedly on view in Marquis's work when he engages with the rather Kleinian desire to have an audience ingest the elements of art production, only he moves beyond the horizon of formal interactions established by Yves Klein's patented blue, which was used as an object to drink, to get dunked in, to manufacture and finally, to polemicize. Instead, Marquis's critique of consumerism hinges on the creation of a "Glacier Icecream" that carries the enfolded meaning of creating a shared space between subject and object as well as its obverse, which would be a kind of subjective utterance, or a provocation for the "i" to scream about being asked to ingest the remains of one of our most valuable natural resources.
Or, we might look to how Fontana's focus on the incisive power of the cut in the canvas --- a cut into the real and against representative measures --- appears equally inverted in Marquis's work. Whether by wounding the imagistic real in the form of discrete snippets, or floor to ceiling slashes in digital prints, or even the aggregate effects of wounded and scratched surfaces atop a material substrate, Marquis wants us to closely examine the various substratum that organize our all to often closed and seemingly complete conception of what is going on in the world today. In other words, he wants us to scratch, tear and puncture our way to the real... by any means possible. And, of course, to overlook the presence of Flavin's iconic mode of illumination, which often sits adjacent Marquis's leaned, balanced and otherwise sliding material bodies in the gallery space, would be to miss both their dynamic interplay with, and across, other bodies in the space of the exhibition as well as the intertextual play of allusions to the atmospheric changes going on outside.
And yet, what seems most essential to the way that Marquis work operates is in understanding how the discourses which once traded representational means for medium specificity in the twentieth century can be reclaimed in the twenty-first without having to abandon the varied histories associated with aesthetic achievement. That is to say, while the twentieth century saw the greatest proliferation of personal forms of expression, maybe ever, during the modern age, they were in large part a kind of collective acting-out over and against the brutal process of sublimation associated with industrial labor. Juxtaposed against this background, the twenty-first century appears to be something like a period of ablation, or an era where the melting away of our illusions about the expropriation of body, the self and the environment has finally thawed, along with the pursuit of the "the new" in art. If anything, this is our cultural sea-change and Marquis is one of the most interesting expeditionary artists trying to cover this once hidden territory as the very moment that it emerges as a new ground level paradigm.
As such, his inversion of the visual tropes of modernism and even postmodernism for that matter, both of which still hold to authorial intent or its subversions as the status quo of criticality in art production, are here put in question vis-a-vis Marquis's working program of viewing the senses as a form of extraction that is co-extensive with the very act of perception itself. Thus, we can say that to depict perceptions, or to transpose our deepest intimations about a subject is always already a shared act in Marquis's work, just as his oeuvre can be considered part of a new generation of artists that have taken up the charge of rethinking the consequences of phenomenology beyond Husserl and Ponty's deductions. This post-anthropocentric view is one that places the object's we encounter in strange exchange without perceptive privilege, or what many now call a more object-oriented approach to understanding the flat ontology of roles we all share in an interconnected world. We are all now, for lack of a better word, active-agents in a world of shared consequences.
And of course, Marquis is fully aware of these consequences in relation to living in one of the least sustainable climates in the continental U.S., where our growing cities have become "heat-islands" and our mountain preserves might not just be a national reserves of sorts but, ultimately, what preserves our nation in the end. Thus, we can say that Marquis's work addresses both the peaks and valleys of art history as well as what it means to live life in the afterglow of peak oil, with so many growing valleys left dry by erosion and rapid climate change stretching out before us. Visualizing this new notion of "the catastrophic sublime" that imagines living in a world without us is one of the monumental task of our times, and Marquis's work does not shy away from the need to rethink such relations, whether they revolve around the dialectics of earth and self, consumption and subsumption, organism and cosmos. We are afterall, now living within the horizon of a global village this is just as much about being in dialogue with the fellow villagers as it is the globe we live on. This is becoming the dominant paradigm by which we are all fed, nourished and kept alive on the small blue planet that we inhabit together somewhere in the backwaters of the Milky Way, as so many Earth Eaters.