Oliver Marsden, NEV, 2001



The Post-Postmodernist revival of painting goes from strength to strength, and there are currently several extremely engaging painting shows in London, not the least of which is this exhibition of the work of Oliver Marsden, who is represented in New York by Spencer Brownstone. This is his second solo-show at the Blue Gallery and it is noticeable that his latest work is far more confident and robust.

Marsden is a young painter whose work dynamically reconciles the world of traditional painting with that world of hi-tech visual images generated by such sciences as Microbiology, Particle Physics, Cosmology, and Electron Microscopy—areas of research in which the Scientific and the Divine seem to move ever closer. His finely worked images transcend our usual expectations of painting, and in turn elicit responses above and beyond those that we anticipate when viewing paintings. The subtle tonal gradations he achieves, that complement the complex, writhing and rhythmic forms, playing across the surface of his paintings suggest X-ray or infra-red images, bringing something to life that normally evades the eye. The viewer seems to occupy a position of privilege here. He or she is witness to scenes, which are at the very least esoteric; compressed, formally, but perplexingly into circular ports whose ocular associations suggest Electro-Micrographic reproductions. What has Marsden stumbled on here? Are these boiling perturbations pure figments of his imagination, spontaneously accessed, or is he acting as a conduit for some alien force attempting to transform our perception of reality? Perusing the paintings for signs of technique offers no relief from these urgent questions—as with those other intricate enigmas, crop-circles, the methodology remains exquisitely concealed.

Marsden’s most recent paintings have taken on the cast of digitally manipulated, or wholly generated, liquid surfaces, whose behavior contravenes all the universal laws of rhythm and equilibrium. Wave-forms, which are alarming in their aberration from the norm, seem to obey a disturbed and disturbing arrhythmia rather than the harmonic rhythms created by natural forces. He works spontaneously, starting with an idea and then letting the process have a free rein as the work develops, permitting the paint to have its say and allowing the element of chance to enter in. Nature seems to have been circumvented here we are confronted by scenarios that HP Lovecraft might well have been pleased with, such horrors would have amplified those roiling across his Miskatonic River, whose dystopia would have been enhanced by the distorted rhythms of these out-of-phase waves lapping on the stricken shores of Arkham.

Marsden admits that he is fascinated by that interface between the organic and the digital where random patterns meet mathematical strictures, and where the permutations thrown up by these meetings, are constantly in flux. It is, undoubtedly the liminality of this interface that charges his paintings with the aura of the supernatural. Any elements of serendipity here seem to be skewed by something hideously unnatural. The glimpses of the Divine, however, that reveal themselves through the reductive explorations of sub-atomic physics and their applications to the realms of Cosmology, are at play here somewhere in the dark heaving folds of these undulating surfaces. The hideously unnatural here are underpinned by the awesomely natural.

When analyzing painting, it is generally taken as read that our perusal of a painting demands a good deal of perceptual self-deception. Paintings are all about pigments applied to surfaces—the artist’s role. The viewers role is to negotiate, through their exploration, those illusions created by the artist upon that surface, and the less we are aware of the illusions, the more seamless the deception, the more accomplished the work. Oliver Marsden, in his latest work has added an extra layer, so to speak. He has complicated this negotiation, by creating credible rippling liquid surfaces whose patterns of ripples distort and defy not only the plane surface upon which they are painted, but also the laws of nature. These images become incredible, in effect defeating the object of the exercise, creating images which become, enigmatic, disturbing, and which question the viewer’s role in this whole negotiation. We are left in limbo, visited by the uncanny, thrown by the fact that here we are viewing a familiar scenario tipped out of kilter by weird and unnatural phenomena. The technique is exquisite, the effects disturbing, the viewing, compelling.

Roy Exley

Sussex, England