Martin von Wagner Museum, Würzburg, Germany
At first, it may come as a surprise that Michael Markwick’s canvases take several months, sometimes even up to a year, to complete. This element of surprise is fueled by a historically grown default assumption that surrounds abstract art: the canvas is an arena for the spontaneous, the gestural, the emotional, the wild – an utmost expression of the present moment. Inevitably, abstract expressionism is often associated with action painters such as Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline, or with the early works of Philip Guston. This narrative is further sustained through a progress-embracing society and continually evolving information technology that have been substantially accelerating human life for more than a century, and continue to do so in ever-fascinating speed. Whereas the first visual impression of Markwick’s art – with its bright palette, the layering of coats of paint, and the embrace of geometric forms – relates to the aforementioned abstract painters, it is Markwick’s method in particular that sets him apart.
A visit to Markwick’s studio reveals paint splatters from vigorous brushwork and intense reworkings of the canvases. However, the energy of his process belies the fact that Markwick’s studio is a space for contemplation and reflection. One corner of the room is plastered with visual inspiration: a Piero della Francesca depiction of Saint Jerome, a patch of dried orange paint peeled from the lid of a tin, a photograph of a pile of skulls. The rest of the room remains modestly empty. Markwick’s brushwork is characterized by determination and consciousness, and yet these bursts of energy are contrasted with intervals of long consideration. This process is slow and labor-intensive. The luxury of taking one’s time is heightened by the turmoil of urban life taking place outside of his studio in the streets of Berlin-Kreuzberg. Guided by intuition and intent, Markwick intricately constructs layers of paint on the rough linen surface. In The Slide, for example, hard geometric shapes are met by soft organic ones, lines lead the way and lead astray, colors clash and form harmonies. The artist frequently steps back and observes, and his next step is guided by the internal logic of the painting. Every brushstroke is a decision. “It is not for effect, but has purpose,” as Markwick puts it. An impressive amount of layers construct and simultaneously deconstruct the canvas. Where one layer covers, another uncovers, a dynamic oscillating between concealment and revelation. In this organic process, the individual layers do not come together as a collage; rather, they form a unified whole. Razor blades are used to scrape marks in the wet or dry surface. These marks trace the production history of the painting, exposing its many layers. “My thinking should be evident in the painting,” says Markwick. Fine grains of sand or glass particles are also often mixed into the paint, emphasizing its physical realities. Discovering the raw edges of the canvas, one can read the many layers, which resemble the marks on a door frame documenting the growth of a family’s children. The texture of the heavy, natural linen of the canvas runs counter to the digital smoothness of contemporary mediascapes.
Just as the genesis of the paintings is a slowly evolving process, so is the viewing. Markwick’s complex paintings are to be discovered, their depths to be worked through, and sometimes the viewer takes a step back or revisits a painting in order to regain access. In this manner, the paintings exhibited can be considered an antidote to easy consumption, fast-paced digital media, and ever-updating news coverage. Markwick’s work dashes expectations of contemporary life and art. The processed stream of information is analog, permanent, rendering his works artefacts of slow art.
Visions of Nature In Between
A deep and life-long empathy for the natural world is at the core of Markwick’s art. This connects him to a heritage of American artists that celebrate the grandeur of nature. American artists of the first half of the nineteenth century were dedicated to portraying the New World in its grandiosity. Their canvases captured the Catskill Mountains outside of New York and the barren coastal areas of New England with deliberate sublimity. A shift towards more realistic depiction becomes more visible in midcentury works, with Winslow Homer’s marine subjects leading the way. The focus on landscape painting was of crucial importance for the young nation to become detached from the influences of the European avant-garde, and played a vital role in defining an authentic national expression. Later, the scope of the American subject was no longer exclusively dominated by the landscape painting. However, in 1912, when the westward expansion was completed, the depictions of the vast American continent, with its variety of flora, continued to intrigue. As do both the early- and late-period watercolors of modernist Charles Burchfield, who depicted the rural Midwestern landscape in the 1920s. His sometimes dream-like, sometimes more realistic paintings show a great interest in a landscape with visible signs of civilization, and depictions of rows of houses, telephone posts, steam engines, or fences characterize his œuvre. Burchfield’s relationship to nature resonates with Markwick, who was born in 1974 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a state which borders Burchfield’s Ohio. He grew up in a suburban area, a liminal zone between nature and urbanity. Childhood memories of dense forests, driftwood by the river, marshes and ravines are constants in Markwick’s visual vocabulary. These memories are not made of vast landscapes to be looked upon from a natural plateau, but rather an immersion of nature up close, a nature that occupies one’s field of vision, when only limited light makes it through the treetops. Today, Markwick finds inspiration by walking – again, an act of deceleration – the cityscape of Berlin. In this way, he encounters a lively dissonance of nature-culture manifestations: weeds growing in between the buildings, cracks on the concrete pavement as indications of earth movements which most often go unnoticed below our feet. His walks take him to places like Stadtwald Grunewald or Volkspark Hasenheide. As much as these places are integrated into the city space, they are border zones, as the compounded noun Stadtwald suggests. The points of interest for the artist are also the signs of (human) life in these spaces: illegally deposited trash by the side of a forest path, the decaying remains of animals, a tree stump, a skull, these are all elements that inform the artist’s visual language.
The composition of the paintings often evolves from figurative elements and architectonic forms. In the course of the non-linear painting process, the subjects are transformed in terms of form, color, and physicality. Hence, to the question of what kind of artist he is, Markwick answers that he is “a kind of representational artist, but far away from realism.” While Bones for the Approaching Future suggests forms reminiscent of a radiating sun, stems of flowers, or a Mondriaan windmill, the canvas sustains its gravity not from its subject matter, but from the captured energy that is inherent to nature and the painting. Shifting Sky shares this radial arrangement of lines. Like a sun, the painting seems to emanate light from within. The luminous soft shapes in their mosaic organization echoes the compositional order of a stained glass window suffused with light. While horizontal lines form a visual axis, the diagonal brushstrokes perforate this symmetry, creating a disordered order, as is often encountered in nature. If one pays close attention to the brushwork, it becomes obvious that the field of colors are composed of individual brushstrokes, each a unique gradient which in unison determine the overall color impression. While from a distance, the composition transmits a geometric layout, a closer look reveals Markwick’s sophisticated technique. He creates smooth transitions: a line of pale rosewood that elapses into a smoky blue is countered by the bold presence of ivy green.
As a nature artist, Markwick’s palette is built from muted, earthy tones and is pushed to more luminous pigments in the upper layers, as pointedly executed in Poet Climbing Out of the Earth. This choice of colors again goes hand in hand with Markwick’s notion of nature. While the conventions of landscape painting preset a rich palette of gradients in browns, blacks, greens, and blues –“natural” as one might initially think – Markwick extends his palette to bold shades of yellow and pink. Bright colors do naturally appear in the environment – think of spring blossoms or sunset vistas – as a sight to behold, an image of nature’s beauty at its best. In Markwick’s paintings, however, the bright hues take on another meaning: they are markers of nature touched by the human hand. In the age of the Anthropocene, where nature has been verifiably rendered by human presence on Earth, neat piles of logs marked with pink spray paint – neon hieroglyphs – to be picked up by the forestry workers, or bright yellow flagging tape roping off a contaminated area, have become part of the visual reality of the natural world.
The large-scale canvas Satellite also operates within the nature-culture paradigm. The dynamic painting seems to be in constant flux, with energies shifting, changing and transforming. Through a rich veil of auburn, the viewer accesses a vibrating field of color and energy. Light seeps through the multi-layered work. The viewer’s eye wanders through the depths of the painting, unfolding layer by layer, integrating some shapes, disintegrating others. Only the dots on the left side of the painting serve as visual anchors, reminding the viewer of the two-dimensionality of the canvas. The orange line on the top forms the starting and end point for the visual spree which is akin to traversing on foot through the woods with the city lights shining in the far distance. While the color scheme creates an earthbound atmosphere, the title of the work leaves terra firma. Notwithstanding, the satellite freely floating through orbit is still bound to the earth by the laws of gravity and represents, by proxy, an extension of human civilization in space. Since the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, was launched into the atmosphere in 1957, many thousands have followed. This technical achievement has allowed us to see the earth anew, from different perspectives. In this line of thought, it is quite fitting that Satellite was painted from different angles, enabling multiple points of entry and new ways of seeing.
Amid Light and Death
Recurring motifs to be discovered in Markwick’s paintings are skeletal structures, bones, and skulls. In Poet Climbing Out of the Earth, the outlines of several skeletal structures and skulls can be traced. The painting vibrates with energy, transmitting a stream of information in color and form. Yet, “this is not noise,” explains the artist. This statement makes clear that abstraction is not a style for Markwick, but a vocabulary, a way of processing information. Poet Climbing Out of the Earth tells a narrative about art that stands the test of time. The poet may be deceased, but his art continues to be relevant, waiting to be read aloud again and again. The vertical composition with the upward movement of skeletal structures, conjures up the image of something new, maybe a seedling, growing from the fertile ground of death.
The Clattering Bones of the Flower can be read as a continuation of this thought. The painting, which almost seems to radiate light from its top layers, is characterized by forms that resemble fragments of bones and floral structures. While the flowers are still in bloom and the body vital and alive, no direct connection between the two can be made. But once death has touched and decay takes over, the organic masses are broken down, and the cellular structure of both organisms are transformed, are made visible. The texture of brittle bones and withering flowers heighten their shared skeletal superstructure of nature’s design.
The aforementioned tendencies described in Markwick’s work prepare the stage for a work that was inspired by Flemish artist Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. The classic oil on canvas still-life from the seventeenth century has a human skull at the center of its composition. Around the skull, a crown of brittle stalks of wheat is woven. This combination of textures is also almost palpable in Markwick’s Clattering Bones of a Flower. This might be one of the aesthetic parallels which drew Markwick towards the artwork as he paid a visit to the painting gallery of the Martin von Wagner Museum in Würzburg last year. In the exhibition “New Songs to Learn and Sing,” the Gijsbrecht painting and Markwick’s rendition of it are side by side, constructing a narrative of continuation.
The still-life as a genre captures a moment in time, depicting seemingly lifeless objects. The vanitas still-life in particular is an appealing genre through its contrasting juxtaposition of life-affirming, yet life-less objects in combination with somber heralds of death. Gijsbrechts’s delicate composition consists of, among others, traditional elements: a skull, a violin with bow, sheet music, a shell, an hourglass, and a colorful flower arrangement, which stands out from to the dark coloration of the background. The arrangement celebrates the pleasures of life, yet these objects are a constant reminder of worldly finitude. The vanitas still-life is, in that sense, a cross-reference to itself. Gijsbrechts acknowledges the fleeting character of time, but paradoxically attempts to capture it in the painting nevertheless. The genre of the still-life is, after all, another poet climbing out of the earth.
Markwick’s Still…life (after Gijsbrechts) formally leans on the composition of the seventeenth-century painting, and transcends it. The skull remains the figurative focal point in Markwick’s version, whereas the other objects are abstracted into floating shapes of color. Markwick’s palette is fully detached from Gijsbrechts’s devout darkness. The color scheme is dominated by shades of cadmium yellow in contrast with a cool, lightweight blue. This concentration on light, death, and energy follows purist principles. It is, moreover, true to Markwick’s focus on the elemental energies. The painting creates a serene atmosphere that dissociates from the common narrative of the agony of death. With his signature layering-style, he constructs a canvas that exudes a physical presence. This corporeality is further emphasized by scrapes in the paint in the lower part of the skull. These scrapes expose warm red and mossy green coats of paint. With these marks, the artist does not only reference the history of his own painting, but also hints at the long tradition of still-life painting per se. Inversely, the title Still … life points to the future of this tradition. The ellipsis formed by the three dots – a pause for breath – allows for a moment of contemplation. The tension between the words still and life becomes a felt presence; it anchors the viewer in space and time. And it is a subtle reminder: “life goes on,” as the viewer moves on to another painting.
And the Skull Looks Back: A Dialogue
In an obvious fashion, the placid Still…life (after Gijsbrechts) connects to Girl in Shadowtime through the subtle repetition of the skull form and a similar color palette. The yellow-blue contrasts and the skeletal forms remain a constant. Yet, Markwick’s paintings do not rely on what is being shown, but rather on how it is shown. In this sense, Girl in Shadowtime exhibits a profound complexity. The access to the painting is not immediate. Instead, the formal language plays with concealment and exposure – what is to be seen, what is obscured from our view – creating a mystery to it: the opaque, light blue triangle form holds the viewer at a distance, while the viewer’s gaze is drawn to the dark red skull shape. This unique push-and-pull dynamic engages the viewer in an act of dissecting the tight energy of the canvas.
The movement captured within Markwick’s painting exudes from the limits of the canvas. The viewer is animated to move in accordance with the painting. Colors guide the movement of the eyes within the paintings. Markwick’s paintings build bridges through well-thought-out use of color; if the viewer focuses on a color within a painting, it leads the way, like a map tracking the movements of the artist’s brush. A look over one’s shoulder may reveal color connections between paintings across the exhibition space. Recurring colors, such as Markwick’s intense yellowish-white, can, in a playful way, become an alternative exhibition guide. The paintings invite mental and physical movement – a sense of wanderlust – like taking a stroll in a forest of color and energy.
(26, Detail Girl in Shadowtime)
Bird Waiting for Storm showcases the playful, yet dramatic dynamics inherent in Markwick’s works. A collision of yellow and orange color planes with nebulous shades of stone grey and foggy blue conjure up the quick movements and color changes gathered in the sky, moments before a storm rolls in. The dramatic qualities of this painting give a stage to nature’s spectacles: an overture of strong winds, a prelude of rain-heavy clouds, an inception of a thunderstorm. The suggested bird figure in the upper-right corner of the canvas, a punctum within the elemental forces, is a silent spectator of nature’s play.
Abundance and Ephemerality: A Conclusion
The exhibition winds its way through color, form, energy, and nature, constructing and deconstructing discourses of life and death along the way. Every canvas is an achievement in thought and care, an act of careful composition, of balancing color. Markwick’s art can be classified as art of deceleration, his process as a counter-proposition to the contemporary speed of life. He compresses memories and imagination in his compositions, which often manifest in figurative elements, though the interpretation of his work is not limited by them. On the contrary, they are reference points that open the canvas to free association. His formal language is equally inspired by natural and man-made objects found in his environment, blurring the lines between the cultural and the natural. The thematic foci of the works explore the energies inherent in these spaces and the essence of life. This is realized through juxtaposition: fragility meets graphic expression, solid color is superseded by light pastels, moments of light and quiet are staged against a dramatic momentum. Michael Markwick’s work is able to hold this contradictory flow in tension. The gravity center of the exhibition, the theme of vanitas, is met by Markwick with an unexpected ease. His modulation of light and color on the canvas approaches the unavoidable in a lighter vein: the fundamental impermanence of our situation is intercepted with the richness of life in its undulating force and tranquility.