Diving into the Dandelion Head. I was asked by the painter Sam Marsh to produce a written response to his paintings to accompany his exhibition.
Held in place on JMW Turner’s porcelain palette – currently on display at the Royal Academy of Art – are clouds of paint. Laid on top of the white porcelain, these colours rush over each other and plume as ink does dropped into water. They are layered too and thin enough to bleed into each other. On getting closer, the scrub marks become clear. Bristles scratch into the surface of paint and mixing gestures can be traced. The paint covering the surface is now erratic, not the delicate plumage it was from a distance.
Sam Marsh has his fingers in paint. In an instant, he whips his arms around and drags paint with him. Across the canvas, arcs are appearing as the paint is moved around. It is tubular, snaking over the surface and lacing up and down. It is taken off, scraped back. Not right. His fingers are back in globs of paint and his arms are whipping around and the paint is following. Better. This is a repeated process; it is quick, and physical and replayed. SM moves back and forth across the canvas, removing and reapplying paint. What hangs on the wall is the result of a single frenetic session – but it is also one of many. Frank Auerbach’s drawings are made in the same way: the charcoal from the previous day’s sitting is wiped off and the image is remade. Below each drawing is the faint outline of old marks. When finished, one image stands out but the others linger behind. While SM adopts this method, the thickness of the paint wipes away any ghost. Tubular was the right word to use; the marks appear three-dimensional. They could have been squeezed out and piling up like ketchup on a plate.
When I was growing up, I had this friend whose dad converted their attic space. Every surface was clad in chipboard. At first, it was strange; we stood, as eleven year olds and were surrounded by chipboard. On mass, like this, chipboard has the effect of the white static between television stations. It is hard to focus when surrounded by flakes of wood and we would find ourselves absorbed in this space but also disorientated. Gradually this softened. Mattresses were thrown in for sleeping and a television plugged in. Videos piled up along with empty pop cans and wrappers. Really though, what this space is remembered for is housing a Scalextric set. It was vast and covered most of the floor – the mattresses were moved inside the track and the television pushed to the corner. As we constructed this we imagined its potential. In our heads, the track would loop constantly. Each turn would lift into a sequence of loop-the-loops and continue spiralling into the next turn. Some loops would lift up so that the cars were above our heads and the track would begin spiralling down to the chipboard ground like helixes. We imagined parallel tracks weaving in and out of one another as they climbed up, lacing the space. We would stand, not in the centre of a room clad with chipboard, but cascades of Scalextric track as it twisted around us.
Below the manically made tubular paint marks are calmer paintings. This is a slow process and sets the tone for the finished work. Blocks of colour are painted on and areas are masked off. Space for the paint to be dragged is made. Fingers move through the paint, pulling the globs across the surface. As this is done, the colours below come through, staining the marks being made. Where masks have been laid the dragged paint doesn’t go and pre-planned shapes can be seen. Ideas of collage begin to come through. In places, the paint laces and is met by a sharp line or the corner of a hexagon. There is an expected tension between the rapid swirls of paint and the measured calm of a hexagon grid.
Recurring throughout all of the paintings are references, to collage, but also to the imagery of computing and the Internet – particularly with the use of garish colours. They do not move softly into one another but stop and start sharply. The electric colours of early web pages come to mind. Also the marks made with SM’s fingers are reminiscent of graffiti imitated by early Photoshop or Microsoft Paint. Remember dragging a curser over a computer screen and leaving a trail of harsh colour behind? SM’s paintings have the marks we tried so hard to make.
In a car that was sat in traffic, we looked out of the windows and saw a great flock of starlings. It quickly filled the immediate sky. It was unexpected. Can you remember seeing so many starlings at once before? I don’t think I can. What I can remember is seeing lines of birds resting on telephone wires and that looked pretty hectic but it was still. When we were surrounded by the starlings, it was as though something had gone off and suddenly these birds were whipping around us. The air was thick black with fluttering shapes. In Malawi I saw clouds of what looked like smoke across the lake. By the afternoon the clouds had got closer and I realised that it wasn’t smoke but midges. By the evening they had filled the bar I was in. All I could see was a thick cloud of midges. They tasted bitter and got caught behind my glasses. Before we knew it there was another flock of starlings. The two were dancing together – ducking and diving around the buildings. One flock would dip out of sight and the other would appear and then be swamped by the first. When both were in the air, and like the midges, the sky looked the same as the static between television stations. It was fluid too. When some of the flock turned it looked thinner because they were side on and shapes began to appear in the flocks.
Against a single colour backdrop, marks move through and over the canvas and there is fluidity. Cutting into the paint, SM reveals more layers of colour. Set into a single colour, these cut-out marks have space to breath. Grey comes through and flicks across the surface. Shapes hover, as though in flight, over blue and teal surfaces. Where SM does have dragged paint marks, they are woven in and out of and not the dominant expressions they are in other works. The paintings that focus on tubular marks are manic; constricted to the canvas, this is heightened and good to burst. But, here it is as though glimpsing only part of an image as it passes by. When dandelion heads are blown or birds take flight we watch for a moment, knowing that it will change instantly. SM’s paintings behave like this too. On round canvases, it is the same as looking through a camera obscura and seeing life, in motion, caught and lit on a circular board.