Art in Review
Mark Spencer: Healing the Divide
The visionary paintings of Mark Spencer describe the space created when opposing forces converge in an uneasy truce. Creativity is born in that space, as is an archetypal landscape that transcends history and time, speaking directly to the human condition. It’s a landscape peopled with abstracted human and godlike figures, where recognizable forms are only suggested — a space where dreams collide with reality, and the liminal state between consciousness and the subconscious, represented as a borderland between land and sea or earth and sky, is awakened.
In Reformations, Spencer’s previous solo show at Nüart in 2014, he exhibited one painting called Vernal
Equinox that seemed to reference the biblical expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The work also hinted at the renewal and rebirth associated with the spring season, offering the viewer a sense of hope. As if taking a cue from that painting, Spencer has created a new body of work that deals with themes of bridging distances and transcending differences. A golden brown dominates the colors in Healing the Divide, lending the paintings a sense of majesty. Human endeavors, as depicted in these classical compositions, happen in the face of natural and supernatural phenomena. Cyclones of dust and wind swirl around figures who appear, at times, to be made from the very forces that surround them, like beings fashioned from the same elements that they struggle against. Spencer told Pasatiempo in 2014 that his paintings are “like moments of passage through barriers like the ego prisons we make for ourselves.” Among the less enigmatic works in Healing the
Divide is Spencer’s Pygmalion, where a central figure fashions his ideal love, not from stone or ivory as in Ovid’s Metamorphoses but from elements more wild and untamed than sedentary rock. Pygmalion’s masterpiece is born at the intersection of earth and sky, half-formed and seemingly created by the wind, or perhaps returning to it in the form of dust, even while the central figure struggles to complete his work. Pygmalion is an agent for something that belongs not to him but to the world. Jubilee, which also appears to depict a figure coming into being, is a more mysterious composition. Its central winged figure is rising from a heap of what could be all that remains of a collapsed civilization. Rectangular shapes, like panes of pastelcolored glass, fall around the strange, warrior-like figure like ribbons of confetti. The painting provides a sense of the transcendent spirit, emerging from the trappings of the world.
Most of Spencer’s pictures are an amalgamation of abstract and representational imagery, but sometimes his imagery only appears to resemble specific objects, prompting a glimmer of recognition that is frustrated by the objects’ resistance to being quantified. The elements in Enigma, one such painting, are arranged in a tableau, resembling a tangle of bodies locked in conflict. The shapes and forms are vaguely human, but Spencer has less interest in explicating a specific narrative than in presenting symbolic gestures. The idea of the destructive nature of war, for example, is suggested with only a few distinct visual cues — just a knot of limbs and debris, a sounding horn, and the remains of a wooden barricade. The enigma referenced in the title is, perhaps, the bright and organic central form that rises like a protective wall, appearing to provide a bulwark between the figures on one side of the painting and those on the other. The painting from which the exhibit gets its title,
Healing the Divide, is equally ambiguous. It is one of what Spencer calls his “whirlwind” compositions, named for the swirling gales that beset the landscape, a common element in much of his work. In the painting, a bulky, tree-like form rises from a barren desert into the maelstrom, which is bisected by the thin curve of a rainbow. A whirlwind is a destructive force, but it appears, in this painting at least, to be an energizing one, too. Spencer’s mythic terrain draws its power from the vortex. The whirlwind is nothing short of a stand-in for the buzzing mind, birthing idea after idea. This is the manner in which I approach Spencer’s works. Beyond capturing a sense of humankind’s common struggle as it might express itself in the psyche, the wellspring of ingenuity, creativity, and art is envisioned here, and its locus is the storm. — Michael Abatemarco
In Healing the Divide, a bulky, tree-like form rises from a barren desert into the maelstrom, which is bisected by the thin curve of a rainbow. A whirlwind is a destructive force, but it appears, in this painting at least, to be an energizing one, too.
Mark Spencer: Jubilee, 2016, oil on canvas