News Column

To frame the fearful symmetry: Mark Spencer

July 25, 2014

By Michael Abatemarco, The Santa Fe New Mexican

July 25--There's something archetypal and visionary in the paintings and monotypes of Mark Spencer. Elemental forces -- whirlwinds of dust, cloud, color, and flame -- encircle figures on the landscape, perhaps obliterating them, perhaps serving as the setting from which they emerge, gods or demons struggling to become manifest. Even his most abstract paintings are alive with energetic movement and hints of figuration amid the chaos, but the strangely abstracted and surreal shapes seldom resolve themselves into definite forms. These works, dubbed Whirlwind Paintings by Spencer, are included in Reformations, an exhibition at NÜart Gallery.

Part of the fascination they hold involves Spencer's technique. Dynamic swaths of color capture the motion of dizzying eddies, but they aren't the result of the gestural brushwork of action painting. Spencer's creations often take months to take shape, composed in stages with a detailed sense of realism. His works have a smooth, uniform surface. Blended edges lend the overall compositions a softness that is at odds with the often violent imagery.

Spencer's paintings have a narrative quality, but the stories they tell are open-ended. Vernal Equinox, a recent large-scale painting of a man and a woman traversing a windswept, snowy landscape, lacks the bold, energetic movement of the Whirlwind Paintings but not their feeling and power. The couple seems to struggle against the wind. The man carries a bundled lamb cradled protectively in his arms. The woman carries a bundle too. It could be a child, but the face cannot be read from the brief glimpse seen through a thin opening in the blanket. They rise from an outcropping of rock, the sea behind them. The image could represent life's efforts at seasonal renewal, the role of the parent in protecting the innocent, or the struggle of the young for survival in a harsh, merciless existence.

"One of the major themes is emergence, and another is couples," Spencer told Pasatiempo. "Many of the monotypes are configurations of couples. I'm not concerned with the meaning of it. There's always meaning there if you perceive it. My work always ends up being about a spiritual evolution, if you will. These pictures are sort of like moments of passage through barriers like the ego prisons we make for ourselves."

The meeting point of land, air, and sea is also a consideration in Spencer's art, and his abstracted dramas often unfold on a kind of psychic landscape where nature threatens to overwhelm the figures. They have a feeling of allegory, particularly in more representational works such as Vernal Equinox, and have the timeless aspect of myth. "That's a function of my interest in history, which is a history of mythologies," he said. The man and woman in that painting could be the animated spirits of Adam and Eve, cast from Eden, still wandering in search of refuge across the dreamscape of the human soul. The artist is able to capture a mood in his compositions without having to situate the action at a particular moment or event in time. "All those things live in my brain. I do thumbnail sketches, and they often become these paintings. Really, I see action, and I see groups of figures and stuff going on, and that will develop. In the process of that evolution, I realize what the thing is about."

Despite the sweeping, gestural curves of motion and abstraction in most of the exhibited works, Spencer's pieces recall the lush, light-filled paintings of J.M.W. Turner more readily than the paintings of Abstract Expressionism. "In a lot of ways I work similar to him. I would divine these things going on with him, and in fact his work is rather abstract." Spencer's History of God feels both Turneresque and reminiscent of the work of William Blake. In it, a hulking figure stands before a maelstrom of heat and flame -- a cauldron of explosive activity. It can be read as either a moment of creation or one of dissolution. Vague shapes appear here and there in the circle of swirling flame: objects coming into being, or meeting some preordained end in an event of cosmic proportions. Beside the godlike figure is that of a statuesque woman, perhaps a Greek marble or a classical nude. Inherent in the composition, as in many of Spencer's paintings, is a sense of duality, expressed as male/female and also as a tumultuous storm revolving around a fixed point.

Spencer's art suggests primeval forces locked in eternal conflict, the earliest drama repeating itself in an endless round. The imagery is at once familiar and alien. "It's not usually the stuff that people want to look at," he said. "People don't want to see. They want to believe that their vision of the world is the vision of the world. My work, just by its nature, calls that into question."


--Mark Spencer: Reformations

--Exhibit through Aug. 3

--NÜart Gallery, 670 Canyon Road, 505-988-3888



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Source: Santa Fe New Mexican, The (NM)

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