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Irving Marcus @ b. sakata garo

Brothel, 2009, oil on canvas, 42 x 60"

The first impression one forms of Irving Marcus is that he is a fauvist/post-impressionist hailing from some tropical clime.  His palette speaks of sweet air and warm light, which is the exact opposite of what his paintings and drawings actually communicate. For the past 35 or so years, Marcus, 84, has painted dark allegories populated by demons, geishas, beasts and innocents interacting uneasily. “Someone once said my work is somewhere between Chagall and Anselm Kiefer, that you’re always being whipped back and forth” between levity and “anguish,” Marcus told me. That sort of viewer response has been more or less consistent since the mid-70s when the artist began painting violent, unsettling events from news photos. 

Marcus no longer recreates photos; but he continues to mine news images for abstract shapes, fashioning them into intersecting color fields that function as grounds and multi-planar stages for nebulous (and sometime nefarious) "plots" involving humans and animals set in urban and rural landscapes.  He renders them as an outsider artist or a caricaturist would, contorting the bodies into anatomically difficult positions, and situating them in equally improbable physical spaces.  Story lines are elusive.  But there’s no mistaking the source of these paintings. They come from headlines, personal tragedy, distant memories, and, perhaps, dreams.  
Hidden Hiding, 2001, oil on canvas, 60 x 40" 

The floating, hallucinatory visages we see in his pictures arise organically out of a process that begins with oil pastel drawings on paper which are then replicated in oil on canvas. “I look for photos that have some sort of power as a visual object,” he explains.  “Then I look at them in terms of color.   I’m looking at the demands of a particular atmosphere that I’m projecting onto a bit of a photo.  If the atmosphere of what I’m looking at is dark, then I have to use dark colors,” and out of that process “images start to appear.”

Stylistically, Marcus aligns with a group of narrative/figurative painters who hit their stride in the 1960s and 1979s: the Chicago imagists Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson (who taught briefly with Marcus at Sac State) and the “Bad Painting” group assembled by Marcia Tucker at the Whitney in 1978 — precursors to the neo-expressionists who would later hold sway in New York during the ‘80s.  Marcus, who was raised in Minneapolis, likens his thematic approach to Yiddish theater, which transformed the “disastrous conditions” faced by European immigrants into “humor and theatrics that were tragic and funny. I like to apply that.”
This exhibition of 21 works, ranging from large-scale oil paintings to small oil pastel drawings, finds Marcus at the height of his powers. The highlights are many.
There’s the interior view of Brothel, a scene of passion and scorn recalled from the artist’s days as a serviceman in Japan; Penthouse, a bird’s eye view of burning city where a luxury tower’s inhabitants seem mysteriously at odds, one terrified, the other nonplussed; and a trio of smaller paintings dedicated to his daughter who recently died, the most memorable being, In Two, which shows a woman precariously splayed on a rooftop and floating lazily in the sky. In 911, George W. Bush appears in a carnivalesque line-up of leering devils before the backdrop of New York under attack.  Osama Bin Laden’s face is seen top and center in a small oval.  
Penthouse, oil on canvas 

Satire isn’t Marcus’ only vehicle; nor is autobiographical revelation, even though the apparent surfeit of it is what gives his work real bite.  What really facilitates it is the artist’s virtuoso paint handling – visible in the textures he achieves through erasure, daubing, crosshatching and juxtapositions of distant and close-value colors that define (and confuse) pictorial space.  Hidden Hiding, where the bodies of two lovers seamlessly intertwine, is a particularly strong example.  So is Hen Courage, where colliding geometric shapes create the illusion of a girl on a pedestal surrounded by skyscrapers. In typical Marcus fashion, the girl’s beatific grin is belied by a threatening flock of birds a la Hitchcock. 

If you sense in these descriptions the presence of opposing forces, you've pegged Marcus correctly.  At the center of his oeuvre is an ongoing tug-o-war between color and content and between quasi-narrative elements whose meanings resist apprehension.  It’s his signature.  As the artist so aptly puts it: “There’s a lot of contradictions.”
Irving Marcus “Paintings” @ b. sakata garo through March 2, 2013.

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