by Mark Van Proyen
Before Tom Marioni gained recognition as one of the West Coast’s most notable practitioners of conceptual art, he began his artistic career as a painter by working in a mode called Hard Edge Painting, a term originally coined by Jules Langsner for a 1959 LA County Museum exhibition titled Four Abstract Classicists. The show under consideration here alerts us to that fact, while also reminding that, in addition to his many other activities, Marioni has sustained a longstanding printmaking practice reaching back over three full decades. Titled Hard Edges for Hard Times, it features a selection of 13 editioned prints executed in a variety of graphic media, dating from 1991 to the present. In most cases, they feature double meanings that disrupt and re-configure the relationship between form and allusion, sometimes in ways that are wry and subtle, at other times disarmingly direct.
The most forthright is titled Miss Brown to You (2023), a color aquatint that is both an homage to and a reimagining of a 1918 painting titled Suprematist Composition: White on White by Ukraine-born artist Kazimir Malevich, founder of the Suprematist movement and no stranger to hard times. In Marioni’s updated version, Malevich’s differing shades of white are printed as two distinct shades of saturated brown, both rich and sumptuous as one might expect from a masterful execution of the aquatint process. With the right kind of eyes, we might see them as variegated shades of coffee, tea or tobacco stains that also resemble patches of rich, fertile soil. Here, we are reminded of the fact that in Malevich’s time, as well as our own, ownership of Ukrainian soil was contested, showing that history repeats itself. Another of the recent works is a soft ground etching with aquatint named 4 Squares a Day, pointing the viewer in the direction of Joseph Albers’ work. It features four cream-colored square shapes set amid a stunning, blood-red background, its title a double entendre pertaining to Albers’ Homage to the Square series as well as the medically advisable practice of eating four small meals a day as opposed to three large ones.
When we see the negative space of 4 Squares a Day pop into the foreground, we surmise red crosses, another Suprematist shape that appears singularly in Armband, another aquatint indicating medical subject matter. The red cross was also a favorite shape/symbol repeatedly used by Joseph Beuys throughout the 1960s, an artist who has exerted an acknowledged influence on Marioni. Down to Earth is a spit bite aquatint featuring five horizonal bands of different colors equidistantly arrayed to look at first glance like an I-Ching ideogram. The colors bleed subtly into the paper, looking like apparitions in a shallow space rather than graphically flat entities. Closer inspection reveals that the descending order of those colors alludes to a generically distilled landscape, the upper band of blue signifying sky, below which rest bands of red and yellow, indicating a sunrise (or sunset) hovering above green and brown bands, referencing foliage and soil.
In A Door Must be Open or Closed (2002), a dry point/aquatint hybrid, we encounter another double meaning. It pertains to the conundrum of the picture plane being either a flat surface subdivided by a proportional geometry, or an illusionistic portal opening into to an imaginary space. Thus, the metaphor of the door, pictured here in schematic form as half-open and half shut at the same time. American Eagle is a gravure print from a 1994 series that originated as one of several calligraphic drawings of symbolic animals, articulated in deft and economical gestures resembling Sumi-e brushstrokes. It recasts the familiar bird in a very different light from its conventional role as a heroic national emblem, making it seem simultaneously blind and frightening (or frightened).
Beer with Musical Friends (2017) is a multi-generational print featuring an array of nine bottles, one transparent, others colorfully translucent. Their arrangement points toward Giorgio Morandi’s famous still-life depictions of similar vessels, only here they are re-articulated as ghostly remnants. This print and a similar one from the same year titled Three of a Kind, have another source. It refers to a performance event originally scripted by Marioni titled Beer Drinking Sonata for Thirteen Players, which stems from another longstanding social practice event that Marioni continues to stage on a weekly basis in his San Francisco studio called The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art. Both result in empty bottles, but in the case of The Sonata, there is the added twist that some of its renditions occur at memorial services for fallen comrades, the empty vessels evoking the final remnants of departed lives. Here, full disclosure prompts me to speak from experience: I am a regular participant in this event and have on two occasions I’ve been among the performers of the Sonata. In both cases, the empty bottles always found their way into the recycling bin, as they should. However, Beer with Musical Friends reminds us of their durable artistic afterlife taking the form of a commemorative image.
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Tom Marioni: “Hard Edges for Hard Times” @ Crown Point Press to September 1, 2023.
About the author: Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries emphasize the tragic consequences of blind faith in economies of narcissistic reward. Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America. His recent publications include Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010). To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak’s interview on Broke-Ass Stuart’s website.