Georgia Marsh

Vanguard Gallery | Philadelphia

Georgia Marsh’s vaporous landscapes want to have it both ways: to embody the tangible atmospherics of real time and place and simultaneously to evoke the evanescent ambiguities of color field painting. The specter of Rothko that hovers in the vicinity of her paintings is thus joined by evocations of certain 19th-century Europeans, for example Caspar David Friedrich and J. M. W. Turner. As she arrived at landscape painting through abstraction, it seems logical that her recent work explores their rapprochement.

The paintings in this exhibition progressed chronologically from moody night scenes to icily pale dayscapes. Sketching outdoors and painting in the studio, Marsh has the ability to infuse each work with a palpable sense of light, time, and weather—we can literally feel the mist or chill in the air. Her landscapes are uninhabited, and all include water—rivers or ponds, whose reflective surfaces enhance Marsh’s penchant for an almost Rorschachlike compositional symmetry, as if, at times, she simply painted half the piece and then folded the canvas over, blotting for completion. She employs such strict symmetry, I assume, to emphasize the artifice involved in landscape painting, to make us aware of the artist’s shaping hand, her presence in the creation. But it is a mannerism that can feel monotonous and static. While most of the paintings are single canvases, Pan, 1985, is a diptych which attempts a panorama by having its two mirroring panels meet in the corner of the wall so that the sides extend outwards, rushing away on either side, and seeming to flow uninterruptedly from painted to real space.

Marsh’s light is liquefying and diaphanous, and she likes to depict nature at moments of dissolve, where it approaches immateriality. Reflex, 1985, is the best realization of this quality. In it we look out over a blue-black pond surrounded by foliage, and above into a blue-black night sky. Tiny white pinpoint stars are mirrored below by floating yellow fireflies. The formal symmetry that Marsh favors superimposes itself seamlessly onto the subject matter here so that in this painting everything is magically transmuted into reflection and refraction; we are enveloped by atmosphere.

For Marsh, the possible congruencies of representation and abstraction seem to redeem the enterprise of landscape painting. In Dawn, 1986, for example, the bottom half of the painting is a gorgeous but fairly straightforward depiction of a pond at sunset. The fiery light reflected in the water’s surface, however, has been smoothed over into two horizontal bands of blue and orange in the top half of the painting. The sentimentality of the subject matter is made tolerable by this transformation, and, vice versa, the landscape validates and makes new the incorporation of Minimalist abstraction. Observation is constrained here by knowledge. By provoking this conceptual and formal tension between the two halves of the canvas, Marsh toughens up her work, makes it more self-conscious and consequently more credible as contemporary painting. As in April Gornik’s paintings, a traditionalist appearance at once masks and reveals the influence of Modernism. This is certainly one way to incorporate the romanticism after which Marsh seems to yearn while attempting to acknowledge the difficulties of that desire. And yet I am not at all convinced that Marsh’s work is conventionally ironic, and it’s certainly not cynical. Rather, I felt myself watching Marsh work through some deeply felt esthetic issues, and while I remain unpersuaded, I am intrigued.

Paula Marincola