Reviews

“Mark Spencer: Healing the Divide”

NuArt Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico
by Michael Abatemarco
The New Mexican, Pasatiempo
October 7, 2016

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 pastel-colored 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.


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Mark Spencer

NuArt Gallery, Santa Fe, New Mexico
By Jon Carver
Visual Art Source visualartsource.com
October 9, 2016

The more things stay the same, the more they change. Do you really experience time and space? Or do you simply experience change? The first whisker twitch says transformation is the soul and sole subject of painter Mark Spencer’s fine art, but like a cat in the night, these pluperfect paintings are about in-between places, and seek the same prey courted through the centuries by the great Romantics, Symbolists and Surrealists. Spencer, like those preceding him, finds his primary pleasure in the play of ambiguities. Classically trained at the Boston School of the Museum of Fine Arts, he brings a brilliantly hued and polished, Van Eyck-like technique to what could be described with equal accuracy as figurative naturalism or deep abstraction. Their feeling of turbulent transformation invites comparisons to Francis Bacon. The images are moving in multiple senses. A truly postmodern mind, Spencer has pondered humanity’s painterly past, and arrived at not only an utterly logical, but also highly dynamic and expressive synthesis.

Tossing it all into the maelstrom of mythical morphism produces images that hover just beyond the threshold of rationality. These are pictures of the mind’s innermost workings, the place in the imagination where the familiar coalesces and combines but never completely resolves. In “Blue Streak” the beautiful blue beam that arcs across the top of the canvas reads alternately as plasmatic light in a sci-fi fantasy, or a slow bend in a blue river across a warmly toned landscape background. The middle and foreground spaces are full of odd and partial objects, some blurred in rapid movement, some as still and frozen. Despite a wonderful play of shadow, light and cangiante, very few of these elements, which shape-shift into each other, are nameable in a fixed or final way. All prompt associations on a psychic level, suggesting helmets, or vessels, or anonymous figures. Spencer’s point is that there is no certainty, no ultimate reckoning, no permanent truth, just change and imagination. His ability to express this chaotic conundrum in such consummately finished pieces makes him one of Santa Fe’s best.


Blood on the Sacred Ground

Mark Spencer and His Art
By Clayton Campbell

“The best of modern and postmodern painting experiences the connective tissue of spiritual values. Mark Spencer’s art is one of these connectors; he emerges from a seemingly disparate lineage of artists including Odilon Redon, Max Ernst, Orozco, and even Francis Bacon. Yet within the crucible of time from which great narrative tableau is identified, we can look back and acknowledge the logic, which has produced Spencer and his contemporaries; Jeff Wall, Mark Tansey, Anselm Kiefer, Vincent Desiderio. It is a group of men who share a strong sense of the feminine, and who stand squarely within the mainstream of contemporary artmaking.
A survey of Spencer’s paintings and prints begs a theory, that religion divides while spirituality unites people. At once formal yet psychological in their premise, Spencer’s images seek out sacred spaces where rituals of life and renewal are momentarily beheld in their eternal, difficult dance. As in every true ritual, a sacrifice must be made; spilling metaphorical blood as the most honest offering a human being can make to the numinous.
Religion and its propagandistic, didactic qualities are not to be found in this space Spencer has sought to inhabit. Instead, the absence of irony and cynicism stands out as a unique voice against the reactionary impulses of a modernist age wracked by war, anxiety, and the lurking feeling that the future is in doubt.
That life is full of conflict” is a core belief of the artist, and it then can be reasoned his work seeks some kind of resolution to conflict, acting as a mediating force. Spencer’s artistic project involves a constant challenge not to become one of his psychodramas, but to remain openly receptive, above the fray, yet also down and dirty with angels and demons alike. His art is a mix of distance and passion, and he leverages this tension to align himself with the existential problems of our society by forming a social compact with his audience. It is a powerful path, from the explosive forces of early modernism, through the myriad eddies of deconstructive theorems, towards a reconstructive bridge of synthesis and re-ordered meaning. His work reflects the most current thinking amongst critics and curators who once again are seeking to integrate notions of Beauty into cultural discourse.
Spencer returns to certain obsessive imagery, the bundled figure from the unconscious, the cornucopia birth canal, the animistic appreciation of objects in a state of transition. These leitmotifs inform the intellectual underpinnings of his work, and provide an entry point for the viewer. Taken at face value, the psychic burden of Spencer’s art can be almost intolerable, as if one looks too long into the sun, or illegally at the face of eternity. It is better to find those crystalline jewels imbedded in the paintings, clues and puns which evoke epic poetry suffused with archetypal weight. Spencer paints a pure story, blessed with worthwhile images that make his pictures unsettling, unforgettable, unbelievable, unspeakably important.