Layered Language: The Paintings of Mark Moffett
By Rose Hobart
Layered, transparent, mesmerizing—these are the qualities that are most present in Mark Moffett’s new encaustic paintings. Recently showing at Broadway Gallery, NYC, Moffett’s paintings are some of the most challenging pieces on view as they navigate the line between figuration and abstraction. The three pieces being exhibited are built up, glaze upon thin glaze of color, interspersed with linear patterns that feel diagrammatic and work discretely to create a rich panorama. There is a transformative, evolving quality to the works that keeps the viewer in a state of intangible suspense. They are works well suited to the digital age, where information overload lends itself to the narrative of painting. Although you can clearly see the figurative elements, Moffett’s network of lines does not tell a linear story. Rather, they are more visual motifs, icons that lead us into new ways of seeing the original image.Some of his works are very easy to absorb; one strong line marks the silhouette of a man, a woman, or an animal. In Drifter, a deep, saturated red background is the backdrop for a Pangaea image (the supercontinent formed around 300 million years ago, that began to rift and drift apart around 200 million years ago—to eventually form the continents as we know them today). The image, superimposed over, among other things, a mapping of major constellations, is presented in three stages of expansion, repeating like a fetus shape that alters and kerns slightly in space. It is quite literally drifting, seemingly floating in a void of lost and immeasurable time. This piece carries a profound affect that is poetic and mysterious.
In the case of Flèche, the diagram of a plant is presented like an image Moffett couldn’t erase no matter how many layers of information he threw at it. Set in a nebulous gray-green field, a variety of motifs vie for attention: swimming fish, organic clusters of the Ebola virus, a man steadying a woman in a handstand, a cartoonish skeletal figure in gold, a figurative fragment from what appears to be Duchamp’s Etant donnés, and finally, an elusive cupid figure who appears to have launched an arrow—which rhymes with the painting’s title, Flèche, or arrow.
Courtesy of the artist.
Taken individually or together, these elements seem to have no particular meaning, but they work with the image of the plant—like another kind of arrow, a plant shoot—in a way that suggests pollution, and coalesce into a haunting portrait of life’s tenacity under duress.In another example, LL, you can see a woman, sensually curving her body like a dancer. She is positioned against a blood red background, surrounded by falling leaves. Upon closer inspection, you notice the form of a jellyfish, like a cage or a net, by which the ballerina is taken prisoner. And then suddenly a looming presence emerges—a frenzied skeleton, roaring like a maniac. The conflation of terror with beauty makes for a gripping psychological image. This piece plays on vanitas imagery, and resonates with such works as Hans Baldung’s Der Tod und das Mädchen, from 1517. Baldung’s painting portrays death as a grizzly old figure coming from behind, pulling a nude’s hair. Her face recoils in peril. Moffett’s work in contrast implies this sensation of terror through the use of color and the layering of separate emblematic states: the woman is poised, the jellyfish entraps, and death dances a mad jig. Here death is interwoven and is more an idea of what death is.
In his “Waterland” series, Moffett uses a chessboard pattern as a background. Imagery is projected either simply or complexly into the regimented grounds. In one work, Position After, a fingerprint pattern simmers below the surface while the single image of a crouching woman is set equivocally in a field of red and green squares. In 0-0 (Compass II), against a gray chessboard field, many elements pulsate in and around the figure of a crouching boy on rollerskates. Among the elements are trace signs of skeletal remains, prehistoric figurations, and symbols for constellations, all contributing to a haze of atomized information. In 9 States of Mars (After Schiaparelli), the ‘canals’ of Mars, as observed and drawn by the 19th century Italian Astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, are superimposed simultaneously like a ball of confusion. Although it isn’t always possible to step away from Moffett’s work and negotiate with it as a consolidated statement, it is clear that his purview is stretched to encompass irreconcilables, or at least opposing charges. I recently had the opportunity to interview Mark to hear more about his work.
Courtesy of the artist.
Jill Smith: How did your interest in painting and art develop? When did you start to see yourself as an artist?Mark Moffett: Because my father was an editor at Life Magazine, I had the good fortune to travel a great deal as a child. I spent formative years in Paris, France, age seven to twelve, and was exposed to Africa, the former USSR, and most of Europe. (Since college, I have traveled when possible, and in 1983-84 spent eighteen months traveling on the cheap throughout Asia.) These experiences made a strong impression on me. They gave me an internationalist perspective and instilled an appreciation for cultural worth in all guises and variety. Without specific guidance, I was steeped in art from the beginning.
JS: You want to provide information in a certain way, not everything at once. You work in layers, and the spectator needs to make a little effort in order to understand the true meaning. Do you think that your artwork only reaches a specific audience, or can everyone understand it?
MM: Just as I hope to be absorbed by art, I hope to make art that absorbs people. In my art I am interested in competing levels of information. Some of the information involves painting concerns, the way an illusion is made: medium choices, color choices, imagery choices, the tension between figure and ground, and the integration of these toward a cohesive whole or toward a mystification of wholeness. Formal concerns aside, some of the information involves content itself, and how references—distinct, arbitrary, familiar, foreign—may be put into play. Sometimes I’m interested in featuring content and other times in burying it, but when I combine imagery I’m mindful of a palimpsest effect, and of how content becomes troubled. I see the approach as a form of painterliness by other means, and trust the viewer—inured, perhaps, to a mayhem of evanescent imagery in their life—to discern and read their own meaning into it. In this sense, I feel my work is approachable by anyone.