Vanessa Marsh

April 6 — 29, 2017

In Conversation: Vanessa Marsh & Renny Pritikin,
Chief Curator of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, 3pm.

Arches 2, 2016 I Chromogentic photogram I 16 x 20 inches
Arches 2, 2016 I Chromogentic photogram I 16 x 20 inches

Dolby Chadwick Gallery is pleased to announce “Falling,” an exhibition of new work by Vanessa Marsh opening April 6, 2017. Marsh takes geologic and cosmological time as her subject, creating atmospheric, otherworldly landscapes through a process rooted in both painting and photographic techniques.

Occupying the foregrounds of many works in her most recent series, also titled “Falling,” are hand-drawn, pitch-black silhouettes of trees, cave openings, power lines, water towers, and other natural and man-made features. In certain images, such as Horizon 8 (2016), mountainous terrain recedes into the distance in discrete, progressively lighter intervals. Marsh pulls some of these peaks and valleys from photographs by Ansel Adams, which she then collages together to create invented mountain ranges—a nod to the famed artist’s image-making process. These crisp silhouettes are set against expansive midnight skies punctuated by individual stars that coalesce into the diffuse, brilliantly colored halos and contrails of the Milky Way. Other works from “Falling” feature only the nebulae themselves, allowing the artist to pursue a freeform approach that results in more explosive cloudlike forms. Through their heightened exploration of deep space, they offer powerful distillations of the beauty and terror of the sublime. 

Marsh draws inspiration from a range of artists, from photographers working with constructed landscapes, such as James Casebere and Thomas Demand, to painters such as Fred Tomaselli and those associated with the Hudson River School. Her unique process also mirrors this diversity of influences, bringing together drawing, painting, and darkroom technique to create what are photograms, since she does not use a camera. She first makes paintings on clear mylar using transparent inks. Because the paintings act similarly to traditional negatives, she chooses colors that are opposite to the desired outcome. When light from the enlarger passes through the inks, it reacts with the paper to reverse the colors into their complementaries. In the same vein, carefully splattered specks of black gesso block the light from hitting the paper, resulting in what appear to be white stars. The process involves a significant degree of guesswork and experimentation, since both the ink’s color and its density contribute to the final effect.

In addition to playing a central role in the production of the images, light is also fundamental to Marsh’s subject matter. “The way we understand the cosmos,” she notes, “is intrinsically tied to our understanding of light and the light we observe coming to us from deep space. Looking up into space is looking into the past, as the light we see emitted from stars has traveled many light years and has crossed so much time and space that those stars may not even exist anymore. The stars in the sky are also a connection to ancient ways of living and navigating the world. It seems inherently human to be fascinated and influenced by the cosmos.” 

Images of nebulae framed by the silhouettes of cave openings bring this line of inquiry full circle. Home to mankind’s earliest-known artworks, caves can be said to be “the birthplace of the artistic urge, the urge to communicate in a way that is beyond words,” Marsh observes. Representing darkness and the unknown—but also safety and shelter—these cavernous spaces offer a connection to both prehistory and ancient forms of creation. In much the same way, the inky depths of outer space are similarly shrouded in mystery, while also being a place of birth: all matter, from stars to planets to our bodies, issues from the same originary event. 

Vanessa Marsh was born in Seattle, Washington, in 1978. She earned her BA from Western Washington University in 2001 followed by her MFA from California College of the Arts in 2004. Marsh has exhibited across the United States, including at the SFO Museum; Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco; New Museum of Los Gatos; Richard L. Nelson Gallery at UC Davis; San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art; Foley Gallery, New York; and the Camera Club of New York. She has been awarded fellowships at the Headlands Center for the Arts (2004), the MacDowell Colony (2007), and Kala Art Institute (2011), and was an artist in residence at San Francisco’s Rayko Photo Center in 2014. This is her third solo show at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery.