PROTECTIVE MARKINGS “No Parking Sign,” by Mark Marchesi.
The artistic practice of depicting laborers as unsung heroes has a long history. And as we've learned from Governor Paul LePage, it can also be contentious. In his exhibition "Slack Water," Mark Marchesi wisely doesn't overindulge. Instead, he uses brilliant, energetic photographs to tell the story of the present-day Portland waterfront. The majority of these pictures are landscape photography — calm yet hardly inert tableaux depicting the cast and stage of Portland's seafood industry. As a testament both to his fine-arts education and artistic sensibility, Marchesi's photographs of Portland wharves will enter into dialogue with many viewers' mental archives of the visual arts, simply because their composition feels fondly like paintings we've seen before.
Before Marchesi went to art school, he worked as a laborer for two summers on the Portland waterfront, developing an affinity for the trade that he's since fashioned into artistic inspiration. Viewing "Slack Water," it's clear that affinity has paid off. Rarely have such riveting photographs been extracted from the grind of our shoreline. The landscapes and portraits of "Slack Water" tell a compelling story, one where a normally prosaic setting is made wonderfully original and the characters — the noble laborer; the weatherbeaten dockworker; and the stern, taciturn Mainer — are immediately accessible.
While that may make them more engaging, the characters themselves in Marchesi's portraits can occasionally seem like well-traveled tropes. Thankfully, tropes have their uses, too. While the landscapes recall the active, brilliantly colorful elements found in Impressionistic painting, the four portraits betray echoes of the paintings of centuries-old sea captains and soldiers, which gives a haunting — if somewhat stereotyped — effect. For instance, "Urchin Picker, Maine Wharf 2010" finds a young worker wearing heavy black boots, a backwards baseball cap, and three coats of protective tarp on his body and limbs. It's common waterfront attire, but its visual resemblance to a modern-day suit of armor — as his hands clasp the hilt of a styrofoam coffee cup — is obvious.
The warrior aesthetic doesn't go quietly. The subject of "Laborer, Custom House Wharf 2010" — a hulking man dismounted from a Komatsu forklift — poses in the foreground of a busy dirt alleyway. Rugged and Spartan, he holds a sharp metal tool in his right hand and his sunglasses in the other. In "Captain of the Rachel T, Fish Pier 2008," a handsome figure in a red hoodie and tarnished gray sweatpants stands at the edge of the pier. His hands are clasped in awkward formality at his midsection as he hovers over a dock anchor covered in gull droppings. "Processing Room, Holyoake Wharf 2009" shows a conveyor belt washing red plastic bins which reflect in eerie crimson pools on the metal surface below. Though "Slack Water" shows no actual fish, flashes and streaks of red find their way into many of these images. As an exhibit, "Slack Water" remains resolutely tasteful, but it's clear that this a job that would make many squeamish. Masterfully, Marchesi has found a way to convey the gruesomeness and intensity of the industry through a captivating artistic lens, only occasionally broaching the line that separates realism and fetish.