James Marshall escapes flatness at icon

Leaping off the wall


'DYNAMIC COMPOSITION II' Graphite, plaster, PVA on paper by James Marshall.

In the first show of the season at the always engaging Icon Contemporary Art, James Marshall's collection of new works breathes life into the paper bag. Literally. Consisting of dark, stony figurations of graphite-covered bags and the more traditional gestural drawings that helped conceive them, the show — Marshall's first solo — is a touchstone for a distinct and holistic artistic process.

To arrive at its present form, this work had to go through a peculiar evolution. As a personal challenge years ago, he rejected the straight line. The restraint steered him to making thick graphite drawings of ovoid patterns on white paper. He would apply the graphite so thickly that it would warp the paper, giving it the three-dimensional qualities of sculpture, like reliefs. Some of these appear here — untitled, elliptical, and slightly illusory — and while they're recent iterations, they usefully display the conceptual origins of Marshall's mature works: the bags.

Arranged in various poses on pedestals throughout the gallery, each of these possesses nuanced expressive distinction. "Bridge and Recline" conjoins four medium-sized bags in a classic figurative repose, one of them arching up from three more supine others. "The Water Carrier," a tall, nearly freestanding figure upon which graphite is glossed with milk paint for a lighter feel, conjures the matriarchal persona of its title. And "Deconstructing Donald," a boxy stack of bags set sideways with mouths open toward the viewer, is Marshall's homage to Donald Judd, conjuring the minimalist sculptor's run fashioning industrial wall boxes in the 1970s.

The deployment of paper bags as a primary unit of vocabulary may seem whimsical at first, but eventually they make sense. Quite literally, Marshall is playing with and reshaping cultural history. Paper bags have all the same material properties as drawing paper, yet few, if any, of the associations acquired through social engagement. They're functional; Western. As Marshall noted in conversation, each bag comes stamped with the name of the worker who made it.

In other words, they have a certain amount of character even in raw form, and the artist's painstaking process nurses even more. First, he uses a brush to layer each side with several thick coats of a compound of plaster, PVA glue, graphite, water, and various hardeners. After weeks of coating and drying — a process somewhat obliquely incorporating elements from both painting and drawing — the bags adopt a rigid pliability. From there the work becomes compositional and sculptural. And it fundamentally cannot be rushed.

It's all well and good that Marshall is able to nod toward personal influences across three different media, but from a critical perspective, it's somewhat radical to see an everyday object given such a qualitative makeover. Nearly all the formal traits of the paper bag have been altered — color, texture, stickiness, flatness — and yet they're still very much what they are. It's like plastic surgery at its best.

Laid out over two floors, the show at Icon contains several outliers suggesting the process isn't yet fully evolved. Three large sheets of paper revive Marshall's heavy ovoid drawings using walnut ink instead of (primarily) graphite, replacing some of the heaviness with more natural, earthy texture. And bags are put away in favor of other objects on three occasions, most effectively in "The Length of Memory," a cluster of ribbony paper shards that Marshall hand-kneaded using graphite-coated gloves, stacked in pile like kindling, or discarded letters.

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