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Alternative Realities - Roy Exley 2001


Oliver Marsden is a young painter whose work dynamically reconciles the world of traditional painting with that world of hi-tech visual images generated by such sciences as microbiology, particle physics, cosmology and electron microscopy – areas of research in which the Scientific and the Divine seem to move ever closer. His finely worked images seem to transcend our usual perception of painting, and in turn elicit responses above and beyond those that we would expect when viewing paintings. The subtle tonal gradations he achieves, that complement the complex, writhing and rhythmic forms, playing across the surface of his paintings suggest x-ray or infra-red images, bringing something to life that normally evades the eye. The viewer seems to occupy a position of privilege here. He or she is witness to scenes, which are at the very least esoteric; compressed, formally, but perplexingly into circular ports whose ocular associations suggest electro-micrographic reproductions. What has Marsden stumbled on here? Are these boiling perturbations pure figments of his imagination, spontaneously accessed, or is he acting as a conduit for some alien force attempting to transform our perception of reality? Perusing the paintings for signs of technique offers no relief from these urgent questions – as with those other intricate enigmas, crop-circles, the methodology remains exquisitely concealed.

In describing an ecstatic experience that he had undergone, Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote:- “There are moments and it’s only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the terrible harmony ... a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear.” Oliver Marsden could well be transposing such an experience into visual equivalence as the swarming surfaces of his paintings create those phantasmagoric presences. We are reminded, at one end of the cosmic scale, of microscopic life forms such as bacteria or virus cultures, or at the other end, the seething surface of the solar furnace whose awesome rhythms dwarf our life-spans which become diminished to the blink of an eye.

The cosmic intricacies of Marsden’s paintings deny the clamp of formulaic interpretation, they play tricks on the viewer’s eyes, concavities become convexities, wrinkled dessications become series’ of restless effulgent swellings, shadows become reflections, space becomes mass. Are these a scientist’s mad hallucinations or an artist’s tilt at sub-molecular representation? Whatever our conclusion, there is something distinctly oblique about these works, something decidedly off-kilter. Marsden undoubtedly has a mischievous streak helping to drive his work. He teases the viewer into a series of erroneous assumptions, sidetracks him or her into a sequence of interpretative cul-de-sacs, ushers him or her into a succession of false positions and generally refuses to state his case. The colours are typically muted as if filtered and ameliorated by their journey across the infinite tracts of space. There is an ineffability here, which hints at the sublime; that we are dealing with massive issues here is the covert message whispered by these enigmatic paintings. The paradoxical sting in the tail here is that Marsden’s paintings seem to court the danger of being regarded merely for the quality of their painstakingly achieved textures, and sophisticated surfaces, but they transcend this cul-de-sac without betraying the reason why. The catalysts driving their mien remain tantalisingly obscure, something of a mystery. An unfathomable aura or patina seems to overlay and energise what are otherwise hard-won decorative intricacies. The type of alchemy that seems to be at work here is that accessed only through intuition, hinting at the play of the supernatural.

Marsden’s most recent paintings have taken on the cast of digitally manipulated or generated liquid surfaces whose behaviour contravenes all the universal laws of rhythm and equilibrium. Waveforms, which are alarming in their aberration from the norm, seem to obey a disturbed and disturbing arrhythmia rather than the harmonic rhythms created by natural forces. He works spontaneously, starting with an idea and then letting the process have a free rein as the work develops, permitting the paint to have its say and allowing the element of chance to enter in. Nature seems to have been circumvented here, we are confronted by scenarios here that H.P. Lovecraft might well have been pleased with, such horrors would have amplified those of his Miskatonic River, whose dystopia would have been enhanced by the distorted rhythms of these out-of-phase waves lapping on the stricken shores of Arkham.

Marsden admits that he is fascinated by that interface between the organic and the digital where random patterns meet mathematical strictures, and where the permutations thrown up by these meetings, are constantly in flux. It is, undoubtedly the liminality of this interface that charges his paintings with the aura of the supernatural. When analysing painting, it is generally taken as read that our perusal of a painting demands a good deal of perceptual selfdeception. Paintings are all about pigments applied to surfaces – the artist’s role – the viewers role in this negotiation involves an exploration of the illusions created by the artist upon that surface, and the less we are aware of those illusions, the more seamless the deception, the more accomplished the work. Oliver Marsden, in his latest work has added an extra layer, so to speak, he has complicated this negotiation, by creating credible rippling liquid surfaces whose patterns of ripples distort and defy not only the plane surface upon which they are painted but also the laws of nature, whereby these images become incredible, in effect defeating the object of the exercise, creating images which become, enigmatic, disturbing, and which question the viewer’s role in this whole negotiation. We are left in limbo, visited by the uncanny, thrown by the fact that here we are viewing a familiar scenario tipped out of kilter by weird and unnatural phenomena. The technique is exquisite the effects disturbing, the viewing, compelling.

Roy Exley 2001.