Lee Marshall talks to Susie Pentelow about his visual vocabulary, from the virtual landscapes of computer games to the reams of physical fragments collated from magazines and books.
Your work has a clear and (in many cases) recurrent vocabulary made up of symbols and motifs. Where do these come from?
The use of the word ‘vocabulary’ in the question is very suitable as for several years I have been developing a visual vocabulary from which to make paintings. The symbolic elements and motifs come from a range of influences encompassing painting, animation, computer-generated graphics, and photography. Each one of these essentially deals with the creation of images and the communication of ideas on a variety of levels. I see my work as being a product of the deconstruction and reconstitution of these various modes of image-making.
When I search for imagery it can be either an active or passive activity, in that I’ll either actually sit down and hunt for materials I want to use or I’ll just happen across images that resonate with me in some way when I’m leafing through magazines, books or websites. I have several folders full of fragments of printed material that I’ve found and painted marks that I’ve made, as well as folders on my computer containing imagery sourced from the web. These collections of source material are the starting point for much of my work, as I make collages and studies from the imagery I’ve gathered, bringing various elements together until they gain their own ‘pictorial logic’ that I could not have achieved within my paintings otherwise. The motifs, subjects, and symbols that recur within my work are always changing and this is linked to the imagery that I have been collecting at specific times, but there are several recurring ideas that remain integral to my work. Some elements are more graphical and are used to examine the formal qualities of graphic communication in order to better understand how space and form can be expressed in two dimensions.
Other motifs refer more directly to the act of painting or, more broadly, the act of making and constructing. Often I’ll utilize fragments of images depicting materials like wood, stone, metal or cloth. These introduce illusory textures into the painting to provide a contrast against the synthetic qualities of the more graphic elements and the artifice of the painted mark, but also act as reminders of the raw materials that we use to build the world around us, which are intended to emphasise the contrast between virtual space within the paintings and the actual space they occupy.
Do you consider any of your works to be landscapes? Some certainly seem to adhere to our conception of the landscape painting, but this could equally be down to the viewer automatically applying a recognizable structure to something much more abstract.
I don’t consider any of the works to be strictly landscapes, but I would say that the earlier paintings do make reference to the landscape genre. However, when present within my work it is perhaps the landscape genre being quoted by someone who’s played too many computer games, as I’m more influenced by the way in which virtual spaces within games are composed: there is the in-game environment itself, all the objects that furnish the environment, the non-player characters inhabiting the virtual world and finally the player’s avatar moving through this virtual space. When I was initially exploring various approaches to making paintings I wanted to find a similar method of working that would allow me to spontaneously ‘construct’ an image, so I would start with an infinite void - essentially a flat or gradated colour field - then place a horizon line or platform to ground the various compositional elements and provide a sense of space. Then I would populate this space with various forms, treating the painting like an unplanned collage that would responsively develop. Through this way of working, I was trying to keep the painting process playful and instinctive but I came to find it difficult to maintain focus within the work, with compositions developing to a certain point before being difficult for me to satisfactorily resolve. As the work has developed, I’ve come to accept the pictorial space of the canvas for what it is and now enjoy the act of arranging within the borders of the canvas.
Regarding your point about the viewer and what they apply or read within the paintings, this is certainly in mind when making the paintings and I do try to give the viewer an entry point into my work. It is a juggling act though, as I aim to have a mutual point of understanding between myself and the audience, but I also want each piece to surprise me from a creative perspective. This is another reason why I have begun to move away from the ‘landscape’ approach to making the work, as it would tend towards creating narratives within the work which seemed too clear-cut and obvious to me. If narratives do develop, I want them to be flexible to the viewers’ responses.
In some of your paintings, such as 'Field Trip III’ and 'Geology Juggle’, your work exhibits a particular tension between the depth of field and the flatness of certain motifs or surfaces. How do you maintain a balance between these forces? Is it difficult or does it come quite instinctively?
It is a constantly developing thing, which I guess has a lot to do with technique and the way the paintings are composed, but equally, it doesn’t feel unnatural for me to work in this way. It is tricky as I’ve been constantly refining the means of achieving a sense of depth and illusion, but as I mentioned before, I’ve begun to realize more and more how important it is for my paintings to read across the flat area of the canvas. This is all part of the deconstruction of various approaches to painting that is running through the majority of my work. I’m glad that you bring up 'Geology Juggle’ in particular, as that painting was very much an attempt to both render depth but at the same time deal with the flatness of pattern. I feel that, like a pattern, it falls into a certain rhythm and repetition, but it defies being a strict pattern at the same time and also suggests a sense of animation. In ‘Field Trip III’ the tension between implied space and the flatness of the actual painting is created by the inclusion of the loose painterly section in the top left of the picture, which sits there as if it had been stuck over the image. This kind of element acts as a visual obstacle as well as part of the overall composition, undermining the illusion of depth while also giving the impression of a layered image.
Tell us about your compositions that enter the realm of the sculptural - those which involve objects or surfaces which are three-dimensional. How do you see these - are they paintings/sculptures/installations?
Personally, I don’t think of them as sculptures, instead identifying them as objects made by a painter. They are experiments in bringing the aesthetic concerns of my paintings into actual space, but I also feel that they have the potential to be components or props within larger installations. When making them, I was thinking of the way in which films maintain an illusion through set design, prop-making, and practical effects, with the sets usually being a facade and objects made to look tangible while belying what they actually are. I draw a parallel between this and representational painting as both attempt to engineer the suspension of disbelief and I see little difference between the distancing effect of the surface of the screen and the surface of the canvas - even traditional theatre productions designate the space between the audience and the spectacle. So far, when my objects have been displayed they have been presented in such a way as to not allow the viewer to fully view every aspect, which has enabled me to focus more on painterly concerns through the objects, but I am still curious to see how the work would develop if it became more sculptural.
Looking ahead to the following months, do you have any new projects coming up?
At the moment I am exploring ways to expand my painting practice and I am examining how digital media can be employed in my work. I am hoping to develop a web-based project alongside this. I am also looking forward to doing a feature with the literary magazine Ambit, which will be available later this year.
For more information on Lee Marshall’s practice, visit http://www.lamarshall.co.uk.