Mark Joshua Epstein: Just below the bang bang
Mark Joshua Epstein explores a sense of the baroque through the lens of exuberant abstraction. Inherent in the paintings is a kind of dandy-aesthetic, as Epstein investigates modes for thinking about sexuality, uncoupled from its traditional association with corporeal desire. These works play with obfuscation and revealing, while teetering on the edge of taste. Colours are amped up, patterns delivered through the imperfect marks of the artist’s hand.
The title refers to a remark by British-Iranian journalist Christiane Amanpour on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. While discussing her work as a war correspondent, she explains that to survive, one must inhabit the space “just below the bang bang” – or, just below the gunfire. Within this idea Epstein sees a metaphor for the formal decisions in his own work, lurking just below the threat of disaster, nearly falling apart at a moment's notice. These forms in these works are piled, butted up against, leaning on – structures always on the verge of toppling over.
The metaphor grows with the current American political situation, in which the margin has rapidly become a more dangerous place to dwell. Suddenly questions arise about what kinds of lives will need to be lived in the shadows as threats to minority groups like the LGBTQ community escalate.
There is gayness lurking in Epstein’s recent abstract compositions. Unlike say, the hanky code, where a single colour denotes a particular sexual proclivity, his works are meant to be looked at for their combinations of colours – for their discordant colour stories, to borrow a phrase from fashion. He is far less interested in hues or patterns in isolation than he is in these elements forced together – layered, interrupted, obfuscated and otherwise occupying the same spaces. The work says to the viewer, take these elements together, or not at all.
Some passages have a purposeful, almost baroque overwrought quality. Neon is celebrated, often coming through in fields of clumsily rendered pattern. There is a worshipping of the hard-edged but not quite a mastery of it. Things are wrong (and go wrong) on purpose. The works are meant to be funny and self-conscious, winking and teary-eyed all at once. It’s a Sunday night drag show where everyone’s makeup is a little bit smeared and everyone’s voice is a little bit raspy from the weekend’s antics.
The things Epstein makes are inspired by the revered and the crass – by the titans of geometric abstraction and by the cheap plastic tablecloths sold by the yard at dollar stores. In his studio practice there is no distinction between capital ‘A’ art, with its authoritarian stamp, and mass-produced (and mass-consumed) design, with its anonymous creators never getting to claim credit. The work celebrates all of it.
Mark Joshua Epstein was born in Washington DC, USA, in 1979 and lives in New York, USA. He attended Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto (2000-01), School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University, Boston (1998-2002) and Slade School of Fine Art, London (2002-04). Recent solo and two-person exhibitions include ‘Excavators’ (with Will Hutnick), Demo Projects, Springfield, Illinois, ‘House Proud’, Biquini Wax, Mexico City (2016), and ‘A Risky Investment for Boys on the Move’, Brian Morris Gallery, New York (2014), ‘I Can’t Remember Where I Live’, Center for The Visual Arts, Illinois State University (2013), and ‘All of me is asking, all of me is thinking…’, Vane, Newcastle upon Tyne (2012). Recent group exhibitions include ‘Small Victories’, School 33, Baltimore, ‘Vox XII’, Vox Populi, Philadelphia, ‘PPP: Painters Painting on Paper’, Schema Projects, Brooklyn (2016). Epstein has had residencies in Féral Space, México City, Illinois State University, Millay Colony, Austerlitz, New York, and Saltonstall Foundation, Ithaca, New York.
Vane was founded in 1997 in Newcastle upon Tyne in the North East of England. Vane opened a permanent gallery space in Newcastle city centre in 2005. In October 2011 Vane launched a gallery space on the first floor of Commercial Union House, 39 Pilgrim Street in the centre of Newcastle. Vane represents the work of a number of artists, both from across the UK and internationally, as well as showing the work of invited artists in collaboration with other galleries. The gallery directors are Paul Stone and Christopher Yeats. Vane is supported by Arts Council England.
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