Jenine Marsh’s recent work in sculpture and installation is confrontational—you might describe it as unapologetic and frank, thoughtfully impolite and occasionally impolitic. Her installation sensibility is situational, with discreet objects accompanying casual floor spills and fragments, drawing attention to both the viewer’s own component parts and the architectural idiosyncrasies of the spaces in which she’s been asked to show art. Her investment in traditional craft, notably metal casting, butts up against offhanded manipulation of found objects as blunt as garbage can lids and dried flowers. A sense of surplus is a primary takeaway—not excess or exuberance or cluttered overabundance but a consistent feeling of more than you really need or want to deal with. This may not add up to family fun, but it’s a welcome respite from the mix of moral posturing and ingratiation on offer around town the last few years. Marsh’s latest show was likewise an accumulation of obstinate material propositions orchestrated for a specic spatial envelope. Cooper Cole Gallery’s semi-subterranean space is one of Toronto’s better places to show sculpture: the cube-ish proportions, the brief but broad approach from above, the slight whiff of bunker and the damp acoustics all give the space a somewhat theatrical mise-en-scène. In one of her largest exhibitions to date, Marsh put the room to work, merging contents with container and implicating the visitor immediately upon entry. You’re standing on the art before you know it.
The show is dominated by three approximately identical grey discs, each measuring about one foot deep and six feet in diameter, backed up against three of the four walls. The discs are individually draped with heavy transparent polyethylene, held in place with an unlikely combination of nails driven through pennies. Each disc is variously embellished, notably with one pair of life-size cast bronze feet per disc, projecting forward through the plastic wrap from a cylindrical stump at the disc’s centre. The cast feet are encrusted with cast coins, and/or stuffed with actual newspaper. In two instances, a pair of feet clutches flower-like clusters of coins in the cavity formed between the arches, in what might be construed as sexual invitation, depending on your height.
The discs themselves have the appearance of generic, mass-produced fountain basins tipped on their sides—the sort that might, in happier times, have been placed in a garden, supporting a topless lady sculpture spilling water from a bottomless jug. A variety of visual hints suggests that their concrete appearance is artifice, including the spray stucco finish and the apparent ease with which the finishing nails have been used to secure the plastic sheets to them. As objects, allusions to Robert Morris’s early fibreglass component sculptures, famously parodied by Ken Lum, are an easy entry point. But Marsh resists the minimalist imperative to predictable sequence (and Lum’s cheekiness), hanging one of the three discs on the wall a couple of feet from the floor, resting the other two on edge on the floor and against the wall; forgoing the opportunity to lie one prone on the floor, where she has instead maniacally pounded more coins into concrete seam lines.
The potential for a moment of quiet visual repose suggested by the repetition of a strong, reduced form is everywhere disrupted by a racket of details that require ongoing attention. The plastic shrouds simultaneously undermine our ability to apprehend the discs’ strong gestalt and to obscure their materiality, while prompting speculation on the line, both physical and psychological, between preservation and suffocation. The coins ’n nails fixture system pits provisional against preposterous. The real, cast and smooshed coins populating the floor and in the basins, some with messages taped to them reminiscent of those desperate candy valentine hearts, feel less like cast wishes and more like remnants from an unspecified ritual episode. The ceiling box light fixtures, tweaked with pink gels and trapped debris— foremost among several elements in the show less than immediately noticeable—cast a subtle, dull and, yup, sickly pink pallor over the whole lot. This all generates a kind of seething, unsettled ambience. Whether ennui- or rage-driven is not totally clear, but one suspects a bit of both. Plus, a lingering aroma of uncertainty, frustration, malfunction and impotence.
The lengthy textual support for the show by Angell Callander seeks to position the work as an exposition of a laundry list of MFA Marx-isms, seen through the lens of the droll American postmodernist Frederic Jameson. Personally, and paraphrasing Irving Berlin, I think the Marx in the Marsh is less Karl, more Harpo. Eloquent in a mute but noisy way, able to invest dumb objects with iconoclastic clatter. Or, if you feel obliged to invoke a canonical theoretical position for the work, I suggest looking rather to Bataille’s thoughts on surplus, expenditure and waste. Consider the show as a rumination on the burden of leftovers and the too much of just about everything, all stewing in a pinkish-grey inertial soup.
In any case, I’m more inclined to put Marsh’s work to use in a reconsideration of recent art history, starting with Morris and Carl Andre, Eva Hesse and Cady Noland (leaving Marisa Merz for another day), and reflect on the possibility that minimalism was counterrevolutionary in recognizing that human society is at least as engaged in meaningless repetition as historical progress. And that critiquing the 19th-century pipe dream of reducing our social development to clearly defined if unpredictably timed stages of production was central to the program. Marsh’s juxtaposition of art historical models—the repetition and readymades, the hand-crafted details, the scatter, the “poverty,” unmonumentality, etc.—prompted this line of thought and helped me situate the work. I could then move on to appreciate the implicit violence of some of her gestures, the material noise, the air of despondency and humility, as measures of her contemporaneity and relevance, and her kinship with a gang of fellow sculptors like Kelly Jazvac, Georgia Dickie and Kate Newby. Rather than cheerleading an ideological position, or wearing a sociological corrective on its sleeve, this work feels to me like a manifestation of an enduring will to form in the face of our present state of mass uncertainty. It is unpretentious, direct and disconcerting. And best of all, it leaves lots to my imagination. ❚
“Jenine Marsh: How to Fulfill a Wish” was exhibited at Cooper Cole Gallery, Toronto, from May 27, 2023, to July 8, 2023.
James Carl is an artist who lives in Toronto.