by Maria Porges
In the 21st century, everyone is a photographer, a camera (phone) clutched in hand at all times. On multiple fronts, photographic art is pushing back against this awful ubiquity. One popular thread of contemporary practice that asserts the medium’s continued power and originality is camera-less work, brilliantly represented in Vanessa Marsh’s current exhibition of photograms evoking the star-filled night sky. Sometimes its expanse is seen above silhouettes of trees or mountains, along a distant horizon. In other pictures, we seem to be looking out of the mouth of a cave, like our prehistoric ancestors, gazing at the spinning stars. And several works suggest deep-space images of galaxies and nebulae, explosions of light and color that would seem impossibly bright if it were not for the pictures sent back by the Hubbell telescope with which we have become familiar.
Marsh’s process is complicated, involving multiple media and processes both analog and digital. For the color work she made paintings in various hues of transparent ink on Mylar, adding a spattering of black gesso (whatever she paints is reversed in the final image). The silhouettes of trees, mountains and cave openings are sometimes drawn, sometimes borrowed (as with mountains taken from Ansel Adams photographs), carefully assembled, then scanned and reversed. All of these elements, laid over photographic paper, come together in the darkroom to create, over successive exposures, the picture she has imagined.
A longtime maker of staged photographs of one kind or another, Marsh has been perfecting her current method and subject matter since 2012. Earlier black-and-white photograms of Ferris wheels, palm trees or water towers, dark against the gray tones of the night sky in a light-polluted city, gave way to her current preoccupation with evoking what can only be described as the sublime. This aesthetic ideal, refined in the late 18th century, declared that certain landscapes inspire awe and even terror in their limitlessness. Virtually all of her Nebula compositions, featuring explosions of brilliant color, confront viewers with that quality. At the same time, the artist’s enduring affection for the romanticism of the Hudson River School asserts itself in the vast sweep of violet-tinged sky in Arches 2, or the contrast of precisely rendered foreground and distant, muffled horizon in Cave 3, ameliorating any momentary fears we might have with an overlay of sheer beauty.
Given that the light we see in the night skies is already years, centuries or even eons old by the time it reaches us, it becomes apparent that Marsh’s real subject is time. Each night, she seems to be saying, is the same, and yet different, as the sky shifts and the stars circle, hour-by-hour. The stalactites and stalagmites framing the sky in Cave 5 remind us of our own short duration on this planet. Only 30,000 years ago, Paleolithic people painted pictures of animals in caves like the one imagined here — a scant second, compared to the universe’s billions of years.
In one of the most recent works here, Trees 3, Marsh shifts the point of view. Instead of looking towards a distant horizon, we’re looking up, as if lying on the ground in a forest, conifers ringing an oculus of dark sky filled with silky skeins of vivid green and yellow pricked with white. It’s the kind of thing that we might have done when young, trying to grasp the idea of eternity, when events at the distance of a decade still seemed so far away as to be unimaginable, let alone billions of years. Once upon a time, we felt ourselves falling — an experience Marsh’s haunting images recall, over and over, with tender elegiac grace.