Plenty of Time: Marc Ross at Work ; “No Explanation Needed”

at The Columbus Cultural Art Center

by The Starr Review

The Columbus Cultural Arts Center felt like the interior of a jewel box when I visited the show of Marc Ross’s painting, which closed on the 29th of August. The space was perfect for the show of large-scale, luminous paintings dominated by single colors. Each had breathing room and glowing room, for Ross’s painting so both, like living organisms.

What’s the difference between a something alive and something that’s not? That’s a Sesame Street concept, isn’t it, a fundamental distinction that we learn in our very early years? Paintings fall into the inanimate category, despite the metaphors any art writers or gallery-goers can fabricate. But Marc Ross’s work does indeed invite a serious reconsideration of the space between animate and inanimate in art.

In the gallery talk that closed this show, No Explanation Needed, the artist confessed to me that he hates to give talks because he has so little to say. He was relieved of the necessity to hold forth by questions from his audience, which revealed a great deal.

The most important thing Ross told us is that each of these works takes a very long time to complete, and that completion is marked simply and practically: It’s done when he sees that he has nothing more to add.

On our close inspection, it becomes clear how much he has accumulated to create deceptively simple works. In this detail of Memento #1, one sees the endless variety of vertical, superficial striations. We note that the line gouged across and into the painting reveals that the surface color sits atop a deep history—an archaeology—of decisions, of which we know only that Ross changed the colors many times. Only he knows what else has happened and what has been expunged on this surface over its long process of becoming what it is where he’s decided it ends.

For Ross, the importance and the pleasure of painting are the process. He has a large studio in the home he shares with his wife. But even she is strictly banned when he is working, because his concentration is so intense.

Yet when he tries to explain what he does in the studio, one would not be mistaken in describing the process as play. While his time is strictly guarded, he is not exactly focused—he doesn’t know what will happen, and he has no strategy. The process is to see what can happen; to allow himself the time and the space and the mental blankness to be relaxed and receptive.

Is this not the state of a child, who can make something out of nothing at any moment, generating great ideas as easily as a swallow flies, whose imagination is as vital an organ as his lungs?

What this artist does is invisible to us because all those months he spends in the studio are in efforts that are painted over. His work is effaced constantly, and allowed to stand only once. If we consider the saw that our bodies continually replace themselves as cells die and slough away, Ross’s paintings are self-renewing bodies, yet without any loss of material. They accrete their histories, growing heavier and thicker with each application of material.

As we usually imagine artistic purpose, during his sequestration the artist will be concentrated on his subject or passion. This might be advancement of a dream, the resolution of a personal angst, or support for a social or political cause in the world. We are a little deflated to hear Ross tell us that he’s not thinking about anything in particular while he works.

My point is that there is never any way to know what goes on in an artist’s mind while s/he is working. “Big” thoughts or “ordinary” ones? Who is to judge? Ultimately, who cares? What Ross has put into these paintings that we can see and experience as viewers is time.

Marc Ross is a contemplative artist, a type of artist for whom there cannot be enough respect. Knowing that we see only the final stages of a work made over months should slow our breathing and tell us to pause before any one of these works. A show like No Explanation Needed is in fact an embarrassment of riches—almost too much—for every painting calls to us, and every one should demand hours of contemplation.

The surfaces of these works are histories of what the artist has been experienced and buried; they are histories inscribed with organized—if inarticulate—conclusions based on experience. These outcomes, present on the surface, satisfy the artist who trusts that he needn’t explain them or himself. We will take them up for what beauty, interest, silliness, or meaning we find or attribute when we explore them. The artist doesn’t tell what’s there; the artist doesn’t tell us what he thought about: as Ross says, he may not even know. The important thing is that the lavish expenditure of time is inherent in the work, and it is now ours to contemplate.

These paintings are steeped in the hundreds of studio hours Ross spent looking at and interacting with these surfaces, making decisions both strategic and spontaneous about what he might do to them. Those decisions are eccentric as far as we know or care: whether he follows academic, industrial, or nursery school procedures doesn’t matter to what we see except to the extent that he wishes to reveal them.

Ross’s paintings document the value of time spent with oneself; of being free and choosing consciousness over obliviousness; of routine experimentation (with no promised outcomes) as sufficient for making private sense whether the cosmos provides it or not. They hint that beauty can arise—and glow—from months and months of uninspired, discretely accomplished efforts. We see how order and vision impose themselves quietly upon patient periods of testing and trial without capitalist ends. We consider that working for our own ends and understanding can create beauty and satisfaction.

The history of the artist’s time, patience, and thoughts inscribed in this art work are presented very directly to us. If we will commit to listening and looking, the communication is as immediate as conversation without the small talk—surprisingly familiar, and mentally and physically liberating. If we spend a little time, it will generate more for us. The time taken for observation creates in the observer much more than it takes, bringing us time and space and vistas forgotten, if not new.

Is artistic creativity always going to produce something novel, topical, or “meaningful?” Sometimes the artist gives us something as old as the earth and human nature, reminding us of our need for quiet, for fallow times, for large questions or contemplation of the inner landscape as opposed to the social one.

Ross paints in a questioning vein that stands out in a busy, egoistic world. His slow and quiet work is refreshingly full of deep life and conversation. Though No Explanation Needed is closed, look for more of Ross’s work coming in the next few months at Ohio University’s Chillicothe branch Bennett Hall Gallery (September through October); and in the Riffe Gallery’s “Inaugural Juried Exhibition,” November 2015 through January 10, 2016.

–Ann Starr, Art Critic

Marc Ross Art