The subjects of Fredrik Marsh’s photographs are assemblies of simple, common materials and objects: paper, plasterboard, string, and lightstands. In calling these pictures “constructions,” he stresses their relationship to certain traditions of contemporary sculpture and to fabricated rather than found quality. The visual quality of the photographs, however, the concern for rendering, tonal richness, and control of light, suggest a strong link to certain classic photographic traditions. This kind of dichotomy is central to Marsh’s method and finds echoes in his contrasting use of light and shadow, in his combinations of contrasting materials, and through his building of metaphors in the dichotomy between what something literally is and what it might figuratively represent. Marsh’s goal is to create an abstract visual vocabulary which is responsive to the psychic energies generated by thought and feeling as one attempts to understand one’s place in the world. The pictures become what Marsh thinks of as personal symbols and icons, embodying the tension between the visceral and the intellectual, the conscious and unconscious, the private and public.
A central question in Marsh’s work is the role of abstraction in a medium generally characterized by its realism, and his pictures explore a variety of approaches to that question. Three pictures are particularly helpful in understanding this exploration, as each one includes as a major element the same object, a large piece of leather. (This object has a strong personal relevance for Marsh. It was given to him as a boy by his uncle after they had cut out a section of it to make a telescope case.) What these three photographs together illustrate is the manner in which Marsh, by changing the appearance and context of the leather, can modulate the role of abstraction, changing it both in type and effect.
The earliest of the three pictures, made in 1983, is also visually the simplest, showing a close-up section of the suspended leather which appears relatively light against dark ground. The picture stresses what one might call the leather’s “essence,” the manner in which its pliability responds to the forces of suspension and gravity and its surface to light. These qualities are contrasted with the aluminum pole suspending the leather. Marsh’s blending of the tones of the metal and leather counteract an easy opposition between, for example, organic and inorganic, giving us something more like the relationship of flesh to bone.
In the second picture, from 1984, the leather has been turned over and appears darker. More important, however, the leather has been unfolded and now takes on the appearance of a human torso, becoming a specific visual metaphor. The other objects in the picture have also become more important: a triangular fragment of plasterboard on which Marsh has painted and marked and the torn-off sprocketed edge of a computer print-out sheet. Both this picture and the one described above, by including a kind of cut-away view, stress a relationship of interior to exterior or of a foreground which conceals something in the background or interior. The third photograph, also from 1984, has become visually more complex, the leather occupying less space in the image, while the board, computer paper, and shadows occupy more. While the objects still carry connotations, they are not “essentialist” or directly metaphoric. Further, exact boundaries between individual objects are more difficult to discern, the picture becoming a chaotic juxtaposition of objects and shadows. In this picture, the role of the leather is multifaceted; one understands its shape more from its shadow projected on the background than from its appearance in the physical construction. In this sense, the picture stresses the process of abstraction, how an object can transform and distort in the context of Marsh’s symbolic, psychic space. By stressing abstraction’s role in transformation, Marsh directs the viewer toward a less rationally ordered state of consciousness where object and shadow, thought and feeling, literal and metaphoric meet and interact on equal terms. The viewer is confronted not so much by a complex object as by a complex situation and must therefore find its order or its disorder on his or her own terms.
Essay by Carl Toth, Cranbrook Academy of Art, 1986 from the traveling exhibition & accompanying catalogue, Latent Images: Ten Midwestern Photographers, The 1985 Arts Midwest/National Endowment for the Arts Regional Photography Fellowships.