Mark Francis, ‘Echo Vision’, Kerlin Gallery, Dublin

February 26th – March 26th, 2022

 

Published: April 8, 2022

Information and exhibition images: https://www.kerlingallery.com/exhibitions/mark-francis16#tab:thumbnails;tab-1:slideshow;slide-1:0

Nine years after completing postgraduate research into the work of artist Mark Francis, ‘Echo Vision’ at Kerlin Gallery presents an opportunity to update. Its display of old and new paintings in close proximity promises to reveal something of what has changed and what has remained the same. It makes explicit the self-reflexivity in this artist's practice, whereby work from the past may inform new compositions. 

Decades have elapsed since Francis first developed his distinctive visual language, one steadily deployed in the intervening years in pursuit of innovation and discovery. Its most familiar hallmarks date to a period of immersion in monoprint during the 1980s. Asides from making processual breakthroughs, subsequently translated into paint, this consolidated a shift in attention from a direct, if abstracted, response to landscape towards the forms and structures intrinsic to nature. 

The motifs arising from this reorientation have expanded from a preoccupation with microscopic entities to include visually rich evocations of light and sound, and phenomena associated with the cosmos. Each painting attests to a fascination with the manifold forms invisible to the naked eye. Yet all are made in the same way; in this, Francis says, he has 'never wavered'. [1] The source material is often scientific, but not used literally. By insisting on never knowing too much, his works retain ambiguity and a sense of mystery.

The artist's principal mode of making involves applying paint, wet on wet, to usually large-scale canvases. In a video recorded in his studio, he is seen working from above on a flat support (an approach taken from printmaking), and will move it around or rotate it as required. [2] He has detoured into other disciplines, including sculpture, and tends to bring what he learns 'back into the paintings'. [3] The variety he achieves using self-limited means mirrors how from basic building blocks nature creates its multiplicity. 

Francis has spoken in interview about striving to establish surfaces and structures conducive to realising the images he holds in his mind. Guided by intuition, some are achieved by predetermined methods, others more spontaneously.  [4]  A tension arises between the worlds conjured by the accretion of layers and the smooth veneer of their totality. This is evident when the mounted canvases are viewed obliquely from the side and both affirms and delimits their spatial illusions. Similarly, the severing of forms at planar edges enforces the notion of the fragment while pointing, in our imagination, to continuity. 

A choreography involving opposites is evident across Francis' works: the controlled and uncontrolled, divided and whole, ordered and chaotic. Believing that the latter pairing can co-exist on a single canvas, [5] he enacts their interplay by creating and adulterating grid-like structures. A ubiquitous and iconic form in our physical and virtual environments – as well as in art history – the grid is, he says, 'a construct which is of fundamental importance in my work.'  [6] Its vertical and horizontal elements are almost always at least implied. 

In more elaborate and heavily layered compositions than are included in this show, some of which interweave diagonals, meanders, tessellations, zig-zags and dribbles, strategically overlapped lines secure the sought-for integrity. [7] Thanks to figures such as Edward Lorenz and Benoit Mandelbrot, chaos is now understood  as complex order rather than a random state. It is allied to the concept of the fractal, also of interest to Francis, [8] whereby self-similar forms are found at different scales. 

The first encounter in ‘Echo Vision’ is with Veil, 1993, a monochrome painting wholly obscured by the blur Francis introduces through rhythmic alla prima over-brushing. It shrouds the composition, challenging our eyes to find something on which to focus. A vague scattering of dark shapes, single and clustered, read as sperm, ‘tails’ linked to form grid lines. Their varied orientations combine with the blur to communicate a sense of movement, things formed and obliterated within a compressed life cycle. 

 

Together, technique and title may allude to the perceptual gap arising from discrepancies between human scale and that of life forms visible with the aid of technology. The word ‘veil’ also recalls the diaphanous barrier believed by some to separate the domains of the living and the dead, and Hindu and Buddhist notions of ‘maya’ as an obscuring of reality by the ‘illusions’ of the phenomenal world.  

The vertical and horizontal sweep of brush or squeegee, used here and ubiquitous in Francis' work, may mimic photography, convey gravitational pull and/or, as he has suggested, 'echo the way we receive information.' [9] It imbues the work with a range of qualitative effects while emphasising the linear, and

the grid, as crucial elements. Line is also found in the streaks created by this technique, while the linearity itself is in tension with the painterly quality of the brushwork. Where both directional elements have been given equal weight, the dynamic is one of oscillation - or, in places, a kind of shudder.

 

Reverb Amplify, 1993, the next painting on display, shares features with Veil while also exhibiting difference. Its palette combines blue-black tones with faint yellow echoes that may serve as the titular ‘amplifications’. The levels of saturation and interaction between vertical and side-to-side brushing evoke, among other associations, the printed textile. 

Over time, Francis transitioned from using medium direct from the tube to mixing and refining colours. [10] The orange-brown backdrop to Transmission Wave 2, 2022 confirms it as a more recent work, its white motifs also more complex than those seen in the earlier canvases. Strung along undulating lines, they bifurcate here and there to infuse the composition with movement. They also tonally reverse the subject-ground interplay seen in Veil and Reverb Amplify. A dominant vertical drag disperses the forms within an up-down continuum, conveying a sense of flow and shimmering light. 

Francis has mentioned that sound was a starting point for a similar painting, and for another called Vibrational Field, also 2022. These drew on imaginings about what occupies the space between people: 'Are there,' he asked, 'frequencies that are passing by?' [11]  Vibrational Field is included in the exhibition, which makes clear its correspondence with Veil and affirms the artist's statement that his new monochrome canvases  'came from looking at embryonic grid paintings' from the early Nineties, which were 'very brushed, very diffused images' . [12] 

 

While its composition has been largely obscured, the most pronounced passages of over-working are confined to alternate vertical bands, creating weave-like patterning. Its motifs emulate audio waves and are more linear than those in Transmission Wave 2. Also made this year,Transverse Wave, synthesises elements of both works: the greyscale palette of Vibrational Field, albeit with an evenly brushed surface, and Transmission Wave 2-like composite forms. 

Positioned between these soft-focus pieces, Vibration, 1999, stands out as considerably more graphic. Large in scale, square in format, its well-defined black grid is set against an almost primary red ground. Highly contrasted black and white discs are ‘threaded’ like beads on its horizontal-vertical structure, singly and in groups of two and three. These have been lightly and precisely dispersed, dragging each from its top profile down and to the right. The centre of the black discs is rendered matt, the periphery in gloss, juxtaposing absorbed and reflected light to create an optical effect. 

Three smaller rectangular canvases on the final wall of the gallery, ReceiverTransmission Vibration and Earth Song, 2022, complete the dialogue between old and new. Familiar features have, again, been reworked in novel combinations. Receiver pairs the linear forms noted in Vibrational Field with the greys and blues of the early paintings from 1993 - all within bands of heavy and light brushwork. Transmission Vibration has a similar but less condensed composition, and alternates light and dark composite forms, while Earth Song closes the show on a colourful, almost decorative note, with its combination of reds, pinks and pale blues.

Francis has described his recent output as 'echoes to lots of things'. After 30-plus years of practice, he reflects: 'there’s going to be a history in there that’s embedded.' That these years of engagement engender opportunity is captured by the exhibition title. As the featured works show, while his creative concerns have evolved, past and present remain intrinsically linked. Ultimately, however, the artist insists, the new has 'got to be different [...]. Otherwise there’s no point in returning to it.' [13]

 ‘Echo Vision’ reveals a movement through the evenly paced, considered unfolding of Mark Francis’ artistic viewpoint. Despite evident variation in scale, colour, motifs and process, the nine paintings, taken in the context of his overall oeuvre, are more alike than dissimilar. This risks conflating into what is common the far more diverse expressions he has mani-fested of his clear, yet continually reinvigorated interests and visual language. At the same time, it reveals consistencies and cultivates sensitivity to smaller differences.

 

[1] Mark Francis interview, March 2nd 2022 [08:30]. https://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/mark-francis-video-interview-echo-vision-kerlin-gallery-dublin?fbclid=IwAR06-yuqgSUpelYlvf7yVgKpZhcpfBmzK3JE54GFedytwrrfvNNnjlR7bZs

[2] Studio montage. Cinematographer, Erin Hope Francis, 2020. https://www.kerlingallery.com/artists/mark-francis#tab:thumbnails;tab-1:slideshow;tab-2:slideshow.

[3] Mark Francis interview, March 2nd 2022 [27:47]. 

[4] From the recently published monograph Mark Francis, 2021, p91.

[5] Mark Francis interview, March 2nd 2022 [18:35]. 

[6] Ibid. [17:16].

[7] From the monograph Mark Francis, 2021, p92.

[8] Ibid., p89.

[9] Mark Francis interview, March 2nd 2022 [10:20]. h

[10] Ibid. [12:12].

[11] Ibid. [22:40].

[12] Ibid. [18:55]. 

[13] Ibid. [19:40].