When we last had lunch together, Mark tells me how excited he is to be painting again, and how he struggles to get the black paint off his hands. I see the soaring ceiling heights of his new Archway loft studio space. I go to Hauser and Wirth to see some of the “self portrait,” black-painted “I”s. But nothing prepares me for the impact of seventeen 4-metre tall black-on-white canvas paintings that make the gallery space as impressive as a gothic cathedral. He seems pretty chuffed himself, freshly bowled over with this new leaf he’s turned over – as he explains to me, “it’s been about the ‘painted I’ and now it’s about ‘I paint.’”
And how! These are bilaterally symmetrical paintings that are exactly twice his height in length by his arm span (his height again) in width. The right side is painted with his right hand, and the left side – a mirror image of the right – with his left. I’m amazed how adept he is with his left hand, and he attributes this dexterity to his guitar-playing. These remind me of lots of things, from Yves Klein’s Anthropomotries, to Abstract Expressionism to Rorschach tests and medieval iconic saints. But what’s kind of shocking is how much of himself – literally – Mark has put into these paintings. These required full body contact, practically a melding of body to canvas, coordination of the right side of the body with the left, and a sustained engagement with the image making that would ensure both sides match. He mentions his recent psychoanalysis, and his determination to be in the moment. He doesn’t say it, but I can’t help giving his girlfriend some credit for this new California-brand of presence and courage.
In the second gallery at H&W are several other pieces. Mark explains that if Id was on display in the first gallery, there’s some Ego and Super Ego here in the second. I guess he is probably referring to the video piece of his shadow walking along Shaftesbury Avenue in the sunshine. He’s wearing sandals and shorts, and the gait and outline are unmistakably his. He describes finding just the right angle of the sun and position to hold his iPhone (in his teeth) in order to capture the shadow just so. It’s captivating, watching this disembodied presence among scurrying West End pedestrians, like a spirit ambling among humans.
My favourite piece in this second gallery is Orrery, which consists of four screens that form a square where the viewer stands to watch. It’s an oak tree planted in 1951 for the Festival of Britain, centered in a roundabout located near Mark’s childhood home. Mark drove around the roundabout hundreds of times, recording the tree in all four seasons (hence the four screens), with his iPhone blutacked to the driver’s window, positioned consistently with the aid of his spirit level app which he shows me on his phone.
I like the way each of these works in the show imparts a tension between shyness and self-expression, awkwardness and confidence, absence and presence. I feel slightly embarrassed at the physicality of the epic paintings, and yet emboldened by the rules they demonstrate with their prescriptive dimensions and bilateral symmetry. I can imagine the awkwardness I would have felt going round and round the roundabout, and how the horns honking that Mark points out in the audio recording would have totally unnerved me. And yet, the rotation, repetition and orbiting feels imperative, and that decision to record not just one rotation, but an entire year of seasons, the earth’s rotation around the sun, has a logic that overcomes personal reservations. How would it have felt to walk down a busy street with my phone in my mouth? Except that the shadow needed to look independent, and the means of its recording had to be concealed. How better to hide it than within the shadow itself? Each work overcomes some potential awkwardness by sticking to a rule that legitimises the effort and takes the ego out of the equation.