The cartography of conflict in the work of Marcus Jansen

By Tom de Freston:


Marcus Jansen, solo show at Lazirides Gallery: ‘Whistleblower’ – 11 Rathbone Place, London W1T 1HR. Until Thursday 20th of November 2014

Marcus Jansen is a cartographer of conflict. A number of his paintings map the impact of war on the urban environment. His current solo show at Lazarides Gallery (London), which comes to an end tomorrow, is his most significant UK show to date. Two large mixed-media works depict coastlines which echo the shape of rifles; the hard-edged perimeter tells us this is a man-made coastline, the border of an urban populous. There are no humans present, only the odd plastic toy elephant. It suggests war as an apocalyptic game. The topography is displayed as if viewed from an aerial descent, making the viewer a sky-bound voyeur and the scene one which defies gravity. Jansen’s work seems to suggest: this is our destination.

One painting explicitly quotes Delacroix’s ‘Liberty Leading the People’ (1830). This was a painting made during the July Revolution in France of 1830. Liberty is personified as a heroic maternal figure, flourishing the flag of the revolution and leading the nation’s citizens in an uprising against the regime of King Charles X.

So what are we to make of Jansen recycling an image with such specific historical and political connotations and rehousing it in a contemporary context? It is important to recognise that Delacroix’s image has become so iconic that it no longer really stands for a particular revolution, but a revolutionary spirit in general. In this sense perhaps we are to read the image as relating to the various uprisings of the last few years, euphemistically called the ‘Arab Spring’. Except that Jansen’s additional iconography – British, American and Scottish flags – negates such a tenuous analysis. The clues come if we dig further. Delacroix’s Liberty leads a throng of people over the barricades. Jansen’s figure is solitary; she emerges from an abstract storm of mud and shit. Here, freedom marches without the support of the people.

Jansen has witnessed and engaged with the events that have unfolded as a consequence of 9/11 as both someone who calls New York ‘home’ and someone who fought in the First Gulf War. Yet his images, particularly this image of Liberty, is not one of blind patriotism; quite the opposite. His painting suggests the folly of war, casting the Anglo-American axis and its adventures into Iraq and Afghanistan as a vain attempt to push the idea of ‘Liberty’ forward without the support or backing of the people.

The message is clear. I think the strongest work in the show, however, is when the paintings are less dogmatically didactic, when the politics informs rather than dictates, or shows rather than tells.

Homeland Security

In ‘Homeland Security’ a slate grey sky is the backdrop to an acidic orange architecture reminiscent of US prisoner jumpsuits. A figure lies slumped in the middle of a mud-covered courtyard. Everything about the scene is reminiscent of press images of Guantanamo Bay. The painting is taken beyond illustration by the shaft of blue light which breaks through the sky and the architecture, shining down on the solitary figure. The blue zings against its complimentary orange, creating an eerie filmic quality to the scene. The whole thing feels unreal, or perhaps half real, due to the interplay of the familiarity of the setting and the strangeness of this sci-fi column of light. Jansen’s paintings push us into liminal spaces, into what Freud called the unheimlich, best translated as the ‘unhomely’.

The light on the figure suggests surveillance, as if there is an all-seeing eye looking down on the individual. The architecture might suggest Guantanamo Bay on a literal level, but its fragile state (the walls appear on the verge of collapse) suggest a more indeterminate geography. It takes no great leap to read this image in allegorical terms, as the all-seeing eye of the state looking down on us, the figure as a metaphor for all individuals. This places the image in a wider geopolitical context of issues of state surveillance, which brings Snowden and Wikileaks to mind. Jansen is tapping into an Orwellian spirit, housing the fears of 1984 into the architecture and politics of the present.

Hidden away in the show are a set of works which Jansen suggests mark a new departure. They are a series of landscapes, seven in total, depicting single figures, some human, and some animal. One depicts a cow looking down a hole, another a zebra sinking into the picture plane.


Talking to Jansen it is clear the surfaces are built up first, treated as abstract planes, in which intense colour is laid down (poured, dripped, pulled and dragged) and then over this a layer of fractured black marks, reflecting the way forms open and close as we move through a landscape. There is the sense that the surfaces are made with an expressive abandon, allowing tone and colour to shift and mutate until something seems to happen. Then Jansen starts to find space in the flatness of the abstract planes, and forms and possibilities emerge. The surface of the picture presents him with options for how depth and narrative might be found within. The odd line and motif may be added, something as simple as a red horizon line or concentric circle depicting a target. With a sophisticated simplicity Jansen creates these environments, which act as stages upon which he can direct action. By the very nature of these spaces they exist on the slippery juncture between abstraction and figuration, flicking between the twofold spatial modes of painting: the reality of its depth and the inescapable illusion of depth.

Jansen’s figurative additions are collaged extracts, cut and spliced from a multiplicity of sources. He scours magazines, journals and the internet, looking for additions which might fit a certain composition/landscape. Jansen’s particular approach to collage calls to mind figures such as Hannah Hock and Robert Rauschenberg. Rauschenberg’s screen prints are often seen as synonymous with the experience of channel-hopping on a television, flickering between various visual and narrative registers. The disjunctions present in these latest works by Jansen, with the conscious jarring of space and figure, reflects the more modern experience of internet-browsing, flickering between such an array of sources as to feel almost totally lost in a void-like space. Jansen’s aesthetic in these new landscape paintings is a painterly expressionism for the digital age.

‘In Between Rubble’ and ‘Transforming Landscapes’ particularly captured my interest. Both depict small boys isolated in landscapes. They remind me, as so many landscapes of this nature do, of Michael Andrews’ great Thames Estuary paintings. Those are paintings made at the end of an artist’s life, an elegy to the inevitability of life’s transience. Jansen’s images are mirrors of this, nostalgic reflections of lost youth. I write this article whilst on a family holiday in Devon, the county I grew up in. This personal anecdote is relevant because the images remind me of this childhood, in particular wandering with joyful aimlessness through fields, playing games with berries and seeing nature as a giant playground in which the seemingly still time of youth would never end. What Jansen depicts is exactly what Keats alludes to in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’ – that sense of longing for that ‘slow time’.

In ‘In Between Rubble’ a blue child is present, teetering half way up the painting. The figure is a photograph which has been cut and lifted from a magazine. Its appropriation means the original context is lost, so there is a sense of loss in the very mechanics of the way the pictures are made. Every photograph is a signal of a small death, and every splicing from a source is another metaphorical death, which means this child is now present in a half-life fantasy space. The slight twist of the body and the balance between the left and right arms have all the counterpoint mechanics of the Contrapposto of a Classical sculpture, whilst the figure also has a loose informality which only photography can capture. The mix between the two is powerful, creating a sense of a figure in flux, tenderly balanced between one step and the next.

In ‘Transforming Landscapes’ the action is more dynamic, a small boy leaping across a space from left to right. It reminds me of Cartier-Bresson’s iconic image of a silhouetted figure leaping across a puddle. More broadly it reflects Cartier-Bresson’s principles of capturing the ‘Decisive Moment’ of action, the moment of ultimate tension. Photography is mainly analytical, looking to capture and distill events from reality and break them down to these moments. Painting is more synthetic, the construction of decisive moments. Jansen’s trawling of imagery to find figures that provide the action to fit with the stage settings of his landscape is closer to the construction of a play or a poem than a photograph.

Both Jansen’s paintings of children in landscapes fit into a broader history of Romanticism. In particular I am thinking of the solitary figure in the sublime landscape. Jansen deploys the iconographic language of Casper David Friedrich and the painterly handling of a late Turner, the two painting icons of European Romanticism. In Jansen’s new landscapes the children are lost but seem blissfully unaware, happily still playing and loitering, not engaging in the dynamics of the picture which suggest existential angst. The theatrics of such a depiction, in particular the sharp juxtaposition of the child’s innocence against its setting, must surely remind any viewer of contemporary and historical images of children affected by war. In the last year alone we have seen such imagery from Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to name a few. I am particularly reminded of a set of ‘before and after’ images of Aleppo.

In one of the ‘before’ images a child could be seen playing in the alley of a built-up area. It was busy with people, the scene was rich in colour, and the architecture was full of beautiful decorative additions that gave the scene and the place specificity. In the ‘after’ image, everything was covered in sheets of grey ash, as if the entire scene was shot in black and white. The architecture had been reduced to a generalist rubble that without context just reads as a ubiquitous warzone. The hive of activity was replaced by a desolate scene bar a single child playing in the rubble, leaping point to point. The paradox inherent in this scene is what Jansen depicts in his spaces. The magical feel of his paintings suggests these are nowhere spaces, they are landscapes of loss. For the cartography of conflict is the mapping of loss.



Tom de Freston is an artist based in Oxford and London, working at Magdalen Road Studios. He has exhibited his work in solo shows in London, Cambridge, Chichester and Tokyo. He has been awarded numerous residencies, most recently a Leverhulme Funded post and the Hatley Residency at the Centre for Recent Drawing. Six catalogues/books have been published on his work, including articles by Sir Nicholas Serota, the Hon. Rowan Willians and Sir Trvor Nunn. Visit his website here.   


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