To the uninitiated, they're murals — at first glance, a pair of giant rainbows of latex paint on the walls of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. But James Marshall's Shift and Radiate, the new installations at SMoCA that commence at the museum's entrance and pull us both into and out of the space, are more than homages to refractions of light. They're spectrums of color that allow museumgoers to see this space, craftily transformed from a fusty old multi-screen movie house by architect Will Bruder, in — forgive the pun — a new light.
Marshall, who showed last year at Bentley Gallery in an exhibit of work celebrating Josef Albers' The Interaction of Color and lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, became known in the mid-1990s as the artist Dalek, a former street artist whose color-drenched, pop art featured Space Monkey, a vaguely sinister, half-human rodent Marshall painted into much of his earliest work. In 2007, he began using his given name and dumped Space Monkey in favor of a more pure abstract style that merged Japanese pop art, animation, and urban art aesthetics.
Marshall's SMoCA commissions began in 2011 with artist Kristin Bauer, a fan of Marshall's who wanted to show Marshall's work at Squeeze, her now-closed gallery in Scottsdale. Bauer also hooked up with Scottsdale public art outreach and temporary projects manager Kirstin Van Cleef to pitch SMoCA associate curator Emily Stamey on a temporary public art project featuring Marshall's work. Marshall met with Bruder to discuss the building's background and to talk shape and color and concept, and after a second site visit, returned last month to commence painting and overseeing the project, with help from several high-profile local artists, including Daniel Funkhouser and Laura Spalding Best.
Marshall's gradated color steps call to mind the Mark Rothko Chapel and the Verner Panton installations of the late '60s and early '70s. Shift joins a trio of more permanent works commissioned for SMoCA by Scottsdale Public Art: The Nancy and Art Schwalm outdoor sculpture garden; the James Turrell skyspace, Knight Rise; and Scrim Wall by James Carpenter Design Associates, composed of panels of iridescent glass that Marshall says inspired his piece.
"I sat and watched the sun as it came through the Carpenter space," he recalls of his first visit to the site. "The colors that the stained glass put off onto the ground, that's where my blue-to-green spectrum came from. And the light here is so dramatic — you guys have such dramatic skies in the evening — so the yellow-to-pink-to-red of your sunsets was a huge part of informing that particular palette."
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The piece changed, Marshall says, between his second site visit last year and his arrival, this month, to begin the work. "When I mocked up the piece, I wasn't really paying attention to the compound curves of the walls," he says. A quick fix to Shift involved adding a yellow-to-pink fade over the museum's main entrance — a detail that further points up Bruder's smoothly sloping rounded walls.
The big question mark is the newly color-drenched lounge. The energetic color steps of Radiate overtake the lounge space, a public place best known as home to Tania Katan's Lit Lounge series, in which local writers read personal essays to packed houses each month. (Full disclosure: I, along with other New Times writers, have participated in Lit Lounge.) The lounge's inaugural design, by installation artist Janis Leonard, presented a room in which everything — walls, fixtures, and a ceiling hung with wooden pallets — was painted bright red. This monochromatic effect allowed the room to essentially disappear, returning emphasis to whatever was taking place on the lounge's stage. It remains to be seen whether Marshall's hyper-vibrant mural will distract audiences from a Power Point presentation or a poetry reading.
Marshall doesn't care that his masterpiece will be painted over in a year or two. He comes, he reminds admirers, from graffiti, an impermanent art form that's often obliterated the same day it's created. "[SMoCA] could paint over it next week, and it wouldn't bother me," he says. "It doesn't take away from the experience of having made it. It's all process, for me."
"His work is really smart," Bauer says of Marshall. "I think of it as a gateway drug for Scottsdale people who are into other types of art, because it bridges the gap between fine art and newer, more street-specific work. You don't need to know industrial art or fine art to get excited about this installation, but if you do, there's an extra excitement."