Marshall Arisman’s Spiritually Mixed Media

Posted inThe Daily Heller
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Marshall Arisman has been an illustrator, painter, sculptor, novelist, storyist, filmmaker and teacher. He’s also one of my oldest friends (I knew him when I was 17; he threw me out of SVA when I was 18 and asked me to teach in his MFA illustration program when I was 19). He is an artists’ artist. He is a seer and visionary. He is a master maker and thinker. On Aug. 22 his retrospective Marshall Arisman: An Artist’s Journey From Dark to Light, 1972–2017, curated by Francis Di Tommaso, opens at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) Chelsea Gallery. (Stunning catalog is available at the exhibit.)

I imagine most of the thousands of students he’s guided and mentored over the years will pay homage before the show ends on Sept. 16. I spoke to him recently about what they’ll be paying homage to.

What part of your career does this show represent?The exhibition is a retrospective of the work I have done in illustration and fine art from 1972–2017. The show also includes 18 short stories on video. The videos (1–4 minutes in length) reflect the subject matter dealt with in the show.

Can you point to the part of the exhibit that has the most meaning for you at this time?To try to pull out one section of the show as more meaningful than any other would be difficult for me. I see it as a whole, hopefully reflecting the title of the exhibit, “An Artist’s Journey From Dark to Light.” In earlier years, my subject matter was mostly dark, but with time and developing more skill in paint, and more life perspective, I could see that dark and light were on a continuum, that nothing was just dark or light. There was even room on the continuum for humor—lightness with an edge of dark.

In putting this show together, I have come to realize that my content is consistent regardless of the form—illustration or fine art. And my hope is that viewers will see the consistency as they move through the exhibit and that they will understand that the process of creating for the gallery wall and the printed page both reflect my thoughts, ideas and perceptions of the time in which they were created. Often doing a painting will spark an illustrative idea or, equally, fulfilling the limits of creating an illustration will demand taking an idea further in a painting. Exploration of an idea sometimes can’t be done in a single image. The reason I develop visual essays and work in a series is that I can dig deeper in the content. In illustration there is simply not enough time. The emotional qualities that can be explored in a series are not possible to sum up in a single page. Doing an illustration or making a painting are both opportunities to tell a story that I need to tell.

To quote Studs Terkel: “People are hungry for stories. It’s part of our very being. Storytelling is a form of history, of immortality, too. It goes from one generation to another.” For me, illustration is not a way to support my “true art,” but in fact it is a way to complete a story. It is not that illustrations can’t handle emotional truth, but I believe that in painting, there is freedom to express emotions fully. Particularly in the earlier work, the market for editorial illustration allowed for imagery that was closer to representational painting. Today, for the most part, telling the stories I want to tell need to be done in forms other than illustration. It is the reason for me to expand into film and video as well as continuing to draw and paint.

You have walked the fine line between illustration, performance and “fine art.” How have you stayed on your feet without losing creative balance?The real answer to your question should come from my grandmother, Louise “Muddy” Arisman. Muddy was my childhood mentor. She was also an artist, a medium and a Spiritualist minister. When I told her I was a Libra, and that my astrological sign meant I was balanced, she said, “Dear—you would kill someone to avoid losing your balance.” That may be true. I have, however, learned—sometimes, the hard way—to only take work that has meaning for me. I have tried to blur the line between art as a commodity and art that feeds my soul. It has been a luxury for an illustrator to be given the opportunity to do work in illustration with difficult subject matter. That has been to the credit of art directors and publications with courage and commitment to serious imagery. It was difficult in the ’70s and is even more difficult today. As for my personal art, it is for myself. I have been fortunate that there are a few collectors who share my vision. As for “performance,” it’s comic relief from the weightier aspects of daily living; it’s also an excuse for me to play the saxophone.

How has the curator, Francis Di Tomasso, organized the exhibit?When Anthony Rhodes, the executive vice president of The School of Visual Arts, agreed to hold a retrospective for me at the SVA Chelsea Gallery, I knew I needed a curator. I approached Francis, who has a strong history of curating shows for the gallery. An artist himself, I felt he would organize the work into an interesting show. There is a flexible timeline between the illustration and the fine art. The center of the main room is a sculpture installation titled The Monkey Bathhouse. The monkeys are surrounded by my series on Hiroshima and the nuclear holocaust, along with drawings featuring guns. The second room is a walkthrough cave with another series on Angels and Demons, digitally enlarged to six feet. My grandmother’s quote is on the wall: Learn to Stand in the Space Between Angels and Demons. The third room features my Ayahuasca Series. It includes large drawings and shadow boxes. The fourth space is a small screening room where 18 short videos I made about the art in the show play on a loop.

Throughout the exhibition are videos that reference various art projects: Printed Matter, a Timeline, a series called Rainbow Dancers and others. Original art done for magazines, book jackets, etc., are displayed with printed tear sheets. A 14-minute video of printed matter, other book projects along with visual essays can be viewed. Thanks to Francis and his brilliant staff, walking through the gallery is a way of experiencing the work of this period as a whole rather than seeing it in fragments.

What is missing, if anything?The only thing missing is that I threw you out of SVA when you were 18—but that’s another story.

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About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →