Project Space: Jonathan Marshall

by Dan Boehl

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      In May 2009 Jonathan Marshall asked me to accompany him on a trip to Big Bend National Park in west Texas. Marshall was headed out there to film for his upcoming Art Palace show using the desert landscape as his set. So it was that on an early morning we waited outside Travis Austin’s house for Austin to return from his Whole Foods shift while rain sprinkled the windshield of Marshall’s mom’s CRV. Austin would star as Johan Pilgrim, one of only three characters that populate Marshall’s Quest of Sight (Part One) (2009), a post-apocalyptic cowboy tragicomedy premiering as Art Palace Houston’s inaugural exhibition. I would be the grip.

      We spent the first night by the Rio Grande. Thunderstorms threatened in the distance and six-inch millipedes left their trails in the silt where we lay. In the morning we dressed in long sleeves and cowboy hats. We tied scarves around our necks and squinted into the sun. We drove through the washout that passes for a road leading to the abandoned cinnabar mine. The mine, replete with warnings of mercury poisoning, sits on the side of a hill like an ancient temple, gazing over the low desert plain. I followed Marshall, hands loaded with water bottles heating up in the morning sun, as he filmed Austin acting out Johan Pilgrim’s trek to the mine. There, Pilgrim finds the Cave of Wonders and inside it, a vial of psychedelic whiskey. He drinks it, and an animated bird totem assigns him his quest.

      Texas landscape is front and center in Quest of Sight (Part One). In addition to the desert plain of Big Bend, Padre Island National Seashore served as one of Marshall’s film sets, so the film is partly an exploration of the Texas spirit forged by the land and sea. The post-apocalyptic timeline is a throwback to the frontier days when newcomers arrived thinking the land was rife with possibilities. If you consider Marshall’s liberal references to outer space to be an allusion to NASA’s strong Texas presence, then Quest of Sight (Part One) becomes a total exploration of Texas Earth, Water and Sky.

      Throw in a little mysticism, give nature a strange, mischievous sense of humor, and you’ll start to understand how the film unfolds. There is very little speaking and no dialogue. A few subtitles set the scene in the opening sequence of the film. Johan and Lenny’s otherworldly visions punctuate an otherwise linear storyline. In one scene, Lenny finds a pulsating purple and pink machine on a sea-bound mountain of trash. In another, animated birds flock through the desert. A colorful mass blooms like a lily in the cold depths of outer space. A bone flips through the air.

      Except for getting some help with music from Travis Austin, who is involved in a couple Austin area bands, Marshall did all the video production and editing himself. During a scene when Austin enters a tent/sweatlodge in the desert, Marshall had to blank out all the sounds of the camera shutter snapping as I took production stills. He told me it took him hours to find the right buzzing sound for a gate crashing desert fly. Add in the time it took to produce the multiple animations that give the film its painterly psychedelic effect, and Marshall has racked up hundreds of hours of production time.

      But all the work Marshall put into making Quest of Sight (Part One) is totally worth it. Two weeks ago, Marshall installed a preview show at the old Austin Art Palace location. I went over there to look at the paintings, drawings, and sculptures that, with the film, form what Marshall considers to be the “complete thought” that encompasses the environment of Quest of Sight (Part One). Marshall screened the film for me and members of the Okay Mountain collective, who were taking a break from property management duties. What struck me was how serious yet goofy the film was. Sad and wondrous. Painterly and narrative. Quest of Sight (Part One) uses everything in Marshall’s toolkit to create a sparsely inhabited and imaginatively engaging world that expresses offhand and obliquely the struggles involved with exploratory art making. In creating its own artistic realm, the film pleases the senses and amazes the mind.

      Jonathan Marshall: Doubled Vision opens at Art Palace, Houston tonight (Friday, January 15) from 6 - 8pm. An excerpt of Quest of Sight (Part One) may be found on Marshall's website.

      Dan Boehl is a workshop fellow in the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program. His chapbook Les MISERES ET LES MAL-HEURS DE LA GUERRE will be available from Greying Ghost soon.

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