Contributing Editor Toti O’Brien

Sheer Matter: The Art of Marina Moevs

Angelino art lovers have a fair chance of being familiar with Marina Moevs’ artwork. Since the eighties, her oil paintings have been often exhibited in group and solo shows, and they certainly leave a mark upon the viewer.

River ii by Marina Moevs

Moevs’ pieces are immediately recognizable for various reasons, one of which is format. They only come in what the artist calls “door” and “window size”— two versions of the pleasant, harmonious golden rectangle. With no exception they are vertical—the orientation traditionally associated with portrait. With no exception they are landscapes.

The unconventional choice is, of course, deliberate; and it communicates the artist’s intent. The skies, trees, hills and vales we are watching are metaphorical portraits, Moevs says, of humanity in its whole. Therefore people never appear. “They would be redundant.”

Flood III by Marina Moevs

Fauna isn’t present either. Nothing animal inhabits the scenery throughout Moevs’ abundant production. There is flora, but nothing that moves on its own, which surely contributes to the overall calmness. Yet humanity is referenced by traces of built environment. At first sight, the protagonists of Moevs’ art are nature and human artifacts, juxtaposed in various proportions, engaged in an array of dialectic relationships.

Ocean by Marina Moevs

Nature always wins, while human constructs (essentially houses) tend to migrate towards the margins, to bend, tilt, fall, collapse or else be submerged. Nature quietly and inexorably expands, consistently claiming the majority of the canvas,.

Did I say how beautiful these paintings are? Moevs is a master of light, shadow and reflection. In an interview she gave on the occasion of an exhibit at Our Lady of the Angels, she explained how she applies layer after layer of paint with her hands, only switching to brushes when dealing with fine details. These last are exquisitely rendered. Her palette of colors is wide, soft and delicate, an effect of complexity and elaboration, a result of each square inch, each particle soaking into light—a sort of chemical process, a break down of matter, a slow distillation.

Composition is also savvily mastered. As her subjects are mostly invented, Moevs says, she prepares them through a series of careful sketches and drawings. She, as we said, not only works with the golden rectangle, a geometric figure of perfect proportions and related to infinity, she also places the horizon line at eye-level, as it happens whenever one is outdoors looking at the landscape. Such a device creates a natural ease, a sense of proximity; and in spite of a preference for offset, asymmetrical elements, the scene always conveys a feeling of harmony.

It’s the beauty attracting us in the first place. A calm fascination. Slowly though, we become aware of an eeriness. Paradoxically this might be induced by the peacefulness, by that kind of “too quiet” that makes us run to the nursery to find out what the children are possibly plotting. Such a rigorous absence of people evokes the obvious question: “Where did everyone go?” Absence is so invasive, so powerful, it becomes its own haunting presence. We are drawn into a narrative made of subtraction, more compelling as it only provides us with clues, spare fragments of an incomplete puzzle.

Let us look at the titles. They are obvious, says the artist, on purpose. They often label what clearly is the featured subject. Ocean. Woods. River. Fog. Sometimes though, they point at a danger or tragedy we wouldn’t have caught otherwise. There are floods looking like tranquil, innocent bodies of water. There are tornado clouds that could be just… clouds. There are impending fires we could take for pretty sunsets. There are ruins of houses laid down with such properness, the orderly spread of boards could have been freshly unloaded, waiting for a carpenter. But the titles are mumbling a catastrophe is about to occur or else is just over. We are witnessing the lull, endowed with ominous stillness, before or after the storm.

Flood. Fire. Drought. Why didn’t we figure it earlier, on our own? Obviously, the majority of Moevs’ work deals with natural disasters, seen as proof of our planet’s degradation and rapid decline. In a lecture she gave in 2014, the artist clarifies the inspirations for and meanings of her paintings. Motivations and process are made crystalline through her fluid, competent, yet direct lucid reasoning.

Science has had an enormous impact over Moevs’ practice, which explores climate change and its causes. “Why,” she has asked herself for decades, “have we gotten ourselves to this point?” Roots of the plight presently affecting our habitat, threatening our survival as species, can be found in our way of seeing reality and ourselves—core concepts underlying our behaviors. Recent science has illuminated such beliefs, showing their fragility and failures.

Interior by Marina Moevs

In particular, Moevs’ work meditates between our notions of individuality and our ideas of matter, challenging their solidity, conclusiveness, impenetrability. What and who is an individual, after all? What’s a body? Is it a sort of property, a fortress, or is it a colony of cells, an assembly of bacterial intelligence homogenously linked with all other forms of life? And is matter anything but energy bundled up at different degrees of density, motioning at various speeds? Damages humans have inflicted upon nature, Moevs concludes, spring out of an arbitrary divide between dominant, monolithic ‘self’ and subdued, neglected, abused ‘otherness.’ But another way exists of seeing the universe—present since ancient times in all cultures. It’s the vision that perceives reality as interconnected, the ‘I’ not split and crystallized in a plethora of egos, but an unified essence, unbound.

Moevs’ art then reflects upon individual dissolution, dematerialization of matter, and the quality of sight that instead of defining boundaries causes them to diffuse. Thus the peacefulness and calm delivered by her paintings express a philosophy seeking unity and connection, thriving for harmonious coexistence. “My paintings,” she says, “are personal meditation pieces. That’s the function they have in my life. I like to think they can function as meditation pieces for others, too.”

Still, we shouldn’t dismiss the unease Moevs’ work also conveys, and the paradox of those opposite, simultaneous effects.

Let us not forget she repeatedly explores natural catastrophes, which indeed are sad and tragic realities implying loss of wealth, effort, labor, and human life. We’d be tempted to react accordingly because all the resonances in her scenes resound in a mourning register; but we can’t because no hint of anguish or pathos accompanies the imminent disaster or the one just past. This feature of her work brings to mind early crucifixion scenes, where the triple murder in the foreground coexists with—or is rather denied by—the infectious serenity of the surroundings— pristine villages and farms, luscious meadows, fragrant orchards in bloom — a distracting and yet such a pleasurable, welcome source of relief.

Something here is similar to what happens in our dreams when frightening or dramatic sequences are accompanied illogically by feelings of serenity and comfort. Such discrepancy is frequent in our oneiric experience, and in fact, a dream quality we recognize permeates Moevs’ art, both in its halo of surreality and in its evident symbolism. We explain to ourselves the simultaneous presence of awful narratives and pleasant emotions by the metaphorical idiom of dreams— that imageries of death, illness, destruction or loss are not literal. They are figures of psychic tension or transformation. They foreshadow the changes in the dreamer. We assume, if we accept Moevs’ vision, that her catastrophes are representations of change, and for Moevs all change is inherently positive.

Moevs explicitly says her art is a metaphor, more precisely a metaphorical portrait of humanity in the shape of landscape; moreover she also specifies her paintings address transmutation, notably the transition from a binary concept implying conflict and exploitation to a state of unity and openness. The two can’t coexist; therefore, the second one can only be achieved by destroying the first. Or should we say by letting it collapse? By letting it be consumed? By letting it be submerged?

The house is a common symbol for the self, and it definitely assumes such a role in Moevs’ paintings. Her houses in particular—usually tiny cottages—quintessentially express the ideal of secluded independence. They are not pretentious or pompous. They are quite simple, almost toy-like. We could take them for maquettes or doll-houses. They are small islands of loneliness and in Moevs’ paintings they are regularly sacrificed— either uprooted by wind or swallowed by water, charred by fire, swept away by ocean waves. Yet, as we see, removal occurs without fuss as if room were needed for something else, something better.

A recurrent theme is the destroyed seafront house, exemplary because of the very attitude its location suggests. Both realtors and buyers are aware such properties are inherently at-risk. They always were and they increasingly are because of global warming causing oceans to rise. Their frequent collapse implies high insurance costs ultimately underwritten by taxpayers. Most of these homes are meant for vacations, kept because of their charm, for vanity’s sake. Common sense should restrain us from building on unstable shores. Although repeatedly damaged, such places are endlessly reconstructed, demonstrating our reluctance to abandon obsolete customs and behaviors, a mindset become increasingly dangerous.

A few pieces painted between 2006 and 2009—a series of ‘Interiors’—also address from yet a different angle the theme of individuality through the agency of the house metaphor. They embed a delicate irony, especially exhilarating. As the title implies, they depict inside spaces, fully furnished rooms. While everything (armchairs, tables, shelves) is upright and orderly—with the exception of minimal casualties such as a fallen lamp—the entire roof is missing, the floor has turned either clear or reflective, like water, the walls have simply melted. Therefore privacy and possession have become preposterous illusions—a reimagined version of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

2006 also sees the beginning of a series of paintings named “Fog.” These introduce a new element, shifting the artist’s attention from the melting of individuality to the dissolution of matter. In her lecture, Moevs acknowledges this progress towards a new focus, complementing the previous one yet taking a route unexplored.

Fog by Marina Moevs

If until then Moevs’ work was characterized by absence, subtraction, by suggestions of vanishing, the actual elements of the painting were still perfectly defined. As we said, fine details exquisitely rendered. With ‘Fog’ rarefaction begins. As it actually occurs in misty, hazy weather, what’s in front of us blurs and then disappears.

Light becomes the artist’s metaphor for communality. It dissolves and liquefies matter, showing the unified nature of what’s beyond the surface, the mere particles of energy in motion. Light (a blinding one, like the flickering sunbeams of barren, summery Southern California) eats the painting as if it were an exposed photo film, as if crumbling a curtain, pulverizing the fabric, washing colors away. Images are erased from the center, leaving marginal traces, barely identifiable. No more dreams, they are memories about to be lost, bound to oblivion.

Something is more upsetting in Moevs’ recent artwork than it was earlier. These bright flashes evoke biblical burning bush beyond which Jehovah hides to announces to Moses His will. Sudden invisibility calls for numinous presence and a sense of portent. But the sparkling light intimates as well the onset of blindness and the frightening anguish such condition implies for those who still see.

True, blindness is also a metaphor. Loss of sight could be the loss of conventional vision, an opening up to a deeper and wider understanding of ourselves-in-the-world. Certainly this is what the paintings suggest: an emergency, a need for acceleration, the necessity of a clean slate and a fresh beginning, right now. As we know, as the artist is urging us to recall, “time is short.”


About the writer:
Toti O’Brien is the Italian Accordionist with the Irish last name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in DIN MagazinePanoplyzineCourtship of Wind, and Colorado Boulevard. O’Brien is a Contributing Editor at O:JA&L with a focus on the art and artists of Los Angeles, California.

Images: All Marina Moev images offered here by permission.