Relating to our intertwined inner worlds.
Advocating emotional intimacy among males, London-based artist Marcus Nelson delves into the various struggles that manifest in masculine identities. Integrating a diverse steam of educational influences, Nelson paints active scenes infused with emotional, mystical and primal urges. He references traditional representations of British culture as he reminds audiences of their shared history by revealing the darker contexts of inherited customs. The artist’s figures float in a void, seeming to resemble microscopic biological entities that point to strands of communal DNA, emphasizing the relatability of the interior landscapes he traverses. As well as his own explorations, Nelson co-founded the Boys Don’t Cry collective in 2018 to highlight other artists’ work that inquiries into the difficulties, triumphs and vulnerabilities that are intrinsic to narratives of masculinity. This interconnectedness is at the core of his artistic approach as he enters a trance-like state whilst painting, conveying indistinguishable characters intertwined in hypnotic arrangements. Having completed a work, he personifies the painterly process by adding facial features to the plate palette on which he mixes his colours; the resulting being offers the artist a smile that encapsulates the creative insights, inner shifts and passed time involved. Addressing the traumas that arise as he interacts with the canvas, Nelson translates the physicality of these memories into the embodiment of his figures. Captivated in psyche and naked in form, the bodies he depicts seem to exist in a collective subconscious as interpersonal patterns promise universal truths.
Theatre has played a crucial part in your upbringing. Have you ever considered the link between your acting training and your work’s explorations of gender performativity?
My mum was an actress so when I was growing up, I was often taken to the theatre. Up until the age of eighteen, I was even pretty sure that I would go to drama school; it has always meant that I am very interested in the way people are and the way they move. I can’t help but feel all of that fueled my interest in the performance of the body and the different ways it can be used to communicate emotion.
Frequently featured in your work, boxing has also been a standout activity which has become an important part of your life since moving to London. Do teenage observations often materialize in your series? Are there any other autobiographical elements that inform your paintings?
I would say that all of my work is partly autobiographical; creating is my way of processing moments in my life that have been confusing or meaningful to me. In the town I grew up, it was a hyper masculine environment where being a ‘tough guy’ was an important thing socially; I think I have always struggled with feeling like I need to uphold that version of manhood and that got me into trouble at times growing up. I started seriously boxing a few years ago now and it really allowed me to channel my emotions into something positive. The boxing paintings were my way of working through all of that in my mind, and discussing the vulnerability that often lies just underneath the surface of ‘tough guys’. I think my work will always be inexplicably tied to my personal experience of the world. Much of my new paintings that depict intermingled bodies make reference to personal battles I have had with health anxiety- or the feeling of constantly being sick when you are not.
Influential people who have guided you in past occasions include tutors from secondary school as well as artists. Have there been any other significant mentors that have impacted your work? What insights did each offer you?
The art world can be a very secretive, hierarchical and confusing place as a young artist so I feel so lucky to have had the support of some amazing people along the way. My secondary school art teacher George Dowell was probably the first person to really believe in me; I had a really rough time at school getting bullied and getting into fights and so she really took me under her wing and gave me confidence in myself at a young age. We became extremely close over the years and during her long battle with cancer, we collaboratively worked on a series of paintings that documented her treatment; she passed away last year but I feel extremely proud that she saw me make it to Central Saint Martins and I will forever be grateful for the friendship we had. Since I seriously started painting, I have also had amazing mentorship from artists older than myself who have guided me through certain situations. I feel incredibly lucky and humbled to have had that support. We all need a helping hand in this difficult game and I hope to do the same in the future for any artists younger than myself.
Academically, you’ve gone through quite a route! From studying Art History to gaining knowledge in 3D artmaking and just recently, shifting to painting. As opposed to a 2D- centred education, do you think these diverse educational perspectives have affected your paintings in any way?
Working in sculpture for a number of years allowed me to translate a lot of interesting textures into the paintings. Recently, I have been working with very dry acrylics, dragging multiple layers over a dark background to create a cavernous quality within the image. I always want to show my work to people in the flesh because there is so much diversity in the way the paint has been put down which is hard to capture digitally; people are often surprised when they see them up close.
With your ceramic plate palettes, plastic toy houses and figurative play-doh sculptures being reminiscent of childhood pastimes, do these objects manifest a wonder-filled artistic value, self-understanding or approach to painting? Through the painted dishes, how does the finished piece document the evolution, inner dialogue and time involved in the creative journey?
Themes of childhood always creep in and out of my work as I am in a constant state of re- evaluating my past, and trying to evaluate the relationship I have with my body. The ‘palette faces’ series started when I was working in my flat in the evenings when I got back from my bar job. I couldn’t afford to buy a proper palette so I just ended up using one of the plates I had in my kitchen. After I finished whatever I was doing, I looked at the plate and I was immediately struck by what I saw. Filled with an array of different colours and textures, it was as if I had inadvertently made another painting; I added a face onto the plate to give it some character and ever since then I have been working the same way, even in a larger studio. I love being able to document my own process through these plates; each one acts as its own visual journal. So far, I have built up a large collection and I hope to exhibit them together at some point in the future. To me they are just as important as the ‘finished paintings’ they help to create.
With many of your works capturing interpersonal encounters filled with dancing, fighting and lovemaking, how do these activities convey present emotions? Do the bodily gestures of your subjects mirror the way you move through a painting physically and rhythmically, like a dance, negotiating with it like a battle or having a sensual relationship with the process?
As humans, we have come a long way in terms of social development, but my belief is we are all still driven by primal desires. When I am creating work, I try to plug into these feelings as much as I can; I try to go into a trance-like state where I am totally absorbed in the process. I dance a lot to music when I paint because I feel it loosens me up. The freer I feel, the better the outcome is at the other end.
Working from home, in-residence and at university workspaces, in what ways have these different environments affected your practice? How do you find focus amidst changing working conditions?
I have always tried to maintain a good output of work wherever it is that I find myself. Although at this point, I find it particularly hard when forced to work from home. I think there is something important in getting up and actually leaving your house to go and make art; it’s a healthy form of separation from the creative process. I don’t sleep well at the best of times but whenever I used to work from home, I would literally be up all night painting, I couldn’t really find the off button. Sometimes, I think that can be a problem.
With lockdown forcing many people into a spell of idleness, introspection and isolation, how did your time in the countryside prepare you for your residency at ‘The Fores Project’? As many people struggled with their mental health during this period, in what ways did your ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ collective respond to the ramifications of social distancing?
I struggle a lot with my own mental health so when lockdown came around, I was really worried about how I would be able to deal with it. Just before we were all forced indoors, I decided to leave London to go and spend time with my father and younger brother, who both live somewhat in the countryside. Looking back, I think it was a good decision because I would have really struggled being in the city. I was home-schooling my brother during the day and in the evenings, I was working on a series of smaller pieces, experimenting with some different concepts and techniques. When I got back to London, I went straight into residence at The Fores Project and so looking back, a lot of the work I made over the lockdown acted almost like sketches for the much larger and ambitious work later on. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, two major exhibitions that we had lined up for Boys Don’t Cry got postponed until 2021. So, we decided to start a digital project called “#isolatedbutnotalone”, where we asked artists from all over the world to send in work they were making at home, along with text explaining how the pandemic was affecting their practice and mental health. It felt really cool to make a supportive community online during that time, and I know it helped me a lot too.
Considering your musings around masculinity, how does your application of pink paint prompt discussions around gender? What effect does a changing palette have on the mood of your works?
Pink has always been a really important colour in my work, particularly because of the traditional connotations it has with being a “girls colour”. This was always something I was told by my peers and teachers growing up but I was confused because I was always visually drawn to it. Now, I use it in my work not only because of the connection it has with flesh but also because it subverts the machismo in some of the figures. The different colours I use are picked very carefully; before I start a painting, I always think a lot about what mood they will create within the final composition.
Omitting clothes, genitalia and identifiers from your figures, are these absences hinting towards a feeling of being inside oneself? When depicting these characters, how do imagination and reality converge?
I generally omit painting clothes and genitalia on my figures because I want them to be as accessible as possible to the viewer. The subject matter of my work is inherently autobiographical but I always want people looking at the work to feel like they can relate to it, regardless of their gender. The images often come from my imagination but the emotions I am conveying are very real and I want people to feel that. For me, the emotion in the work is the most important thing; I want it to hit you right in the soul. Fear, pain, love and joy are all emotions that are timeless and genderless, so in a sense, I want the paintings to reflect this.
Compelled by the contrasts between life and death, pain and pleasure, and safety and chaos in your practice, do spaces between these juxtapositions show up in your paintings?
I have always been interested in the boundaries between things. When does a smile become a grimace? When does joy become mania? When does a dance become a contortion? In my work, I always want there to be a duality, I want them to sit somewhere between comedy and tragedy.
Amidst Brexit, the recent reignition of criticism surrounding Britain’s colonial past and a growing nationalism in the UK, a mug with a British flag resides in your studio. How are national ideals, identity and traditions reflected in pieces such as ‘Ring-a-ring-a-rosies’?
The Union Jack to me has always been a symbol of unity and diversity, but I think the recent conversations around Britain’s past have been much needed; I have learnt a lot over the last few months. As someone with an English heritage, the history and folklore of this country have always been of interest to me and they do find ways of creeping into certain pieces. “Ring- a ring – a rosies” is the title of a nursery rhyme that is often sung and danced to by children in England, but not many people know that the song actually dates back to the 17th century when the bubonic plague was sweeping across Europe. The lyrics “A tishoo, a tishoo, we all fall down” in particular refer to the many people that lost their lives to illness, and I thought it interesting that so many children sing the song in the current pandemic without knowing its haunting roots.
In your recent ‘Swan Lake’ series, certain figures are situated in forest openings while others are floating in voids and atop grassy horizons. Do these locations reflect any inner experiences or external contexts that were present while making them?
I want the images to feel almost spiritual, or somehow part of the unconscious. It comes back again to the work being universally accessible: whether the figures are floating through the air or dancing in the forest, I try to attain an uncanny familiarity. Growing up I used to read lots of fairytales and that has also informed me: Alice in Wonderland and the Aesops’ Fables particularly stick in my mind. What struck me most about them is that the stories always take place in a mystical, rural and faraway land, and yet the messages contained within them are so real and applicable to modern life. This duality is something I strive for in my work now. I want the viewer to engage with the fairytale but also feel that a part of their soul can relate strongly to what they see.
Integrating ballet, film and philosophy, how do these varying streams of research coalesce in your work? Are there any references that you’re excited to base new work on?
Two texts that have influenced me a lot recently are Nietzsche’s theory on the “Eternal Recurrence of Time” and Camus’s musings on the myth of Sisyphus; both essentially linking humanity to this constant state of renewal and failure. This is why a lot of paintings either depict figures grounded on the floor or falling through space: I am interested in this idea that we are all essentially flawed and doomed to repeat our past over and over. Like Sisyphus constantly pushing his boulder up the hill and then falling back down it, we as humans are constantly doomed to repeat the negative and destructive thought patterns that we have. For the “Swan Lake” series, I was looking at a lot of old photographic documentation of ballet but when government restrictions are lifted, I am excited by the possibility of collaborating with a dance school to take my own shots.
At The Fores Project, you worked on ‘The Lost Boys’, a painting which alludes to your closeness to your father. How does this work capture the relationship you share? Do the gestures, landscape or title of the piece hold any sentimental importance?
Me and my dad have always had a really close relationship; we have both dealt with a lot of family trauma over the last five years or so, and that painting refers to this time in our lives when we were metaphorically lost in the woods together. The painting also ties into the overall narrative in the series I was working on at The Fores Project; amidst all of the figures floating through the sky, I wanted to have a moment of solemnity and calm, where the viewer is brought back down to earth.
Working on ‘Swan Lake’, how have your painting techniques adapted from your past ‘Boxing’ series as you portrayed multiple characters rather than duo figures, employed dry mark making over wet brush strokes and presented square formats instead of portrait shapes? Creating a new body of work, do you always experiment with different methods?
I really enjoyed working on the Boxing series but I got to a point where I felt the work was becoming limited; I wanted the subject matter to speak to a wider audience and so, I started looking at dance as a different form of physical expression. When I started experimenting with ballet compositions, it felt natural to try groups of figures together rather than duos, and the whole process became a snowball effect from that point on. The subject matter became a lot darker and more nihilistic and so, it felt natural that I changed lots of different aspects of the work: portraits became squares, white tones became black, boxers became dancers, human forms become much more demonic. The whole process opened up a new world for me and so, I tried to follow my instincts instead of limiting myself. I’m an artist that likes to work in series so there is always natural change in technique each time but this is definitely the furthest I have pushed the process so far.
Looking at the honest conversations sparked by your activities with ‘Boys Don’t Cry’, would you consider beginning a ‘Girls Don’t Cry’ collective in the future?
Both Brooke and I are currently in the process of completely re-developing Boys Don’t Cry to include a number of female-only and mixed exhibitions next year. I won’t say too much more than that for now so I don’t let that cat out of the bag but stay tuned for more!
The new series that you’re working on features braided, intertwined and knotted figures that show how different personalities co-exist within individuals. Does this relate to the juggling act of being an artist, tangling the roles of creator, curator and technician?
Yes, I would agree with that in relation to myself, but I think one of the most interesting things about the work is that it can relate to pretty much anyone in any circumstance. Whether we like it or not, we all have different sides of ourselves that we present to different people at different times- it’s a natural part of being human. Perhaps even more so in the age of social media, we all find ourselves juggling personalities on a daily basis.
Referring to yourself as an artist in chrysalis, do you intend on honing in on a homogenous aesthetic or would you prefer to remain in a state of transformation over the coming years?
The way that I am, I believe I will always be changing and experimenting with my process. I always admired painters such as Lucian Freud for that reason: each decade in his life his paintings took on a completely new form. I think it takes a certain bravery to keep stepping outside what people expect of you in that way. For now, I think there is a lot more to be done in my current body of work but I’m sure at some point down the line, things will need another mix up!
Words by Vanessa Murrell