In his paintings of groups, Bruce Marsh stretches fleeting moments of everyday experiences into intensely observed panoramic scenes. Marsh photographs people and places located mostly in the suburban and rural surroundings of his studio in Ruskin, Florida, and uses his photographs as references for his paintings, which depict complex arrangements of figures in ordinary situations. Often set in public settings containing smaller zones of privacy, Marsh’s sweeping paintings depict groups in a way that eliminates hierarchy and turns background characters into the main focus of our attention.
Combining contemporary materials and technology with a traditional palette and techniques, Marsh portrays space in a manner somewhere between how reality appears to us through photography and how a person actually sees. Crowded beaches and windowless conference rooms alike take on the characteristics of both Italian Renaissance painting and digital photography. The uncanny perspective, extreme proportions, and large scale of the paintings all challenge viewers to explore the relationship between space, the body, and perception.
In 2022, the meaning of public gatherings in America is charged. Fear of mass shootings or airborne viruses might cause one to think twice before joining a crowd, but the works in this exhibition celebrate the act of leisurely spending time among other people. A Long Glance is an invitation to look closely, discover details, and find stillness and harmony in the moments of everyday life that we share with others, both known and unknown.
Born in California in 1937, Marsh studied art at UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, and California State College at Long Beach. For the entirety of his career he has devoted his energies equally to teaching and painting. In 1969 he joined the faculty at the University of South Florida as a Professor of Art, and he taught there for 34 years until retiring as Professor Emeritus in 2003. Since then, his work has primarily been focused on landscape painting and monumentally large paintings made to be installed in public places, and he has hosted open figure drawing sessions weekly at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin since 2015.
Marsh is known primarily for his intensely observed paintings of the landscape, but painting and drawing from a live model has been an important part of his practice for decades. This study shows how Marsh will draw contours of the figure in graphite before using watercolor to create more three-dimensional forms, similar to how his oil paintings are constructed. In the figure on top, there is even an indication of the space in which the model is seated, articulated with just a few broad strokes of watercolor.
Figure drawing is not necessarily portraiture – in studies like these Marsh is less concerned with creating a recognizable likeness and more concerned with quickly translating with speed and confidence the expressiveness and energy of the model’s pose.
Marsh regularly visits New York, and this painting is set in the restaurant around the corner from the hotel where he usually stays when he is in the city. While Marsh’s careful use of linear perspective and rational placement of figures in space might remind one of Italian Renaissance or Neo-Classical painting, his work can be best described as being in dialogue with the Realist tradition. His work is Realist in the way that he portrays ordinary people and places as unidealized – with dignity, as they actually appear – and in a large format historically reserved for portraying historical, mythological orreligious subject matter.
Marsh takes panoramic snapshots of his everyday and immediate surroundings with the camera in his smart phone as a way of gathering ideas for paintings. This method of photography requires the photographer to slowly move the camera from left to right to capture a panoramic image of a wider scene. This can sometimes cause unexpected distortions in the final photograph. For example, as Marsh was photographing and moving his camera from left to right at this Ruskin Chamber of Commerce Lunch, the figure in profile on the left (framed by a gray rectangle) was walking from the left side of the room to the right side of the room. As a result, his image is captured three times. In the leftmost depiction of that figure, you can also see the movement of his legs captured during two different moments in time.
One of the more striking examples of Marsh’s observational skills, Mall exhibits the same harmony found between figures and spaces that can be found in Italian Renaissance painting. The balance of opposites – organic figures in geometric space – is amplified by the elimination of the words found on the mall signage, as well as the careful rendering of the figures’ reflections on both tile and glass. Rather than painting the reflections on top of the colored tiles with transparent paint, Marsh paints each part of each tile directly, and mixes different colors for each of the reflections as they pass over different surfaces.
While Marsh’s Groups paintings typically have no main character, Mike’s Studio is the only painting in the exhibition to feature a single figure. Amidst a staggering amount of salvaged materials and bicycle parts, Ruskin artist Mike Parker holds a bicycle rim, forming a perfect circle in the center of the painting. Mike Parker is known for his public art and murals, including American Journey in Tampa, the largest outdoor original artwork in Florida. In Mike’s Studio, Parker is organizing materials used for his Bend, Grind, and Ride program for low-income families who could not afford bicycles. The program provided free instruction and supplies for 24 aspiring young artists to design and build their own custom bikes.
Puppets is one of two paintings in this exhibition that depicts an arts education program at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin, Florida. In Puppets we see a class taught by visiting artist Sara Peattie, shown from behind on the left wearing a black shirt. With Peattie’s guidance and instruction, teenage students designed, constructed, and performed with large puppets. The impulsive and simplified imagery of the students’ masks contrasts with the carefully observed painting of the table of art supplies in the foreground.
Birthday is based on a photograph taken by Marsh during a birthday celebration for his great-granddaughter that was held in a family member’s back yard. Struck by the spatial complexities created by the orange planes of the canopies, fencing, and deck, Marsh took a panoramic photograph of the family gathering and used it as the basis for this painting. Marsh’s great-granddaughter can be seen near the center of the painting – our view of her is partially obscured by her mother, the central figure crouching near the bottom edge.
Large gatherings of people relax and socialize in one of the expansive public spaces that is part of the Tampa Riverwalk, an outdoor haven for many in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic when gathering indoors posed a higher risk. The dense crowd dining outdoors in the distance is an example of Marsh’s ability to pack extraordinarily large numbers of figures into small areas of his paintings.
The Tampa Riverwalk is a 2.6 mile path along the Hillsborough River in Downtown Tampa that leads visitors through parks, museums, restaurants, and other attractions. It also connects to Bayshore Boulevard, the longest continuous pedestrian walkway in the world at 4.5 miles.
Marsh carefully makes a drawing in graphite of his source photograph on the canvas before he begins painting. To help make the drawing more accurate, Marsh uses a process called gridding. In that process, he carefully draws a grid of identical squares on the small photograph, and then draws a larger grid with the same number of squares onto his canvas. This effectively breaks down the larger image into more manageable smaller squares, allowing him to maintain more accurate proportions and placement of elements in the drawing. In areas of the painting that are more thinly painted, traces of the underlying grid are still visible. In this painting of Rod & Reel Pier at Anna Maria Island, you can see a small part of the grid in the unpainted area between the larger figure in red and the seated figure in yellow.
Marsh’s paintings are in dialogue with Regionalism, a Realist art movement that depicted realistic scenes of rural and small-town America. Regionalism reached its height in the 1930s during the Great Depression, but then lost its status in the art world after World War II ended, as it was seen as conservative by Modern Art critics. Marsh avoids typically Regionalist themes of nationalism and romanticized depictions of ordinary Americans. Instead, Marsh focuses on the cultural conditions of middle-class life in rural or semi-rural Florida, and celebrates the wealth of broadly accessible places in his immediate surroundings that are taken for granted in everyday life.
Sometimes Marsh will spontaneously photograph captivating spaces and situations and later use them as the basis for a painting. Other times, he gets an idea and sets out to paint a particular kind of space. Mall is one such painting, where Marsh wanted to make a painting from a mall, and then took multiple trips to a mall to gather source material. Beach With Weather is another, where Marsh traveled to Anna Maria Island in west Bradenton to gather imagery to use for a painting of a crowded beach.
Dance portrays an open rehearsal taking place in a performance space in the Breuer Building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, formerly the location of the Whitney Museum of American Art (now located in the Meatpacking District on the far west side). The figures in the blue square and along the left wall are auditioning performers, and the figures in the foreground are Museum visitors like Marsh who have spontaneously stopped to watch the rehearsal. The only painting in the show to portray figures engaged in dramatic and extreme movement, the foot of the dancer on the right appears to vibrate with energy.
Figure Study depicts students drawing from a model at the Firehouse Cultural Center in Ruskin where Marsh hosts weekly figure drawing sessions. Figure drawing requires sustained attention and sharp observational skills in order to produce a believable and expressive depiction of the model. In Figure Study, Marsh paints the model, but also includes the group of surrounding students all engaged in high levels of close looking. Marsh applies the same degree of attention to painting the space in which they are working as he does to the figures, finding spectacular color variance and visual excitement in a place that might initially seem monochromatic and plain.
Drawing from the figure is an essential part of a visual artist’s education, but it is not uncommon for artists to return to drawing the figure throughout their careers. These drawings are not usually exhibited as autonomous works of art. The process of figure drawing is primarily a kind of perceptual exercise that develops your hand-eye coordination as well as your ability to see form, proportion, and contour with more detail and accuracy – skills that can be developed through figure drawing and applied to anything visual that an artist does.