Zone 2013

Marisa Purcell’s Ethereal Worlds

In theory, at least, there is something quite ridiculous, even strangely arrogant about artists and their aspirations. They have the audacity to spend their days and nights in pursuit of dreams and beauty when they should be doing something constructive, like designing new tax forms or creating new bureaucratic by-laws. They spend hours on end pushing around colours thinking they can create something ‘sublime.’

And then, to make matters worse, they pull it off. They create visual music and leave the rest of us wondering exactly why and how this should work, why a sheen of crude pigment, arrayed just so, its colours breathing and shifting with their brethren, can come so dazzlingly alive.

Marisa Purcell is one of ‘those.’ An artist who works from instinct and impulse, pursuing, to be sure, a clear cut goal, but one of her own devising.

Purcell hails from a long list of illuminators whose ambitions border on the religious and the fanatical. She could well have fitted into an exhibition mounted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the mid-’80s which was titled ‘The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985’. The exhibition set out to document the impact of mysticism and the occult on 20th-century artists from Gauguin to Pollack, Mondrian to O’Keefe, and effectively demonstrated that without such impact, abstract art, as we know it, would barely exist. As critic Hilton Kramer noted at the time: “That for the founding fathers of abstract painting – Kandinsky, Mondrian, Malevich, and Kupka – the aesthetics of abstraction was inseparable from doctrines derived from theosophy and kindred notions of the spiritual and the occult is undeniable.”[1]

Purcell’s series of shimmering oil paintings are contemporary musings on pre-Renaissance sacred imagery, responding particularly to the work of Fra Angelico in Florence’s San Marco monastery when Purcell’s held a residency in Chianti, Italy last year. They could be read as ‘portraits’ or ‘landscapes’ of an ethereal world. When a suite of these works was exhibited at the Tim Olsen Gallery last year – with the telling title of Halo – Sydney critic Andrew Frost noted that: “Purcell’s show suggests that the paintings are in a sense the result of a secondary effect, the beautiful residue of the effector, rather like a rainbow without the storm, the aura of the religious or the unseen presence of dark matter.”[2]

The artist herself describes her work as: “Open, rhythmical, saturated and in-between. I’m interested in peripheries and the experiences of things that permeate us without conscious attention having been paid to them. Memory, time and space all banter around my paintings. Marks and spaces become like zones and somehow activate a shared space between myself and the audience.”[3]

One wonders what Fra Angelico would make of these works. Would he recognise himself and his aspirations in their shimmering surfaces? Would hundreds of years of modernist evolution muddy the language for the brilliant Renaissance painter? Or would he see straight into the core, the essence, of these works and recognise a kindred spirit, a sister of the brush whose concerns are clearly aligned. It is rather nice to imagine the old man, chewing on the end of his paintbrush, looking at Purcell’s canvases and smiling benignly in approval.

[1] Hilton Kramer, On the “Spiritual in Art” in Los Angeles, The New Criterion, April, 1987.–Spiritual-in-Art–in-Los-Angeles-6163[2] Andrew Frost, Halo, The Art Life, October 12, 2012,[3] Marisa Purcell, Interview, The Design Files, March 29, 2013,

Photography by Josh