There’s a shot late in Emmy Award Winning director John Schoular’s incisive documentary Examine and Report that sums up what’s so fascinating about artist Marcus Jansen, and his work.
The shot is black and white, and framed with paint buckets and brushes in the deep foreground. Between their twin silhouettes is the hulking Jansen, walking to the camera through the long length of his warehouse-style studio, brush swinging in his hand like a construction worker holding a hammer. Jansen’s gait has a steady weariness to it, a subdued pace. He’s not leaping boundless inspiration, or sullen as the horrors of the world creep it. He’s simply trudging along, going to work.
At some point in any successful artist’s career, the act itself becomes a job. It’s the source of the paycheck that’s keeping them off the street and with food in their stomachs, and with those pressures come having to occasionally do things you don’t want to. Maybe it’s a piece on commission, or a series of interviews for an art opening. But there’s that other definition of “job,” which is the task that one is simply compelled to do. And in Jansen’s walk in that shot, you see the heft of a worker, commuting to the gig.
“Painting is simply capturing a moment in time,” Jansen says, in the film. Later, when talking about why he hesitates to explain his work’s meaning, he says that “the painting is a vocabulary, it is a language.”
Jansen is a journalist, really. Just one that offers the truth about what’s occurring through mediums other than literal words. His expansive and inscrutable landscapes, filled with toy parts and paint splashes, are reports from bombing raids of war-torn regions. His “Faceless” series are profiles of power without focusing in on the lone figure to obscure the reality. Throughout Jansen’s oeuvre are dispatches from our heavily-surveilled world, our morally murky international diplomacy, and exposes out how insidiously propaganda spread.
While his work is, for sure, purely his own—you can tell a Jansen piece from a mile away—they don’t reveal much about the man himself. The closest anyone ever comes is, not surprisingly, the simplest narrative, by relying on Jansen’s military tour in Iraq to decode the imagery they’re seeing. And while Jansen admits that the experience of being in dangerous environments ingrained within him a sense of “hyperawareness,” that’s the same attribute found in any examiner of how the world works.
But this film is more than just a retrospective of Jansen’s work. By weaving in Jansen’s inspirations, it offers a history of the New York graffiti scene of the 80s, and glimpses of what it’s morphed into today. The film also offers criticism of the insular nature of the art scene. These two points go hand in hand, in a way, and that’s because their goals are often at diametrically opposed sides. One praises the individual, and how their art is an expression of what’s going on within their own minds, examinations of whatever personal struggles they’re trying to overcome. Meanwhile, the other—and Jansen’s work is included on this side—tries to shine light on societal struggles, aiming the microphone to those without voices, or revealing the systemic betrayals that gives those experiencing them solace that others feel the same way as well.
Examine & Report won’t offer any magic keys to unlock the meaning behind certain Jansen’s massive, inscrutable installations. But it doesn’t have to, or really, can’t. Rather, it unveils the intentions, or at least the rhythms of the language being spoken. And that, in itself, is the key. With a world so chaotic, its truth shouldn’t be easy to comprehend, but rather, an enigmatic mess.
Jansen’s collections include the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), The New Britain Museum of American Art, The PERMM Museum of Contemporary Art, Ulyanovsk Museum of Fine Art, Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art and The Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.
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