Green Point, Brooklyn, New York
Marcus Romero's highly textured landscapes evoke a longing for a simpler time. The viewer can't help but feel surrendered to the power of the landscape, and the domain of nature over manmade things as decaying cars dot the scenes. I had a chance to visit Marcus in his Green Point studio and learn more about his process, inspiration and direction. Since leaving his post in communications at the Brooklyn Museum, Marcus has been keeping busy helping to improve marketing and support for the arts in education...we wish him luck!
I couldn’t help but notice the 410 area code... are you from Baltimore?
Not really... I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Maryland, sort of an hour north of Baltimore. My parents’ town, where I grew up, is named after the Hereford cow, so it’s just a whole lot of cow pastures. They lived down a long driveway, very dense wooded area. Everything was kind of a half an hour drive away.
Has that shaped your work?
I’ve been working on landscape pretty much my whole life. I think that it has something to do with growing up in the woods where I could just go outside and spend hours playing in the dirt, just digging holes. When I was in middle school, I could just go for walks. It was actually pretty good, like at night I could just move through the woods- I couldn’t do that anymore, I’d trip and fall and hurt myself.
But it was a good experience...I learned how to drive very quickly. It was a necessity.
You said you’d worked in landscape your whole life- when did you first pick up a paintbrush?
Well, maybe not my whole life. I went to a high school that specialized in art, so we went to school with the same curriculum as a public school, but we went to school longer and with the extra time we would focus on art. I just did landscape painting the whole time. It was a great school, and we did a lot of figure painting from nude models, but I didn’t have the same sort of relationship with the figure, I was always drawn to landscape.
You really have to look into it. If you’re looking at a dense area of woods, you have to select what you want, and you pull out what the key features you want to represent. It’s like a puzzle. If it’s a huge tree, or a bush with berries, you use these elements to create the landscape space of the foreground, middle ground, and background- in that way it’s like a puzzle.
After high school you continued to study art?
Yes- I went to the Cooper Union in the East Village. Their curriculum is amazing, and I loved being there- you could do anything. Their philosophy is mainly that if you have an idea, you shouldn’t worry about the skills needed to do it, there’s always something you can learn. I started welding, and ended up doing this metal sculpture project with mixed media- they just told me to go for it. I worked in the shop a lot, spent 80 hours to build a project, but before that I probably would have been resistant to touch any project that needed an arc welder...it opened up a lot of opportunities that way. The project was making a sort of bed, and someone would lie on their stomach and look down, and when they looked down they would see all these drawings. At the time, my mom was having surgery on her eye for a detached retina, and she had to be still afterwards for a long time. This artwork was kind of about that, and my thinking of what she was going through. I also had all these drawings, that were sort of landscape vegetation drawings, and they were sort of for her- even though she had to be forced in this position, she at least had something to look at.
You spent some time working at the Brooklyn Museum, how did you end up there?
When I was a student, I organized a silent auction. It was the first time Cooper invited the public to come in and purchase student work. It involved some advertising, I was part of the student council at the time, and we wanted to spread the word about the event. We did silkscreen posters and then wheat pasted them up all over the East Village and in Chelsea. Then we did some advertising in the Village Voice and some PR work and got the event listed in a bunch of places. Through those experiences, I met my boss and ended up doing marketing for the Brooklyn Museum.
Do you enjoy working in a museum environment?
Yeah- it’s great to be able to walk down to the galleries and have personal time with the work. I feel like I have an intimate relationship with the Museum’s collection.
What was your favorite show in your tenure there?
There have been a couple, one was for this guy Ron Mueck who worked with Jim Henson on the Muppets, and he did these hyper-realistic sculptures of people. Literally he would place each hair - they were pretty incredible. He would either do it at a gigantic scale, like a newborn baby that couldn’t fit into the gallery space, all covered in gunk with an umbilical cord, or something really tiny, like an old guy that is literally shrunk down to a third of the size. His work was pretty amazing and the exhibition was back in 2006.
Does the Brooklyn Museum have a focus or lens that really differentiates it?
That’s a great question...I’m ready for this one. Yes, they have a great American art collection and the Brooklyn Museum is well known for their ancient Egyptian art collection, which in the tri-state area is second only to the Met. Brooklyn’s collection is huge and they have one of the only centers for feminist art in the country (Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art). It houses “The Dinner Party” by Judy Chicago, which is a famous feminist masterpiece. The list goes on and on...the collection includes pretty much everything, and every year they’re adding tons of new acquisitions.
Is there any piece in particular in the collection that you’re drawn to?
Probably Albert Bierstadt, he was an American artist during the 1800s, and he did this painting “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains”. It is a huge large-scale landscape painting...no… it’s like… wall sized. It’s one of those paintings that no matter how much you look at it, there’s always something new you can see. It’s very formal and very detailed, but it’s also like a painting that’s a blockbuster movie, like a Jaws or Terminator of its time. It’s very theatrical. You would never see this landscape in a natural vista - he just went and did sketches and came back to his NYC studio and produced this fictional masterpiece. Since most people at the time in New York weren’t going out West, he was able to come back and create this painting that was just crazy. In terms of the light, everything is very densely cobbled together to create the most intense image.
When you work on your landscapes, are you working primarily from sketches or photos or are these imagined landscapes?
I work primarily from memory, combined with some photos. The night paintings are very dark, and sort of very hard to see- they lighten up as you look at them. The small figure gives you a sense of just how overwhelming the landscape is.
I wasn’t quite happy with the texture of the traditional canvas, so I started experimenting and working with a Xerox transfer, and that’s how this series came along. It began with multiple cars, and I would organize images in Photoshop and then go ahead with the Xerox transfer. I’d glue it down with acrylic medium to the canvas. When it was dry, I would take a razor blade and scrape off all the paper so that just partial parts of the image are left over. There would still be parts of the paper to help create the texture, but it would be a very crude image.
When you started adding the cars in, what was the driving force?
I think these painting have a dark theme to them- kind of like a planned obsolescence, cars only last so long. I was thinking about humans, and how nature, given time, can not only outlast, but completely rejuvenate itself. If we stopped living, most man made things would break down over time. Part of it was inspired by “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman, which discusses, technically, how the world around us would fall apart over time with the absence of a human presence. Streets would start buckling in, pipes would freeze, fires would start- all kinds of things.
Do you think these themes will continue in your work?
I’m sort of moving away from the cars, and I’m more interested now in dealing with the theme of revitalization. I’ve been doing a lot of sketches to develop new compositions to really refine the idea and create a new arc to the series.
How do you find time to work both at your day job and in the studio?
Commitment, I guess. There’s another book, “The Artist’s Way”, it can be kind of hokey at times talking about the spirit of the artist, but what I take away from it is that an artist needs to make studio time. To actively schedule it, and have it be once a week, same time, every week, no matter what, you go. For me that’s more like three or four times a week, if I can. But you need to respect that studio time. I get a lot out of being in the studio- I’ve never really been into meditation; I just can’t sit still. But coming in here (to the studio), and thinking critically and visually - you have to make a break from the rest of the world, I think that’s probably my way of meditating.
Is there anything in particular that you think your audience should be aware of to contextualize your work?
In general, in most of my work, I think about the 19th century idea of the sublime, where it goes beyond just looking at a landscape as a pretty painting or purely in an aesthetic sense. It takes nature mores seriously, and there’s a sort of awe to it. You almost see nature in this religious experience because it’s powerful. We may just see it as something that we live with, but there are times where it is very powerful, and even dangerous. There’s still magic in it. And that’s what I see in a landscape- it’s not a product to sell, it’s something more, it’s something greater. There’s a lot left to explore in the genre.