Carrying the Dreamer

A. M. Weaver


Immersed in abstraction for over two decades, Michelle Marcuse sashays from depictions of mass to ethereal linear patterns in her recent body of work, Carrying the Dreamer, pertaining to dreams and loosely rendered remembrances. Having grown up in South Africa, she recalls playing unsupervised in the suburbs of Cape Town, located on the shore of Table Mountain, amongst two and a half acres of Chestnut trees, garden groves, Goose Berries, Loquats and Birds of Paradise. With her brother as her constant companion, Marcuse’s world was full of creative play. There was no television in the Marcuse household, so she and her brother constructed elaborate tales that they enacted with enthusiasm and aplomb. They ate the blooms from the garden and buried themselves in leaves during the autumn, constructing make-believe worlds from the foliage. Theirs was an idyllic childhood, but the ever presence of apartheid loomed in the background. A sensitive child, Marcuse explains that even in the midst of such youthful bliss, the world around her was full of angst and sorrow.


In revisiting aspects of the period through her most recent series, she comes to grips with a future that resembles a post-apocalypse universe—a floating world that belies gravitational pull, with objects, sky, clouds, partially architectural rendered structures and natural growth no longer anchored. Her aesthetic shares much in common with that of William Kentridge, whose agenda has political satire and critique at its root. Both of these South African artists share a Jewish ancestry and exude intensity in their dramatic use of materials, charcoal in the case of Kentridge and black ink by Marcuse. While Kentridge merges depictions of figures, rooms and cityscapes with absurdity, conjuring an apocalyptic reality, Marcuse chooses the path of illusionistic abstract dreamscapes. Both construct brooding narratives in which the use of black lines and marks create melancholy existential atmospheres. Kentridge who actually lived through South Africa’s transition from white rule to indigenous leadership, chooses to focus on the anxiety and conflicting sense of self fostered by post colonialism and the aftermath of apartheid. On the other hand, Marcuse revisits her dream world in an attempt to navigate through the perception of the utopian reality, gleaned in her youth, with an emotional awareness of its dystopia.


At the age of ten, Marcuse had a prophetic dream in which a catastrophic event colored everything in a hush of grayness, revealing a floating universe of both animate and inanimate objects that defied the laws of gravity. Since 2008, Marcuse endeavored to capture the immense revelation of this unconscious state. In Carrying the Dreamer, she reaches into her past and half-remembered dreams to create a hauntingly beautiful series. Particular to the effects of using sheets of silver alloy attached to a variety of thin Japanese papers, she sets the stage for works that appear aged and fragile, alluding to narratives steeped in a Kafkaesque maze. Adeptly using a wide range of rapidograph pens with black ink and gouache, she fashions buoyant worlds of part organic and mechanical forms. Carefully placed within the compositions, these meticulously drawn forms— spiraling and elongated tentacles cascading from bulbous and stacked shapes--dangle in open space or hover above architectonic structures. At a distance they appear to be recognizable images, but upon closer scrutiny, they are illusionistic aerial abstractions. Her marks, archaic and delicate, are reminiscent of Leonardo Di Vinci’s drawings of his inventions. Whether diaphanous, gliding or fixed, her illusionary creations are worlds within worlds that soar and float like notations on the page.


Province of Corruption, 2011, is loosely based on the writings of Michael Ondaatje. Marcuse loves his use of language and sentence constructs: “… So the books for the Englishman, as he listened intently or not, had gaps of plot like the section of a road washed out by storms, missing incidents as if locusts had consumed a section of tapestry, as if plaster loosened by the bombing had fallen away from the mural at night.” This passage from The English Patient seems to be an appropriate quote in reference to Marcuse’s drawings. The relationship is almost literal; Marcuse’s works on paper possess an array of fragments, pieces conspicuously missing; we are left with mere vicissitudes of conjured dream states. A construction reminiscent of a sleigh appears repeatedly, and symbolic of life’s journey and survival, emblems of a sole figure in a rowboat glide along the parameters of many works. These and ethereal cloud like forms manifest as spirits and/or angels.


In The Anonymous Giver, 2012, a central form looms large in comparison to other elements, which Marcuse refers to as a force, perhaps an Archangel. Compositionally, the vantage point is like a bird’s-eye view, fluttering above a landscape that portends a futuristic reality. Although not religious, she acknowledges a supreme power that oversees and is responsible for the order of things. Concerned with the dichotomy of dark and light, she often views her works under diverse lighting conditions; thus, discovering shimmers of light that intersect her drawings of water mass, bridges and dwellings cloaked in shadow. Her renditions of what appear to be cities in works such as Exposed Entirely and Leading Somewhere, 2013, are mysterious and foreboding and seem to address an era yet to come. We grew up believing in modern utopias, yet Marcuse presages an imminent future, one replete with flotsam as well as a quest for spirituality that has endured, since the beginning of mankind. The aspiration is heaven bound.


A. M. Weaver is an independent curator and art journalist, who frequently writes for Art in America, Frieze Magazine, Artvoices and Surface Design. She currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, USA.