Marcus Blackwell begins to find the sweet through ‘Sour’

The Columbus artist learned to open up with his most recent exhibit, which will remain on display at 934 Gallery in Milo-Grogan through Saturday, Aug. 26.
A collage of the paintings on display in "Sour"
A collage of the paintings on display in "Sour"Marcus Blackwell

A self-described introvert, Marcus Blackwell said he embraced the pandemic when it first hit, imagining that he would thrive navigating life in solitude. But then the weeks stretched into months, and the artist started to feel claustrophobic, as though the walls were closing in on him. 

“And I started weirding out, and I started feeling like, ‘This is impossible. This is not how this is supposed to be. This is not how human beings are supposed to exist,’” Blackwell said in a mid-August interview at 934 Gallery, where his current exhibit, “Sour,” will remain on display through Saturday, Aug. 26. “I already suffer from depression anyway, but it was getting really, really, really bad.”

Taking the advice of his sister, Blackwell tried acupuncture, and he found the experience worked for him, allowing him to recalibrate and steadily lift himself from those mental depths. Then more time passed, and the feelings started to return. Again, his sister reached out, asking him when he last attended acupuncture, and telling him he should continue going “to avoid feeling depressed.” But at that the artist balked.

“She said that, and I realized I didn’t want to avoid that feeling – no matter how unpleasant – because avoiding it just makes it feel worse. It causes more strife. It causes more aches. I don’t want to avoid it. I want to deal with it,” Blackwell said. “And so, I set upon this thing where I thought, ‘Okay, how do you deal not only with depression, but all the things in your life … that come in your face and go, “Hey, remember me? This bright, sunny day is a little more cloudy now that I’m here.”’ And you can either choose to ignore it and act like nothing is wrong. Or you can deal with it and figure out, alright, what does this mean? What can I do to work through this moment?”

Blackwell started by first acknowledging these fleeting moments, and then he began to paint them, documenting in a series of related paintings his struggles with self-worth, isolation, codependency, melancholia, aging and more. Collectively, these works make up “Sour,” which Blackwell describes in his artist’s statement as “a sentiment that describes my current resentment about things” that ranged from his reluctant but necessary participation in the capitalist system to the end of a romantic relationship.

“The word sour came from this feeling where you’re not bitter or angry. It’s not completely unpleasant, but it’s not the best thing, either,” Blackwell said. “It’s that sour feeling you get when it could have been sweeter.”

It’s also fleeting – recall the pungent punch of biting into a lemon wedge but also how quickly the sensation passes and how readily the face un-scrunches. “It was like I had a cathartic little release for each one of them, and then I set it aside,” he said.

For Blackwell, the series marked a pronounced turning point, the artist allowing that the pieces he created prior were often completed with little more than a product in mind. Indeed, asked if he felt like he was trying to say anything in particular with the canvases he first started to turn out in the months before he left a career at Chase, Blackwell replied, “I think I was trying to say, ‘Buy me.’”

“About a year before I left Chase, I was like, you know what? Let’s see if you can make a go of this. And so, for three months I poured everything I had into my art with the idea being, if I sell X, that’s enough justification and impetus for me to say, ‘Adios! I’m an artist now. See you guys later.’ And the exact opposite happened, and I didn’t sell a damn thing,” Blackwell said, and laughed. “And then I realized I had broken two rules that I had set out with at the very beginning. The first rule was never, ever compare your work to anyone else’s. … And the second was don’t chase the money. Always do this with the idea of being expressive. And always do this with the idea of trying to say something.”

Initially, at least, Blackwell said he struggled with the idea that anyone would want to buy his story, which prevented him from personalizing his paintings and dulled the potential message. And then when he finally did open up with “Sour,” he worried that he had gone too far, and that he could be potentially hurt by allowing gallery visitors a direct line inside his head.

“And that’s kind of how I felt about this, like everyone is going to know what the hell is wrong with me, because I put it all out here,” Blackwell said. “And maybe it sounds hokey, but you kind of have to acknowledge these scars because they’re a part of you. And they may be ugly, and they may represent times and incidents in your life that are really painful, but they’re a fundamental part of who we are, and denying them can do us more harm than good.”

There’s also an odd bit of magic that takes place when an artist reveals themselves in this way, in that these intimate experiences somehow become more universal. I can still recall years back interviewing the singer and songwriter Julien Baker, who recalled writing in vivid detail about a car accident she lived through, only to perform the song live and be greeted after the set by a woman who said something to the effect of, “It felt like you wrote that one specifically about my life.”

Touring “Sour” in mid-August, a similar conversion took place, with Blackwell’s collected frustrations, aches and uncertainties beginning to mirror many of my own – particularly a triptych of paintings titled “Isolation,” which dredged up, for me, the ever-present sense of feeling alone even in a crowd.

“My date on the night [of the exhibit opening], she said, ‘You have to understand, when people look at these, they’re not going to see you. They’re going to see themselves.’ And I think I forgot about that, because when you do something so personal, and you’ve been doing it in solitude for so long, it is just you in this, and there isn’t that consideration of what other people will think until you gotta come in here and put it up for everybody to judge,” Blackwell said. “The last three years, being able to immerse myself in this largely artistic, driven, creative world, has afforded me these moments where you realize that art can so often move someone in ways that maybe you expect and that maybe you intended, but then also in other ways you did not intend at all.”

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