Shifting Perspectives: Marianne Desmarais at the Contemporary Arts Center

Marjorie Rawle contemplates how artist and architect Marianne Desmarais’ work, recently on view at the Contemporary Arts Center, explores space, form, and perception.

Installation view of Marianne Desmarais’ “samples + patches” at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Courtesy the artist and Cole Pratt Gallery, New Orleans.

Scattered high and low along a hallway wall on the Contemporary Arts Center’s first floor, artist and architect Marianne Desmarais’ latest body of work, “samples + patches,” recently on view, had to be approached obliquely. When walking from the welcome desk, one could see only a series of brightly colored edges jutting out from the left wall. The viewer was greeted frontally by a title wall citing a laundry list of definitions of the show’s eponymous terms. These lines of text outlined the surprisingly far-reaching definitions of the words “sample” and “patch” as both nouns and verbs.

Turning from the text, the forms that were previously mere lines unfolded into a range of yellow, red, and pink tessellations that were unexpectedly dynamic and distinct for works made solely from basic geometric shapes (triangles, parallelograms, trapezoids) and a tripartite color scheme. Both collectively and individually, the undulating works—made from wood backed with linen—appeared as if they were blown by the wind and landed on the CAC’s wall, emphasized by their erratic positioning and each piece’s uneven curling and swelling.

And despite the mechanical rigidity suggested by Desmarais’ architectural forms, the movement continued as one walked past each piece, the body’s motion stirring constant shifts in shape, lighting, and color. As one slowly inched deeper into the confined space of the hallway, craned their neck to look up at the towering pink with red (large), 2018, and pink with yellow (large), 2018, and strained their eyes to discern the subtle color variation in red with dark pink (large), 2018, the viewing experience became embodied.

Just as viewers’ bodies were activated through changing perspective, Desmarais also animated the museum wall, often thought of as a simple white backdrop to the work itself. In addition to the lively wooden forms that alternately clung closely to and drastically protruded from the surface, the artist painted rectangular areas of the same red, yellow, and pink pigment directly on the wall behind 10 of the 13 sculptures. These sections of color marked the supporting wall as integral to the series’ central explorations of flatness and volume and of stasis and movement.

The painted squares of color repeated across the exhibition’s walls and the ever-changing, unresolved compositions of each sculpture inevitably returned to the show’s proposed conceptual pairing: samples and patches. Perhaps Desmarais’ jagged-edged sculptures are “small parts” fractured from some invisible “whole,” which the wall text suggested as a key facet of a “sample,” or maybe her square patches of painted wall “correct, enhance, or modify” the “routine” of exhibition display techniques. Rather than clearing things up, however, the multitude of definitions listed in the wall text—much like the shifting shapes of Desmarais’ artworks—forced the viewer to continuously renegotiate relationships between bodies, objects, and space.

Editor's Note

Marianne Desmarais’ “samples + patches” was on view January 11–April 1, 2018, at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street) in New Orleans.