With ‘All of me is asking, all of me is thinking…’ at Vane, and ‘Pardon me for asking, pardon me for thinking…’ at the Customs House Gallery, South Shields, Mark Joshua Epstein presents distinct but related bodies of work in his biggest showcase in the UK to date.

At Vane, the artist’s most recent series of paintings is accompanied by his collage works.

The paintings in the Nimble elephant/careening dancer (2012) series attempt to resist depiction. As a record of everyday life, the pieces refer opaquely to all kinds of interactions between the artist and other people. Abstraction is a kind of ham-fisted translation. For Epstein, interactions manifest in the work as awkward spatial relationships, uncomfortable colour pairings, and dissonant patterns. The works, like social encounters, make a context for themselves upon repeated viewing: a first impression of awkwardness might give way to a kind of bumpy elegance. Or, it might not, and the moment of tension, of discomfort, might never dissipate. For the artist, either result is a success, and anywhere in between is a triumph.

Epstein’s collage series, The distance between lots of love and all my best... (2012), consists of abstractions made from real-world references: vintage printed materials from the 1970s jut up against their contemporary counterparts. The collages are intuitive formations created from shapes that arrive bearing their own histories. For the artist, the pleasure of making these works (and often the frustration, as well) is that they only reveal themselves to him as they are constructed. Each element remains itself: things touch and often obfuscate one another, but remain whole, never blending or spilling over their borders. In this way the elements remain both independent and entangled and, for the artist, become a stand-in for relationships between people.

‘Pardon me for asking, pardon me for thinking…’
At the Customs House, the artist shows two series of works.

The reference material in the series Seasick yet still docked (2009-10) is drawn from a variety of historical and contemporary sources. A system of layers evokes the illusion of theatrical space, where a succession of scrims creates a simultaneous sense of depth and claustrophobia. In addition to this engagement with opposites, disparate visual vocabularies are homogenized in some areas, while remaining distinct in others. The work exudes a dark unease, a tension: compositions are awkward, colour choices are sometimes murky, at other times acrid and shrill, while loose painterly marks exist in flat graphic space defined by more rigid and precise mark-making.

How do you process being old and young on the same Saturday night? (2010-12), a title taken from a talk given by the artist Mark Bradford in 2010, suggests the challenges presented when one’s circumstances demand both the care-free excitement associated with youth and the maturity associated with adulthood. The work engages with multiple visual languages in an attempt to grapple with the sensation of being torn between multiple stages of life. The paintings build on ideas explored in the Seasick… series yet they push ideas of simultaneity and multiplicity even further. The grid is referenced but just as often pushed aside. Impasto marks are applied using an icing bag, a jokey, gender-bending reference to the highly built up surfaces of expressionist painting.

Read Mark Robert Doyle's essay All of me is asking, all of me is thinking…; Pardon me for asking, pardon me for thinking…