“‘Cain and Abel’ is a darker painting than what I recently exhibited in Berlin. The work can be read as an abstracted narrative painting of fracturing figures in a kind of embrace, or a fight, in a natural setting. And yet, I have been thinking specifically about the story of Cain and Abel this year while watching racial and political trauma continue to unfold in the U.S.
This work continues my exploration of painting on silk. While I work on other substrates as well, there is an appealing ephemerality to the transparent surface that silk offers. Light passes through the silk but also bounces back out, illuminating the painting. The transparency also allows me to incorporate the frame, as I did in this work. I use a combination of free painting and printed wood forms on the surface of the work.
In this piece, the eye is first drawn to the energy and abstraction of the sunburst flower form falling apart on the left, while in the center of the painting, two abstracted figures are jostling in conflict. The story of disharmony in the hearts of the two brothers, and the resulting violence, appears in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts. Cain kills Abel out of jealousy, and this violent act is the part of the story most often depicted in painting. However, I imagined a different moment between the brothers, something more quiet and tender, a psychological and poetic space of both conflict and forgiveness. If you look carefully at the figures in my painting, there is a tender gesture of coming together. One figure’s hand caresses the other’s head.
Cain and Abel, 2020 Acrylic and sand on silk and wood frame 31 1/2 × 25 19/32 in. Photo credit: Eric Tschernow “
When asked to contribute to this exhibition, I considered several items to send along but settled on one of my art books, HANS HOLBEIN d.J. BILDER DES TODES: 41 Holzschnitte, published in 1989 in Leipzig, in the German Democratic Republic.
I have been collecting imagery around the dance of death for many years now. Skeletal architecture feeds into much of my work, becoming a symbolic and formal framework for what you might call “spiritual landscapes,” and our relationship to nature and each other.
The images and theology in the works of Hans Holbein the Younger (c. 1497-1543) seem to take on special significance at this moment in time. Holbein’s works were created during a time when the bubonic plague still stalked Europe, and the world was also in cultural turmoil. Holbein also worked on images for Martin Luther’s influential translation of the New Testament into German, a moment of a kind of populism perhaps, where religion was brought more directly to the people, and partially taken out of the hands of the clergy.
In this small book from my collection, a series of sobering scenes unfolds. Death intrudes on the everyday lives of thirty-four people from various levels of society, from pope to physician to ploughman. The senator is taken, the doctor is taken, the rich, the young, the old, and even the king. (Holbein himself died of the plague in London in 1543.) His images of death are not just skeletons dancing, but active players taking all.
This book from my collection was published in the year when the Berlin wall fell. I am astonished to see authoritarian control be resurrected by American leaders to threaten the freedom of the press and the right to free demonstration in their own country.
The threads of history and ideas connected to this book’s content, geography, and timeline are fascinating. Some objects seem to gain power as the present rhymes with our collective history. Looking in my library, this little book becomes a kind of charged artifact that feels both prescient and relevant in many ways, appropriate and symbolic during this pandemic and time of political strife.
Michael Markwick was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan (USA) in 1974. He completed a BFA at Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI) in 2000, and an MFA at Indiana University (Bloomington, IN) in 2002. He then immigrated to the Netherlands, later moving to Berlin in 2005, where he continues to live and work.
Markwick’s works range from intimate, small-scale paintings and drawings, to large-scale dynamic works where contrasts of luminous color push against muted tones, creating tension-filled images with apocalyptic undercurrents and lyrical poetic play.
His work resides in many private and corporate collections in North America, Asia, and the EU, including at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp (BE); the Martin von Wagner Museum (Würzburg, DE); Calvin University (Grand Rapids, MI, USA); Indiana University Museum of Art (Bloomington, IN, USA); University of the Arts (Philadelphia, PA, USA); and Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN, USA); amongst many others.
Markwick is frequently invited as a visiting artist, most recently at various universities in the U.S., including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of South Carolina, Indiana University Bloomington, and also at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, and the Julius-Maximilians-Universität in Würzburg, Germany.
Publications of Markwick’s paintings have been included in “Kunstbeeld” magazine (2012), “Ecozona: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment” (2013), catalogs for solo exhibitions by Galerie Born in Berlin (2017, 2018, 2020), and a catalog for the solo exhibition “Michael Markwick: New Songs to Learn and Sing” at the Martin von Wagner Museum in Würzburg, Germany (2019).