“I have always considered myself a maker who paints. Perhaps the way I push the paint on the canvas is a way to express the physicality of what I really love doing: sculpture.”
The virtuous art of Marion Wesson
By Katherine Kwun McLane
If “virtue is a habit of the mind, consistent with nature and moderation and reason”, in her latest series entitled Distortion, Marion Wesson contemplates a world of impermanence, tempered by detachment and self-reflection. It is a virtuous world – though not altogether utopian one – a world of reconciliation, and despite its namesake, a world governed by self-restraint and quiet contemplation.
A reference to the palette’s manipulation of the eye, or the blur of two colors vibrating next to each other, Distortion explores how one action relates to the consequence of the previous action — the universal principle of “cause & effect” or “action & reaction” which governs all life. “I am interested in how paint reacts to canvas. I want to make paint the vehicle for visual distortion of an idea. I know my painting is working when my camera cannot focus on the image. . .”
Descended from early American pioneers such as legendary frontiersman Kit Carson & signatory to The Declaration of Independence Benjamin Rush, Marion Wesson grew up in a family that valued enterprise and hard work, as much as it championed creativity and innovation. From an early age, Marion’s potential was recognized and her family, cultured and bent on painting, ensured that her education was weighted with art. Marion’s formative years were influenced by the encouragement of her grandmother, American painter Marion Hewlett Pike, in whose studio she painted alongside as a child, as well as by the tastes and aesthetic of her late godmother, philanthropist and art collector Lucille Ellis Simon, who used to set aside for Marion’s weekly visits, some of her favorite studies of Degas bronzes, nude human forms in arabesque. Lucille would take the sculptures out of their glass casings, place them on the floor, and encourage Marion to explore them with her hands; closer than any museum curator might hope to be in contact with such masterpieces.
In her youth, Marion Wesson was influenced by the American movement of Abstract Expressionism and Color Field painters Helen Frankenthaler and Mark Rothko. In 1989, Marion enrolled for undergraduate studies at the Rhode Island School of Design where she studied painting under David Frazer and Al Wunderlich. There, the taskmasters started with the most fundamental aspects of painting, from figure drawing (at which she particularly excelled), to various techniques of printmaking including etching, and finally abstract painting. Due to the meltdown of the art market in the 90’s, the trend in the thinking of the time was that painting was “dead” and that sculpture and installation art had replaced painting as the “vogue” or “avant garde” art of the modern age. During these years, Marion became as much influenced by the works of light installation artist and visiting RISD fellow James Turrell, as she was by the works of pop artist Andy Warhol and abstract calligraphist Cy Twombly. The environment of RISD at the time was particularly heady, with classmates such as American contemporary graphic designer Shepard Fairey and Korean sculptor and installation artist Do Ho Suh setting the pace.
In 1999, selected by the Curator of the Oakland Museum Philip E. Linhares and Karin Breuer of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, Marion was awarded the prestigious James D. Phelan Art Award in Printmaking and enjoyed her first solo show at Cruz LA Gallery in Venice, California. First inspired by the work of Brice Marden, Marion’s printmaking was developed under the tutelage of and in collaboration with master printmaker Francesco Siqueiros, and represented the culmination of six years of post-university experimentation. These years post-graduation represented a time of great freedom for Marion, who as a member of a cooperative gallery, explored new techniques and ideas without fear of scrutiny or judgment and without the fear of failure. Some of these years also involved Marion’s foray into the world of commercial art, one experience which involved a commission to paint reproductions of 17th century Renaissance masters “Tintoretto” and “Giorgione” for the set of a Hollywood film.
Though much of her works reflect her impressions of landscape and meditations on personal experiences, the source of Marion’s abstract imagery is time and space. “Subtract objects and think empty space.” The philosophy underlying Marion’s work is evocative of Immanuel Kant in her shared belief that “the mind, which simultaneously supplies the conditions of space and time, is the filter through which we shape our experience of things.” 
In the past, Marion’s work has been characterized by its delicate internal order and layered geometric composition. During these last two years in Valencia, however, Marion’s work has been increasingly transformed by its growing preoccupation with form, space, and color. In her Oblik (2007-2010) and Nasoki (2011 – 2012) series, Marion explored the gradual construction of complexity through vast experimentation and innovation with brushwork techniques. In Distortion (2012 – 2013), Marion reduces complexity down to the execution of one core idea through the most pure and primal application of paint. The impact is intense and emotional. The colors, difficult to describe, are rich and nuanced. If the early years were about experimenting and innovation, the last few years have been about honing and distilling her ideas to their raw essence. After months of contemplating an idea, within a matter of weeks Marion works with a singularity of drive and purpose to render this idea to canvas in its most brutally simple and true form.
Pablo Picasso believed “Art is not truth. . . Art is a lie that makes us realize truth”. Looking at one of Marion Wesson’s deceptively simple and painstakingly crafted paintings, I am reminded for a brief moment, of the works of Marion’s grandmother, the late Marion Pike, whose larger-than-life portraits invite viewers to peer into the subject’s personal identity. Marion Pike believed in “neither idealization nor the rendering of expression, but instead a deeper striking into the soul.”
In a dystopic world, Distortion brings harmony to an age of dissonance.
About the author:
Katherine Kwun McLane is a promoter of the arts and fundraiser for charitable and philanthropic causes in Asia. A former Director of Membership for the Clinton Global Initiative in Asia and Fundraising Vice-chair of Hong Kong’s Society for the Protection of Children, Katherine has been involved with supporting causes and initiatives that marry the best of the East and West to build bridges between Asia and the rest of the world.
Katherine graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, a Certificat d’Etudes Politiques from l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques, (Sciences Po, Paris), and a Master of International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.