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James Marshall: the liminal object.

WHAT IS A LIMINAL OBJECT? JAMES MARSHALL talks about his work on the theme--liminality: the moment of becoming, the space between worlds.

If subliminal means that which is below the threshold of ordinary consciousness and perception, then the liminal is the point of emergence, the threshold itself, the turning point between one realm and another. The liminal state is characterised by ambiguity, openness and indeterminacy. Liminality is a period of transition, during which usual boundaries of thought, self-understanding and behaviour shift, opening the way to something new.

In my work with what I call liminal objects I ask the question: When does an ordinary object move into other dimensions? This question gives rise to more questions: When does an object become recognisable?

What is the shape of that object just before that moment of recognition? What is it at that moment? Is it even then what it is about to become or is it something different? At the threshold, is form pure energy, a radiance of colour and light, a wave, a glimmer, simply a shimmer of becoming?

The liminal object is itself a question: 'What am I?' Or as my Zen teacher used to say, 'What was my face before my parents were born?'

The liminal object opens the doors of perception, carries the viewer beyond ordinary perception and definition, to that space between, where everything is what it is, and nothing is what it seems, where colour, energy, light and form merge into one. That is where I do my work. (1)

I read these words and shift my attention to the objects that James Marshall has created; I take a breath and let go of concept, expectation, the need to know. I am drawn into the shapes of light and shadow: colour, light, radiance, glimmer, shadow, earth, air, fire, water, energy, form, dance of shape and stillness of the moment.

What am I seeing? Do I need to know? I watch my mind seek to identify what I see, and again I let go of the idea, and the attempt to identify. A door opens, into another realm, a dimension of colour and light, a freedom where nothing is fixed and shapes appear and re-appear, where anything could be anything if I look long enough. I enjoy being in this space. I enjoy what is. I don't try to know anything about it. To view these pieces is to contemplate the nature of what is, the nature of form and essence, manifestation and source, holding on and letting go.


Not surprising, since James Marshall spent many years studying and practising Zen Buddhism, sitting in silence, watching his own mind, looking for the origin of thought, the space between thoughts, the silence that finally comes when thoughts disappear, and there it is, a moment of pure awareness, no object of awareness, just ... this. Then the thoughts, the objects, the world re-arise. Often in meditation practice one focuses ones attention on the space between thoughts, that subliminal moment between the fading away of one thought and the arising of another. The liminal object takes you into that space. It's like a breath held for a split second, an emergence, and an invitation to explore that space for yourself, to dream, to wander, to use the object as a doorway into yourself.

Zen is my original connection to Marshall. We met 20 years ago at the Rochester Zen Center, and shared the experience of sitting in a darkened zendo (meditation hall) exploring the nature of mind, the universe, seeking to understand that teaching that is at the heart of Zen: "Form is only emptiness; emptiness only form." I see in these objects the continuing pursuit of Marshall's inquiry and I invite him to a dialogue about his creative process, Zen, the realm of the liminal and his work. We sit together in his studio, just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the liminal space of an almost-spring Saturday and talk about the bright luminescent shapes that surround us. I remind him that I am not an artist or art critic. He has to explain to me the most basic concepts, what it means when a glaze shivers off, what a clay body is. I love that term, 'clay body', the carefully conceived medium that is capable of becoming a unique individual form. He begins with the shapes themselves, how they came into being.


My exploration began four years ago with simple, smooth, streamlined, volumetric forms. I was trying to develop forms that would act as a 3D canvas upon which to place a painting. The goal here was to find a visual bond between colour and form, and I wasn't finding it. These early painted surfaces were getting in the way of the form itself. The polychrome graphics I was employing were truncating the form. Also technical problems were creeping in, with glazed surfaces shivering off. Something just wasn't right about this surface approach. I decided to go back to the beginning and explore coloured surfaces.

My next step was to roll out large square flat slabs and just explore painting. Then it dawned on me: Why not take the concept of the square and make it into a thin tapered volume that is streamlined? In this way the form would remain clean and simple while acting much like a stretched canvas. The painted surface would move seamlessly around the form, uninterrupted.


The first 'almost square' volumes that I developed were about 71 x76 x 12.5 cm and I used this basic form to experiment with surface colour. When I started firing them, the forms would self-destruct. About 20 of them cracked or warped in the kiln. Those initial failures led me to formulate a clay body that would fit the kinds of forms I wanted to build, so I spent half a year developing a clay body. After finding the right clay body the pieces were still cracking, although less so, during the firing process. I discovered that, during the firing process, the heating and cooling cycles were moving too quickly. This was the last thing to resolve and so I created a firing schedule to move the temperature up and down slowly.

Once the clay body was created and the firing schedule right, I started to think about surface. By then it was becoming quite clear to me that I was working with an ambiguous realm. These 'almost squares' alluded to so many other possibilities; they were elusive, transitory, and could be many things. So I decided to start shifting form away from geometry into another middle place, into that space between geometry and the recognisable object. I then realised that a question I had been exploring for about 15 years was resurfacing: when does an ordinary object move into other dimensions?


With that question resurfacing, the work really began to come into focus. Those initial explorations with polychrome graphic surfaces that were competing with the form dropped away. I eliminated the multi-coloured graphics and began to work with chromatic variations of colour.

So surface colour was the last thing that you resolved?

Since these forms are so symmetrical, clean and smooth, I gravitated towards a coloured surface that has energy and movement to it. I try to create a surface that has chromatic variation so that when you come to the form there's something to enter into. You see the colour empowering the form from a distance; then you get up close and realise that the observation doesn't stop there. The surfaces are dripping and running, creating variations of lighter and darker colours of brilliant oranges, Revlon reds, ice blacks or acid yellows, saturated colour from a distance but with chromatic depth and variation up close. These coloured surfaces are like a robe; just as you wrap your body in a robe, I wrap these forms in intense saturated colour. It is this depth of colour that draws people to the piece, like a flower attracting a hummingbird to its nectar, which is the form itself.

Right now I am working in the ceramic medium and so I am working with glaze, which is a glass, which lets light into the surface. The light interacts with the coloured oxides in the glassy surface and reflects back out to the viewer the depth of the colour. If the surface were strictly monochrome, like flat paint, that's where the multi-dimensional nature of the form would stop. With a rich coloured surface the form becomes primal, and the colour is like a doorway or portal for the viewer to move through the piece into another dimension.


Could you explain what you mean by another dimension?

A different experience of what is, a different perspective, perception without concept, before identification, naming, fixing the object in your usual frame of reference.

And so we come to Zen. Remember what the Zen monk Ryokan said: "Only when you understand that my poems are not poems can we begin to talk about my poems." (2) How would you relate that to your work with liminal objects?

When you look at these pieces, leave your preconceived notions at the door. Leave the concepts of what you think form is, colour is, and especially what art is. If you do that, when you look at this work it can open up the limitless realm of all possibilities. Let yourself float in that nebulous realm the work comes from, where things are not this, not that. If you take time with these objects, if you contemplate them, they open up.

As I think about the questions you've posed about the liminal object, I think about koans. In Zen, the teacher gives the student this spiritual question to explore, to take the student into the nature of things, to stop the rational mind dead in its tracks and reveal the true nature, the essence of things. So I'm thinking of this one in relation to the liminal object: "Hsi-Chung made a hundred carts. If you take off the wheel and the axle, what would be vividly apparent?" (3) The liminal object is vividly apparent. It is the cart without wheels or axle. It is itself, no explanation needed. These works have become your koan, and working with a koan isn't about finding an answer; it's about being in the question.


So my practice in the studio is to remain inside the question, where the possibilities for this work to unfold are limitless.

As long as a viewer doesn't try to answer the question, what is this, the possibilities of each object are endless. This endless possibility of the object reminds me of a certain principle of modern physics; scientists are discovering that phenomena come into existence only when observed. It's hard to grasp conceptually but it seems that as long as a particle is not observed, measured or interacted with, it is in a state called the 'superposition of all its possible states'. (4) When it is observed, it enters into a single state, like any ordinary thing. So it seems to me another way of looking at what you are doing with the liminal object is bringing forth that point of observation, the transition from the superposition to the single state. In a way, the task you have set yourself is virtually impossible because as soon as you observe it, it becomes something. It is again like a koan because it is a paradox. From that perspective, you are doomed to failure. These are glorious failures, because you can't actually capture that moment. The liminal object is a paradox.


The liminal object is indeed a paradox. At times I ask myself if what I'm doing is even possible. The moment I start drawing is liminality dead?

I think it is what the Zen master said about using words to describe the Tao. It's like the finger pointing at the moon. And as you've said, it is a doorway. The form can take the viewer to that liminal open non-conceptual place. You are working with that moment of perceiving and observing the limitless possibility.

Again, it is the question that keeps things open, that keeps me in that moment of observation. And it was questions that brought me to Zen in the first place. I had just come out of graduate school in Ann Arbor after my getting my MFA. A girlfriend commented to me that when people asked me what I did with my life I answered, "I'm a carpenter." She wanted to know why I didn't say I was an artist. Was I an artist? Who was I? The question of "who am I" is the classic one and it led me to the practice of Zen.

My formal training in Zen lasted 12 years. I made art during this time but wasn't that public with it. After sitting in the zendo for hours on end I would go outside and look at nature, like the tree branches, and then go to the studio and try to understand how Zen practice interfaced with art making. That became a koan in itself. The focus was the questions: "Who am I?" And "How does Zen fit into art?" At some point, after many years of practice, those questions just dropped away. It was no longer a self-conscious drive to figure out Zen, art, life, etc. After a period of time it all just became one thing.


So it was when you stopped trying to figure it out that this work began to emerge. It is almost as though you have transferred the question "Who am I" to "What is this?" And really that's the same question but with a different focus.

The question remains, of course, but it is now a more seamless life I am living. It is no longer Zen, art and me all trying to fit together inside an uncomfortable box.

I like the word seamless because as I look at these objects, they are one piece. They are seamless. There's a practice in Tibetan Buddhism. You work on an elaborate meditation building up a mandala, visualising it in exquisite detail, and then at the end you dissolve it all away into the light, into the formless. Emptiness and form again. And then there are the Tibetan monks who make equally elaborate sand paintings, again constructing the mandala for days, and when the ritual is finished, they toss it in the river. I am thinking it is time to toss all these words in the river, dissolve away everything we've said about the work, and let it be.


I agree. And you know, I don't think about these things much. I think about the simple things.

What are the simple things?

What form should I make next? What colour should I make this? What will happen if I put this glaze on this glaze? The concept of the liminal object is like gravity, the centre around which the work revolves. But it's not like when I am in the studio I am thinking about it. Usually what I'm thinking about is this formula, and how it's going to work, or what is this glaze going to look like, practical mundane things. And the question of the liminal object, what it is, and how to create it, is like an invisible gyroscope running beneath it all that empowers the more ordinary way of working. You don't carry the koan around consciously all day long. You can put it in the back of your mind. In this way the original idea is always there, running 24/7 without even thinking about it.


And if you were trying to think about the liminal object it would get in the way.

Yes, and it's only when a piece is finished and has been sitting around the studio for a while, or in the gallery or a collector's home that I can look at it and experience it in a new way and be totally surprised by it.

We sit in silence. It is twilight, another liminal space; the shadows grow and the silence deepens. I remember what Diane Armitage, Santa Fe art critic, said about Marshall's work: "In this show, we see the artist's ability to wrestle successfully with the havoc of fire." (5) Indeed, that describes his process as he has described it to me. Out of the fire have come these sculptures that speak and sing and at the same time radiate a stillness, which I perceive even more now as dusk settles in.

I remember what James Marshall said to me another time about his work: that his intention with his art is not to tell a story, but to create objects that influence the space around them, that charge the space with energy. The studio is charged now, in this moment, with energies simultaneously bright, cheerful, mysterious and enigmatic, dark and dreamlike. I am drawn to get up and wander among these objects, to float with them in the world of dream and vision, and I am reminded subliminally of the standing stones of Stonehenge, also portals, points of connection to the greater cosmos in which we dwell.


(1.) Marshall, James, Artist Statement 2006.

(2.) Watson, Burton, Ryokan: Zen Monk-Poet of Japan, Columbia University Press, New York, 1977, p.11.

(3.) Aitken, Robert, The Gateless Barrier, North Point Press, San Francisco, 1990, p.60.

(4.) Lazlo, Ervin, Science and The Akashic Field, Inner Traditions, Rochester, Vermont, 2004, p.19.

(5.) Armitage, Diane, "James Marshall: The Endurance of Form," THE Magazine, Santa Fe, New Mexico, July 2006.

Donna Thomson is a writer and meditation teacher living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of The Vibrant Life: Simple Meditations to Use Your Energy Effectively (Sentient Publications 2006). James Marshall exhibits in Santa Fe and Phoenix, teaches art at Santa Fe Community College and can be reached through
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Author:Thomson, Donna
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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