It’s not every day that a Buddhist Rinpoche visits an artist’s studio and sums up the meaning of his art practice in one sentence. But for Phoenix-based artist Michael Marlowe, this is exactly what happened.
The story begins when a friend of Marlowe’s was helping raise funds for a Rinpoche and introduced him to Marlowe. When he visited the studio, the Rinpoche was intrigued by the canvasses propped against the walls. “In a nutshell, what he said is that I paint what he preaches. That my paintings turn the body inside out to find self,” Marlowe explains. “I thought wow, that’s so insightful. The conceptual idea of the work is all about that stuff we carry inside.”
Marlowe grew up in a family of artists; his father was an illustrator, and a founding member of a local group called the Cowboy Artists of America. He grew up running around his father’s studio, getting early exposure to the creative world and its methods. He went to design school at the University of Cincinnati College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP), and did his graduate work in printmaking at Arizona State University. After graduating, he was picked up by the Elaine Horwitz Gallery, the biggest contemporary gallery in Phoenix at the time.
“Spending a lot of time in the studio, I wanted to do something more collaborative.”
Marlowe started showing extensively in Phoenix, but despite his in-depth training in the visual arts, he decided to take another direction, and went back to school to study theater. “Spending a lot of time in the studio, I wanted to do something more collaborative,” he explains. His background was always in a wide variety of creative arts, from his Bauhaus architectural studies at DAAP, to a childhood where he was raised reading extensively. “The conceptual side of my creative process comes from poetry, a turn of a phrase or the way something was expressed,” Marlowe says. “I love the playfulness of E.E. Cummings. Early on I did a series of paintings based on his Six Nonlectures at Harvard.” Many of his works still reference famous poets, such as his Danse Russe series, after William Carlos Williams.
To pursue the theater arts, Marlowe moved to LA and worked his way through the ranks to become a production designer, all the while painting in his free time. “In theatre, there is a level of commitment, where the whole team pulls together; it’s an incredible collaboration and can be really intense,” he explains. “That’s really liberating as a young studio artist, and it probably influenced the way I work now. I don’t spend a lot of time contemplating, I just get in and paint. It’s a discipline, a real studio practice.”
While Marlowe spent a number of years in LA producing, he returned to Phoenix in 2005, and has become at home working here. While Phoenix is not one of the most famous art cities, it has always had a solid artistic culture. “There was a time in the late 1980s and early ‘90s where a group of artists had studios in one area in downtown Phoenix. There was never a sense of a school of thought, but there was community, and there still is. It’s a great place to work, and an easy town to live in.”
Marlowe’s work defies any kind of concrete categorization, but the forms that twist around his paintings resemble something natural or biological, or even body parts. He is a fast, instinctual painter: “I don’t spend a lot of time worrying, and when I need inspiration, it shows up.”
At a large scale, presented with various colors, the layers of his paintings take on a dynamic feel. “When I was developing my style of work, I focused on the idea of abstraction and breaking things down into a new vocabulary, something fresh. I was playing with very abstract line work one day, and I thought, what would make this really active is body pieces,” Marlowe says. “I played with the idea of something bearing down on something else or penetrating it. I keep things somewhat recognizable but have them shift between botanical and biological.”
Marlowe’s paintings lead the eye through an experience, synthesizing active and playful elements against a deep background. They can encourage an introspective experience, as the mind follows the winding tendrils and curling forms that never quite become recognizable. You can see influences from his printmaking studies, with deep backgrounds around the edge, with open, lighter colors at the center, and the top is overlaid with the organic-looking pattern. “The abstraction is very active and playful,” Marlowe explains. “One element in the painting is almost pursuing another element, and that’s happening in multiple places in different ways.”
Marlowe’s paintings are an immersion into the interior of the mind and the body. His theatrical influence gives spark to his paintings, immersing the viewer on a journey into their own imaginations. Today, he’s even involved in architecture. The beauty of Phoenix is all the better for it.