Sensing a Pattern

Artist’s Geometric Art is Inspired by Music and Architecture

By Jessica Laskey
October 2018

Mark Emerson likes the very thing about art that makes a lot of others anxious.

“Uncertainty in the arts really frustrates a lot of people,” he says on a break from packing up his East Sac studio—located in the house where he grew up—on the eve of a move to Davis to be with his fiancée. “But I think it spurs us on to do our work. It’s the question, ‘What’s going to happen when I paint this painting?’ It never comes out exactly as I intended. Making art is like playing golf—sometimes you tee it off and drive it in, another time it’s in the woods. But you have to be open to the ebb and flow. Discovery is the biggest part.”

Emerson’s deep desire to explore his medium—often polymer on panel—is evident in his vibrant color play, as well as in the sharp lines and rhythmic 

patterns that Emerson describes as being “akin to the development of music. Some of the paintings are bright and quick, some are slower and lyrical.” The artist calls himself “damn local,” seeing as how he was born at Mercy Hospital and, but for a brief stint in LA, has called Sacramento home ever since. He has an eloquent yet clear way of describing both his style and process, which comes in handy when he teaches classes at Sierra College and Sacramento City College. He also recently retired from his alma mater Sacramento State after teaching there for 16 years.

“I always tell my students that every time we make something, we make something different,” says Emerson, who earned his associate of arts degree at Sac City where he studied with local legends Gregory Kondos, Darrell Forney, Laureen Landau, Fred Dalkey and Larry Weldon. He went on to earn his BFA at Sacramento State and MFA at UC Davis, and did some coursework at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland. “If there are 20 students all painting the same subject, there are going to be 20 distinct pieces of work being created.”

While Emerson has always been creative, observing his instructors at Sac City who were living the lives of artists spurred him to seek that life for himself.

“I saw them being professional, teaching and having shows on a regular basis, and I thought it looked like a good life,” Emerson says. “I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’ But then I had to figure out what my art was about.”

A fascination with colors and their relationship to one another led him to Josef Albers’ iconic book “Interaction of Color,” which became a “guidepost” for Emerson as he developed his style. As he progressed and decided he wanted more out of his artwork—to have it be “more demanding of viewer”—he switched to abstraction. And because he’d always responded to the geometric approach of pattern and line, he found his niche in geometric abstraction.

“The process starts in my sketchbook,” explains Emerson, who works on small watercolors in a 7-by-9-inch booklet during class while his students are working. “When I have a new show coming up, I refer to my notebooks—I have dozens of them now—to say, ‘Oh, I like that rhythm or repetitive thing happening in that sketch,’ and then I translate that to a larger piece.”

A rare exhibition of these watercolor sketches will be on display in September at JAYJAY gallery on Elvas Avenue alongside Emerson’s more traditional panel paintings and CSU Stanislaus professor Dean DeCocker’s wall sculptures. The painter says he’s working on a series of small pieces for the show—none larger than 24-by-24 inches—with compositions that are of the “symphonic variety with the counterpoint of jazz.” Namely, motifs of diamond shapes, stripes and rectangles.

“After I draw the painting out in pencil, I tape off different areas, paint those sections and move on,” says Emerson, whose most recent commissioned work can be seen hanging at the newly completed Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing on the campus of the UC Davis Medical Center. “When I’m working on something next to an area that’s taped off, I can’t see what’s next to it. When I remove the tape, I get to see if the colors work and readjust if necessary. Sometimes I realize I’ve never seen that color combination before. That’s what makes art so exciting—we can’t control it, which is why we keep going back to it.”

Check out Emerson’s work at markemerson.info and at JAYJAY gallery at 5524 Elvas Ave. during October.

Jessica Laskey can be reached at jessrlaskey@gmail.com.

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