I’m standing in my painting studio staring out the dirty windows with more or less an imagined blank expression. There is cloud drift blending into that blue which only appears just before the night. The sky feels curved in the last quiet threshold of color. My headphones are a cocoon for the drone, the ghostly gossamer of echo and hiss produced by the distant and bygone coupling of lovesliescrushing. Three indelible, saturating words that perfectly suggest an ambient angst.
This stare, this stance is somewhat the norm when I’m in this room. The windows are a screen through which I watch the atmospheric drift outside while I drift inside through the conscious and unconscious acts of painting, notating, or simply pacing. In here, I am amorphous and airy, parched and icy. I am compelled and fallen. This is a place where things are looked for.
It has only occurred to me quite recently that the generative locus for my recent period of works, as a painter, is quite possibly the windows of this room that are fully dusted with the dark residue of the metropolis outside. They are the most literal interface in this room of one, framing what is outside while I am firmly inside, concerned mostly with the gestures of production and a preoccupation with the clock. Nearly a decade of countless hours has passed at these particular studio windows, reminding me that it is not a space of place but a space of flows. Much like the paintings themselves, these windows function as a portal, but also like an interface, reminding me of the other “screens” through which I stare. These other screens are a progression of computers and smart phones, an aggregate of the televised and cinematic event, the witness account of the passenger. The distant becomes near, the vector is enframe, while the virtual light of network impresses into the optic nerve likening to occurrence itself.
It has only occurred to me quite recently that the generative locus for my recent period of works, as a painter, is quite possibly the windows of this room that are fully dusted with the dark residue of the metropolis outside.
As you might imagine I paint under the natural light that glares through these windows as much as I take cues from the weather cycles that pass by them. Another sun comes, another sun goes, daylight storms and concrete colored mists materialize, only to fade to black. The window frames are walls and bridges to coaxing clouds into the room. The fugitive moments outside, out of focus, are like evocations of songs from before, catalysts for longing. But there is also the reverberation of the virtual light of the digital screen in this room. Within this screen the cloud is associative, organizing a temporal geography of possibilities, multiples and continuous times, feeds and spaces. This is not the light of rationalism, nor the ancient light of a distant star, of particles and waves. This is the light-lag of network, of distant data packets, of millions of calculations, of interstitial space where presence and absence fuse into equivalents. It is the light of transmitted mental states, and the shared hallucination of the “immense accumulation of spectacle.” We blur effortlessly, disappearing along its dynamic of calamity and chatter.
Out of convenience, I’ve called myself a landscape painter for a long time now, but truthfully, the paintings are closer to architectures and constructions that depict textures of terrains, the surges and withdrawals of gathered movement. There is no true access point of (place) attachment. Naturalism is mimed, in an intimation of landscape. This is a simulation.
Each painting is an assemblage of imagistic qualities, overlapping and recurring, upheld by stacked fields of color and light. I source, assimilate, index, and digitize photographic ephemera. This is the image sprawl of the digital cloud repurposed into my crude glossary of research for the next “decision” that has to be meted out by hand and brush. I work the wet surface sporadically, oscillating between habitual repetition and constant redrafting, reducing all gestures to mere traces of the primary attraction. I clumsily traverse between my atlas of accumulated referents, the intuitive moments from the previous session and the limits of who I am in that timed expression we call painting.
The horizon is where the sky and earth touch, giving us our rough coordinate frame. We head toward its direction even as it shifts and eludes us with our every step. The repetitions of horizon lines within my paintings suggest a distance through verticality, but they also imply compression. A heavy firmament wall presses down, pressing against the plane. This tension between surface and depth, between the high and low order of pictorial elements engages the capacity for precision and ambience at the same time. Perhaps both expectation and attention are summoned together, correlating between an uncertain internal state and a precarious outer state, summoning the near and far, the moving and still. The beautiful and the terrible reside, irrevocably bound at the middle, like the uncanniness of silence and solitude and the contingency of what is being experienced.
Artist of the Month: Interview with Christopher Saunders
This month’s featured artist is Christopher Saunders, a painter whose atmospheric, abstract landscapes contain symbols of events and often incorporate elements of the sublime. Below, Saunders talks more about his background and artistic process, the inspirations behind his work, and why Brooklyn is such a great place for artists.
Tell us briefly about your background and how you came to be an artist.
I’m originally from southeast Virginia. I grew up largely in rural circumstances so there wasn’t great exposure to the arts as a kid. Being an artist was something far away, and certainly not considered a vocational path. Yet, I was always drawing and generally encouraged to do so. Ultimately, art history courses in undergraduate school lead me to try studio course work and once that happened, I knew where I belonged.
How long have you lived in Brooklyn? Why is it a great place for artists?
I’m approaching 14 years now. From a practical standpoint, Brooklyn is a means to affordable workspace, though this is changing quickly. It also has been a place of community, where a lot of hard working artists have provided me with inspiration and an example of continuity over the years. Also, I love the light here. I can find a mental space that the city does not offer.
Static Drift, 2011
What made you decide to join BRIC’s Contemporary Artist Registry?
BRIC is a major artery for the cultural life of the borough, so I wanted to be supportive of that effort in this small way and have a place among my neighbors. It is vital that artists have options in a field often dominated by market values. Online registries can be a means to help remedy that lack of access that so many artists experience.
What drew you to paint landscapes?
During my final stretch of graduate school I was deeply affected by Gerhard Richter’s Atlas show at Dia. I was a figure painter then, but not certain at all about why I was a figure painter. I didn’t know it at the time but the seeds for landscape painting had been planted. Some time after that I read Lure of the Local by Lucy Lippard. It is a book that I credit with leading me towards a philosophical home – place studies.
Inspired by these examples, I picked up a camera and started documenting landscapes back in Virginia that I had know intimately. However, these places were now subject to memory and distance as well. I liked the tension and strangeness that this conflict provoked. Over time the photographic work created a need to make paintings again and landscape became my new medium.
Woken in Windows, 2009
Tell us about your recent work, and the cloud as a symbol of an event.
Gradually over the years, I’ve stumbled upon incorporating some traditional symbols into my work. The cloud specifically came about innocently enough as a collaged element in some pieces in the mid-2000’s. Initially it was likely a residue of the Katrina event in New Orleans, as well certain modes of imagery from the endless stream of “hot wars” viewed through the internet and cable news. It seemed too simple at first, but I now feel that the cloud image holds a curious timeliness.
In 2008, during the financial collapse I finally made the leap to use “cloud” as the primary means within my work, cloud as index if you will. It’s free vector that lends itself to the semiotic as well as a means for me to address the culture of calamity and our shared precariousness in a world that appears, thanks to the relentless proliferation of media notation, to be permanently imperiled.
These cloud/events I’ve depicted are conflations really of natural phenomena, industrial accidents, photographic distortions and memory. There is a misrecognition that happens and I’m quite attracted to the poetic possibilities within that misrecognition.
There is an element of the sublime in your work. How did that come to be? Is it connected to a larger meaning?
The sublime is certainly present, as both apocalyptic and contemplative sublimity. The subject matter demands it I suppose. In my research I’ve been influenced by multiple sources, whether it be colonial history and the Industrial Age or the Hudson River School and the darker struggle within late Mark Rothko. I suppose for me the sublime has to with general privations – vacuity, darkness, solitude and silence. It has a place within the contemporary fields of desire. There is definitely a sense of the Gothic everywhere, so I’m sure pop culture too is playing its role in these artistic decisions.
Whitenoise No. 5, 2009
Explain your process of creating these works.
It’s tiered. There is both a research practice and a painting practice. As I’ve mentioned, I’m looking to place studies but also to phenomenology, cultural studies and my most recent academic fetish, horror.
Generally speaking, the paintings germinate from an evolving photographic index that incorporates my own photography alongside found images. The internet has become sort of a chance exercise in the selection found imagery. I spend a lot of time with these collected images and collage them repeatedly until I find an entry that lends itself best to my painting tendencies.
These are slow works. They are slow by the nature of production and they are intended to be slow as objects of contemplation. I engage in a considerable amount of process. I build each painting up through many layers of ground to achieve a particular surface quality before I engage any imagery. Once the foundation is set, I block in the composition fairy quickly and begin the hard work of creating the feel of the painting.
Throughout the remaining development of the painting, I work wet into wet for each element until the artwork is complete. This allows me to retain openness even though I may work on a painting for up to a year. So what you see in the end is really the strata of timed engagements, something that has as much to do with abstraction and performance as it does depiction and the pictorial.
whitehot | February 2012: McAdams and Saunders @ Allegra LaViola Gallery
Shane McAdams & Christopher Saunders: The Fair and Open Face of Heaven
Allegra LaViola Gallery
January 6 – February 4, 2012
In The Fair and Open Face of Heaven, Shane McAdams and Christopher Saunders intermingle landscape and abstraction in unsettling, depopulated vistas which conjure the complicated relations humans have with the land they inhabit. The title of this two-person show at Allegra LaViola Gallery is from Keats for whom escape from the city to the great outdoors provided rejuvenating contemplation of religious proportions. The prescription for the nineteenth-century industrialist/capitalist unable to make the trip was meditation on the next best thing — a landscape painting. Members of the Hudson River School who made these works, and who often accompanied the dangerous westward expeditions, did more than offer soothing, picturesque reflections. By chronicling the land shaped by dramatic geological events and other natural forces, they became the ad men for nation-building and economic exploitation, events which would also leave their mark. Since then, cross-country excursions have become infinitely easier, but the scenes encountered along the way offer weightier ruminations—the increasing cost of civilization. All this is the territory explored by McAdams and Saunders meant, perhaps, to have a different kind of curative effect.
In selections from his Synthethic Landscape series, McAdams samples sights encountered on the classic American road trip: exotic rock formations, Native American landmarks, and the open highway as well as Disney theme parks and other pockmarks of commercial consumption. While he based his painted (and in one case drawn) landscapes on photos he took himself, many almost identical shots of places like Window Rock and the Grand Canyon’s North Rim Lodge can be found online. Having entered the avalanche of digital information, these once hard-to-access natural wonders have been reduced to blasé stops on the well-beaten tourist trail. However, their link back through staggering stretches of time is still available, for those so inclined, to lend perspective on our place in the universe.
Blending the primordial microcosm of Terry Winters with the variegated macrocosm of Thomas Moran and others like him, McAdams obscures many of his expansive scenes with a clustered cellular lace; whether encroaching or receding is unclear. The process-derived overlay, created by reactions between materials such as PVA glue, correction fluid, and resin, stands in stark contrast to the more controlled areas produced, with varying degrees of precision, by McAdams’s hand, a contrast similar in severity between a gorge and a pit mine. In other instances, ballpoint pen ink bleeds under a slick coat of resin creating colorful psychedelic streaks hanging vertically in the white background or pulsing outward from a central portal. These areas of abstraction feel artificial, even toxic, suggesting everything from Apple products to chemical spills to peyote-enhanced visions. This artificiality is nowhere more evident than in Synthetic Landscape 52 (Tree of Life). The bizarre branch structure emerging from the stubby, over-sized trunk is an immediate tip-off that this is not simply a lush paradise. This is an attraction at Disney World, a fourteen-story, man-made structure open for business for your highly-regulated entertainment, a quiet clash between nature and culture.
Saunders takes this clash to another level, one of insidious emissions. Infusing his paintings are themes from Don DeLillo’s White Noise, named for the ubiquitous buzz of human chatter, technology, and information threaded through everyday life. In the novel, this drone is interrupted by an accident, “the airborne toxic event.” This lethal chemical cloud brings both a heightened fear of death and fiery, technicolor sunsets, a combination of the apocalyptic and the sublime which permeates Saunders’s abstract atmospheres.
With far darker inflection, Saunders shares the same fascination with the sky as Claude Lorrain and Byron Kim. In vertical compositions, heavy celestial blocks press down on low, carefully taped-off reductions of roads, fields, runways, and parking lots. The brush that created the smooth, icey surfaces seems to have been made from the same feathery material as the whisps of cloud and color. The vaporous splotches and weird gradations feel otherworldly because they are mutant mash-ups, blended samples of sky, pollution, smoke, explosions, and swarms.
These images are silent but deadly. In Whitenoise no.14, a wave of magenta rains a faint haze far below where a raw, muddy light meets an ochre plain. In Whitenoise no.11, a misty, pink swath infiltrates a gray smog illuminated on the left by a powdery flash. The lower band of green, yet unaffected, contains a contaminating encounter. This is the empty cosmic darkness, the abyss, that no amount of clutter, no amount of white noise can protect against. This work, like that of McAdams, successfully harkens both backward and forward to a world without us. This show was frightening and beautiful.
About the author.
Kris Scheifele is an artist and writer based in New York. She received an MFA from Pratt Institute and a BFA and BA from Cornell University. She also attended Skowhegan and was a 2009 Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant recipient. Her artwork has been exhibited at CUE Art Foundation, PS122 Gallery, 92YTribeca, and Janet Kurnatowski. krisscheifele.com
Big Sky Country
Whitenoise no. 1, 2008
Oil on linen
24 x 18 inches
“In his volume The World As Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer elucidated
a scale of aesthetic experience. At one end of this spectrum, he described the ‘Feeling of Beauty’ as ‘Light…reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt [the] observer.)’ At the other end of the spectrum, the philosopher positioned the ‘Full Feeling of Sublime’ and the ‘Fullest Feeling of Sublime.’ These categories are described, respectively, as ‘Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects.),’ and ‘Immensity of Universe’s extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature.)’
[…] Most modern humans (especially modern humans in the First World) are insulated from inclement weather. We fret over a rained-out ball game or beach party, but we rarely tremble before dark cloud heads; our appreciation of the elements is principally one of admiration, an aesthetic experience that resides near the middle of Schopenhauer’s scale. But Saunders’ landscapes provide viewers with a vantage point that repairs the reverent awe that we once felt before the expansive firmament. He does not include the rugged, mountainous imagery familiar to most artistic depictions of the Sublime. Instead he portrays clouds pushing over a featureless land, the violent potential of atmospheric flux readily observable at a distance. The clouds, vast, magnificent, menacing, dominate Saunders’ compositions; they are the rough mountains of our inner wilderness.’
I thought of Saunders’ paintings when I visited Corden/Potts Gallery last week and was introduced to the photography of Camille Seaman. Cloudheads also dominate Seaman’s pictures. To produce her “Big Cloud” series (2008), the photographer crisscrossed Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas chasing supercells, powerful thunderheads associated with hail, downpours, and strong winds. Her description of the storms — “In that force is also creation.” — suggests an appreciation of the sublime.
Whitenoise no. 14, 2011
Oil on linen
24 x 18 inches
The press release for “The Fair and Open Face of Heaven,” a concurrent 2-person show in New York City that features new paintings by Saunders, notes that, “though there is the sense of the sublime [in Saunders imagery], there is certainly the portent of doom.” The “though” is unnecessary; sublime experience, as our brooding friend Schopenhauer made clear, is nothing if not fearsome. Existential dread is often the foundation of spiritual euphoria. As I observed in the earlier write-up on Saunders, the “surrender of self also opens our field of vision to the infinite variety and scope of being; through negation, liberation.”
The modern man/nature dichotomy of the Romantics is best dismissed as naive ideology, but it’s not entirely without value. Arcadia, the pastoral Utopia celebrated in so many paintings, poems, and scores, is a fiction, but the Romantics weren’t exactly wrong in insisting that bucolic and frontier settings act as a curative to what they viewed as urban and industrial decadence. Although experiences of the sublime like those Schopenhauer categorizes occur in living rooms, houses of worship, and on bustling city streets, they’re more easily afforded outdoors, under the sky’s great canopy. In a gallery space, we’re unlikely to be awe-struck or shaken to the extent that we might be were we, like Seaman, kneeling beneath a roiling supercell. But one of the principal joys of art is its ability to provide us with inklings of the sublime and the ineffable, no matter the setting.
Christopher Saunders’ paintings are on view at Allegra LaViola Gallery (179 East Broadway, NYC) through February 4. Camille Seaman’s photographs are on view at Corden/Potts Gallery (49 Geary Street, Ste. 410, San Francisco) through February.
Posted January 13, 2012 by Hungry Hyaena
whitehot | April 2011: Hiroyuki Hamada / Christopher Saunders@ Roger Williams University
Hiroyuki Hamada / Christopher Saunders
Art & Architecture Gallery
Roger Williams University
Bristol, Rhode Island
On first entering the conspicuously untitled exhibit of works by Hiroyuki Hamada and Christopher Saunders, I was immediately struck by the sensation of walking around a battlefield, well after the fighting had ended. Sculptures suggested pieces of war machines, their surfaces scared and dented with the patina of combat. The paintings on the wall provided the atmospherics, the smoke, the clouds, and the menacing sky. This aesthetic was fueled by the unusual pairing of these two artists in a sort of artistic synergistic effect- I don’t think I would have felt this from either artist alone.
On the surface these artists have very little in common to suggest a pairing. This is of course one of the great limitations of the two person show, the need to ask for a comparison. Whether it is two artists working in a similar style, or perhaps an essay on influence, a pairing of a younger and an older artist showing an aesthetic ancestor/descendent relationship. The worst two persons shows simply suggest an inability to commit by the curator. As an occasional curator, I fear nothing so much as the two person show. Of course, a solo exhibit is just that and requires no explanation and a three person show is really just a group show. But in this case Easthampton based curator Jessica Frost tackles these limitations headlong, creating an experience that for this viewer, goes way beyond the usual gallery experience. Frost is cagey on this. Though I did not push the issue, I could not get her to confirm or deny any similar interpretations to my own. As a curator she feels that any attempted definition of content is best left to the observer.
But let me return to the post combat allusions in the imagery evoked not by the artists images specifically, but by the pairing. Each artist’s piece created a context for viewing the other’s work. Easthampton based Hiroyuki Hamada creates beautifully crafted sculptures that are reminiscent of parts of missiles or warplanes. Though their surfaces are paint, wax, and tar they are eerily similar to the painted panels of light gauge aluminum, used to skin an aircraft. Through the production process, dents and gouges occasionally appear and Hamada goes to great length to replicate them when they do not. The surfaces evoke, utility, age, resiliency, and even a certain amount of technological complexity.
Three sculptures in particular, the equivocally named #’s 45, 53, and 54 are all reminiscent of the forms of the nose cones of undetonated warheads. Hamada avoids discussing this type of reading of his work. As an artist he tries to ignore outside references, preferring instead for his work to come from a truly interior space. His artwork is a product of the mind, unburdened by the need to think in real world images. Perhaps this way of working could be associated with the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers? Or perhaps it is much more like the formal concerns one associates with music. Hamada does not not seem to mind these representational interpretations of his work, he simply does not see artistic source material as needing any real world referent. Of course once it is out in the real world and out of his studio, all bets are off.
By contrast New York artist Christopher Saunders thoroughly embraces the idea of influence. Obvious sources for inspiration include Mark Rothko and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Less obvious sources include Don Delillo’s fiction and Edmund Burke’s writings on the sublime. His vertical images follow Rothko’s compositional devices rather than the traditional landscape horizontal format. They refuse to commit to either representation or abstraction appearing to be alternately images of skies, clouds, or smoke, or simply color fields of dark earth tones. Some of his titles, Field 6, Field 3 or Untitled (Flood Field), play with this- literal field or color field painting? I would argue both. Hasn’t color field abstraction frequently been associated on some level with the aesthetics of atmospheric phenomena? One thinks of Turner, Monet, or Rothko. But Saunders really breaks from the bunch by adding the carbon black of diesel soot, the acid yellow of contaminated air, and the ocher of skies over a ruined landscape. The effect is a hesitant beauty- hesitant only because it feels so damaged. Saunders’ titles are also notable in their cautiously leading the viewer to a certain point of view. Several of the images use the word “field” in the title. The rest are variations on WhiteNoise, suggesting an allusion to Delillo’s mysterious airborne toxic event.
Finally it is worth mentioning another perspective on this show. As I was leaving the Art & Architecture building after sunset, I was treated to a stunning sight of the gallery from outside through the large glass windows. The gallery was brightly illuminated, much more so than the walkways outside the building. The sculptural elements and the paintings seemed to glow with life, much like this month’s view of the moon, coming closer to the earth than it has in many years. This breathtaking effect was a perfect way to see the exhibit for the last time.
About the author:
Brian Miller is a photographer, curator, writer, and farmer. His photographs have been exhibited internationally, including recent exhibitions at the Heard Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Smithsonian Institutions’s Gustave Heye Center, and Dartmouth College’s Strauss Gallery. Recent curatorial projects include Office Space at the Rockland Center for the Arts in Nyack, NY and the New Arts Center in Newton, MA. His current body of photographic images is about training himself as a non believing practitioner of the Snake Handler religion. He lives in New Hampshire where he is on the faculty of Dartmouth College. www.blacknorthphoto.com
Art in Residence: The James New York
At The James New York, a new art-centric hotel in Manhattan’s Soho, the permanent in-house collection was assembled by an independent curator, Matthew Jensen, in collaboration with Artists Space, a neighbourhood artists’ collective; each of the hotel’s 14 guest room floors is dedicated to the work of a single New York-based artist. Public areas are also prime exhibition space: _QWERTY 5_, a mosaic of thousands of recycled keyboard keys, is installed on one wall of the entrance foyer, custom-created for the hotel by the artist Sarah Frost. Constructed entirely from scavenged materials, Frost’s pieces examine the remains of consumer culture and – fittingly for a hotel installation – the imprints of users left behind.
“The sculptural work and the outdoor work in the hotel is unified by the fact that the artists are using reclaimed materials,” says Jensen. Other public art installations in the building include Elevator, by Korean artist Sun K. Kwak, a striking, graphically patterned piece that utilises cut black vinyl to create a design in the white elevator shaft, visible as the hotel’s glass elevator moves up and down between the first-floor foyer and the third-floor sky lobby. “I like the fact that it references the motion of water and a gyre,” says Jensen. He adds that it is also probably the most adventurous piece in the hotel – the artist worked in the elevator shaft with the elevator hanging above her.
Jensen envisioned the hotel as “a series of halls in a tall, narrow museum” to display the show, titled Stand Here and Listen, 14 floors of new paintings, prints, photographs and works-on-paper by emerging artists who are using landscape as a conceptual element in their work. The corridors of each floor function as dedicated gallery space, and informational placards by the elevator include barcodes that are scannable by smartphone, so that viewers can find out more about the artists-in-residence.
During a recent stay, I found myself on the 16th floor admiring the blurry, ephemeral oil paintings by Christopher Saunders, a 2010 Fellow in Painting from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His paintings have a perfection about them – Jensen says that Saunders labours to get an inkjet-print precision – but there’s an abstraction, too, with floating houses and dappled reflections; his artist’s notes show a concern with the transience of landscape: “Landscape can be used as a medium with which we are creatively involved, a locus for the interplay of orientation, identity, memory, and the poetic possibilities of misrecognition.” Since my room was on the 16th floor, I got to see Saunders’ work more frequently, and every time I embarked and disembarked from the elevator, I had the opportunity to become more familiar with it.
The shape of the hotel and its configuration influenced Jensen’s choices and his take on the idea of art in residence. “Because you stay on the floor, you get to know an artist’s stuff a little bit better, and I like that,” Jensen says. He intends each floor to be its own exploration of the notion of public and perceived landscapes, playing with the idea of a dedicated “viewing spot” that occurs in popular tourist destinations. “Because of the tight confines of the halls, you’re pretty close to the work, and it’s quiet and intimate. And despite the difference in medium and theme between the artists, there’s a horizon line in almost every work. There’s always a place to stand.”
Christopher Saunders’ WHITENOISE
A regular passenger on New York City‘s subway system, I’m grateful for the Metropolitan Transit Authority‘s “Poetry in Motion” and “Train of Thought” programs, efforts that repurpose subway advertising space as a showcase for poetry or significant quotations. This week, I noticed the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer‘s quotation, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” I appreciate the substance of Schopenhauer’s cynical observation, but I would amend his statement. Certainly, too many men do take the limits of their field of vision for the limits of the world, but the truly reverent man does not mistake the two for the same. As the critic, author, poet, and essayist Wendell Berry describes it, “to feel reverence, to be reverent, is exactly to surrender the ‘precious self.'” In surrendering the self, we accept our insignificance, we recognize the infinitesimal reach of our individual vision. And yet, counter intuitively, this same surrender of self also opens our field of vision to the infinite variety and scope of being; through negation, liberation. Schopenhauer and Berry again came to mind as I contemplated Christopher Saunders‘ “Whitenoise” paintings in LaViolaBank Gallery‘s group exhibition “Outside In.” (1)Dark and cloudy skies dominate Saunders’ vistas, and the horizon in these flatland pictures draws a conspicuous boundary between sky and earth. In “Whitenoise Suite no.4,” an ominous storm front moves over a lonely stretch of highway; a pitch veil chases away a sunset in “Whitenoise Suite no.8”; and in “Whitenoise Suite no.9,” a brooding twilight settles above a tarmac. There are echoes of Mark Rothko‘s luminous melancholy in Saunders’ work, but his atmospheric paintings seem most akin to the Romantic landscapes of the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries.
Caspar David Friedrich is perhaps the most celebrated painter of the Sublime, and his “Wanderer above the Sea of Mist” (1818) is among the best known examples. The work pictures a well-dressed, solitary gentleman, his back to the viewer, positioned confidently atop a rocky crag as he surveys a vast, mountainous landscape that is mostly obscured by fog. Concurrent with Friedrich’s work on the famous painting, his friend Carl Gustav Carus described Sublime experience in a passage that could well have been written in response to “Wanderer.”
Stand then upon the summit of the mountain, and gaze over the long rows of hills. Observe the passage of streams and all the magnificence that opens up before your eyes; and what feeling grips you? It is a silent devotion within you. You lose yourself in the boundless spaces, your whole being experiences a silent cleansing and clarification, your I vanishes, you are nothing. God is everything.
Carus’ experience of the Sublime is, like Berry’s reverence, a reduction or erasure of the self-conscious individual and a simultaneous opening of the individual to the wilderness within. His dramatic description brings us back to the moody Schopenhauer, who prescribed the Sublime as a remedy to his every man limits. In his volume The World As Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer elucidated a scale of aesthetic experience. At one end of this spectrum, he described the “Feeling of Beauty” as “Light…reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt [the] observer.)” At the other end of the spectrum, the philosopher positioned the “Full Feeling of Sublime” and the “Fullest Feeling of Sublime.” These categories are described, respectively, as “Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects.),” and “Immensity of Universe’s extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer’s nothingness and oneness with Nature.)” At the amplitude of “Fullest Feeling,” then, Schopenhauer’s aesthetic philosophy is reconciled with that of Carus and Berry.Most modern humans (especially modern humans in the First World) are insulated from inclement weather. We fret over a rained-out ball game or beach party, but we rarely tremble before dark cloud heads; our appreciation of the elements is principally one of admiration, an aesthetic experience that resides near the middle of Schopenhauer’s scale. But Saunders’ landscapes provide viewers with a vantage point that repairs the reverent awe that we once felt before the expansive firmament. He does not include the rugged, mountainous imagery familiar to most artistic depictions of the Sublime. Instead he portrays clouds pushing over a featureless land, the violent potential of atmospheric flux readily observable at a distance. The clouds, vast, magnificent, menacing, dominate Saunders’ compositions; they are the rough mountains of our inner wilderness. Despite the “Whitenoise” paintings’ relatively small size, their effect is formidable. Before the strongest in the series, I stood quiet.
I’m always getting lost in Chinatown. And I mean, like, ALWAYS. The nice thing is that somehow I (usually) eventually (somehow) find my way to the East Broadway F station which is right across the street from LaViolaBank Gallery. I always stop in. I consistently like at least 60% (sometimes more, never less) of what I see on the walls there, which, let’s face it, is a pretty good average. Much better than most. The group show that’s up now, Outside In, mos def hits a higher than usual. Christopher Saunders’ exquisite paintings were one of the things that helped the average this time ’round. Also killin’ it was Mira O’Brien’s gorgeous and broken Glass Platform. Leighton Pierce’s Tree videos in the basement reminded me a lot of the video that I saw Wolfgang Voigt use up at Columbia earlier in the summer. Trust me. This is a good thing. These are all good things. I should get lost more often.
Posted September 19, 2009 by Heart as Arena