Rev., Feb 24, 2018.
This essay is based on seeing this show in person at the Sheldon Museum, February, 2018.
Encountering the Disaster Series by Donald Sultan at the Sheldon, I was a bit nonplussed. Sultan is pretty much exactly my age, and he began to make a name for himself in the art world at the exact same time when I made a bit more modest effort at the same. I remembered his flowers and his abstractions, as pictured in the catalog, quite well, but…I did not remember the Disaster Series. So, that was the first problem. This was clearly a body of work that he devoted an enormous amount of time to (the exhibition as seen in the catalog was much bigger than that presented at the Sheldon), but it was not shown at the time (at least, I did not see it, or, if I did, it did not register). So, assuming that to be true, and that this show is an attempt to give a second look at a body of work that was overlooked, the question is, why?
Of course, there are any number of reasons why the work of an artist does not get a proper airing, urban legend of course argues that gender or ethnicity is the primary reason, but, really, especially in the 80s, which was so market conscious, it is simply that a work belongs or does not belong to a market. Especially if a market is circumscribed by a strong theoretical push, then the work has to conform to the market and gain entry into it by being “approved” as it were by the theoretical gatekeepers of the moment. Again, this was how it was in the 80s, things are much looser (but not entirely different) now. So, generally, Donald Sultan’s abstracts were accepted and consumed as part of a vague movement at the time called NeoGeo. The idea was promulgated most of all by Peter Halley, and it argued that abstraction was by no means the expression of the artist but a circuitry borrowed from the world and existing in the world and it was best if abstractionists could cool off their work by casting over it a cover of distancing effects through which one looked at the simulation of abstraction in the abstraction. Or something like that. To map it out, using my graphics, expressionist abstraction believed that the facture of the painting was somehow connected to the cult of the artist, expressive of his or her energy or whatever
that is, the work of art is a creation of the agency of the artist, in the context of a cult of the artist meaning that everything in him or her is important to get out, their subjectivity rules, and as a result in the painting the facture is an expression of their subjectivity and feeling, and this, this hotness makes for the cult of “painterly” painting that prevails on and off in the period.
By contrast, neogeo worked out a different formula
that is, the work of art was STILL the creation of the artist, but the artist was now deferring from authorial input, the actual look and substance of the painting was derived by the artist as observer interpositioning between him or her and the painting the world and all its surfaces, and then from the application of his thought about the world as artist he or she created a painting that is as cold and material and abstract and compact and objective as the world. This posture then reverted by reagency (or maybe reverse agency, my graphs are always scenic improvs) to the artist representing his/her cold eye on the world by as it were a screen or sludge of pure, hard, abstracting, effacing paint, over the surface of the painting as thing. In this case, then, the world was represented by as it were a distanced or buried subject matter, remotely seen and detected, and then grounded in the ethos of the world as abstract and being abstract in the way of all but not being there. It was the connoisseurship of simulation, represented, in paint; it was thought, by means of the effacement strategy of an artist turning against the claim of abstraction to represent emotions or even the world, to posit abstraction as just another “medium”, that, generally, Neo Geo nested.
This did have some relation to the distancing strategies of classic postmodernism. In its simplest terms, as I read it in the 70s, before I entered the art world, the postmodern aesthetic reversed the ethos of straight photography or imagery, the idea that the medium was a naïve, transparent, objective recorder of truth, and truth was in reality
to a much more nuanced view
that a photograph was taken by a photographer with his or her subjectivity and interests and this resulted when taking a photograph in a certain degree of framing and selecting of a subjective nature which as such made media opaque and all about itself, to be read first, for its biases, and THEN you read through that to the non-truth of the subject matter or reality beyond it. In this formula as it worked out, there developed, then, a number of effacement or objectification strategies, either making more or less of the medium, to at the very least make it more present, as a clear screen or veil through which one viewed reality, and this created the ethos that blocked Straight Photography and created Constructed Photography. But, it also, from that effacement in the medium consideration created a number of strategies by which a photographer or artist could manipulate the medium to make it more or less to interpose it between him- or herself and reality to make the point that the medium is the frame and most of the message is in the medium, while the subject is just a something in a reality that cannot really in its truth be known by way of medium.
The simplest way in which I got to this point of view was naively, before I had read any theory, by just wowing at the oldness of old photographs; and, then, as a kind of joke, argue that I can’t see through them to the past, and, for that, I read them literally, to then make jokes based on that.
that is, I would see an old photo
and rather than see through it transparently to a recorded reality, in the past, that is, conveying the truth of the reality of the past (and I was playing games here, and was immature), I would “read” the marks of obsolescence on it, the fadedness, the shadows, the nicks and bruises, then also the old-timeness of it, its “surreality,” the stiff posing, the serious faces, the deer in the headlights stare before the new medium, and other aspects of that sort (I broke it down in an intuitive not systematic way), and thus from this picture describe a poetic-magical Civil War world where all the men waded knee deep in a grey fog for the whole war, and had long guns to as it were row with an oar through that permanent fog, and they would often, not to get lost, just sit perfectly still, without moving a muscle for hours in camp, to make sure they were all there; and then too they were not moving a muscle because they were afraid of black misty ghosts like the one in the lower left corner coming up and jumping into them from the dead bodies just off screen, etc. I still do this, now and then, for fun, but it was by these visual games that I came upon the postmodern approach to reality by way of medium, medium first as the frame, always having a bias, always constructed, and then reality in effect somewhat unknowable (I was also a phenomenologist so believed that, in fact, the reality was IN the place where subjectivity and objectivity met in the ghosts etc described by Husserl, and all that was materialized in media, in old photography).
And it turns out that, though somewhat differently, Cindy Sherman did pretty much the same thing
She did this:
she took a film still from an old movie, and, by her subjective looking at it, noticed that something about it now, by the passage of time, seemed wrong; that, therefore, brought the medium forward to interposition it between the subjectivity of the artist viewer and its subject reality, to create of it a medium through which reality is seen, but with more consciousness of its role as medium. That is, by observing the front, fictive and support space of a film still, which in its time in the market was simply viewed transparently as “reality,” (though I now somewhat dispute this too), she suddenly, by focusing attention on the medium, SAW the lines in its wholeness, and was able to separate them out, and also observe maybe that, my theory, by time and market they had come apart on their own, creating fissures where things were formerly seamless; and she, then, interjected herself into the fictive space of the shot to recreate the shot in front surface and support scenery but position herself with just a hint of datedness and CSness sexiness of whatever to make it seem ever so slightly off, but still entirely ‘nailing it’ to exactly and precisely with surgical skill deconstruct the hidden sexism, for example, in the film still. By this masquerade, stepping into the film still, she as it were created a kind of crawlspace in the counterform of the medium, to create a new medium in photography, constructed photography.
By her overwhelming influence, however, it did seem as if the art world mostly embraced the stratagem of sizing apart the surface and support, to see the fissure or split in the image, then interjecting something in the fictive space of a comic or deadpan manner, to “deconstruct” it and make it ridiculous. This strategy has become by now such total second nature in the age of the meme that it is somewhat quaint to admit that this seemed like a revelation to us, all of us raised on the truth of the straight photographic image, and I would almost blush at our naivete were it not for the fact that it does seem as if since 9/11 the world has wholeheartedly returned to an abiding faith in the pious falsities of photojournalism as conveyers of some dramatic truth, and seems to believe once again, or when it suits your point of view, in the absolute dramatic effect and truthtelling power of a straight image, a very dangerous turn in the ability of the world to manage its media. But of the three possible general categories of stratagem of splitting the former truth atom of straight photography by parsing out its surface, fictive space and support, as such, abstracted from the above
the CS method, 1, parsing out the fictive space seemed the most popular, and the most copied approach. At some point, I will go back and pull out some other photographers who followed in the line of constructed photography, but things went wide of the mark quickly.
But, more to the point here, how did painting respond to the picture theory (for that is what this is) breakdown of straight photography? simple, by breaking down the straight painting, as described above, with now the interposition of the subjectivity of the artist but as a critical subjectivity interrogating the truth of the medium and doing so primarily through, imitating CS, breaking apart the fictive space of the painting. Mark Tansey, of course, was the most popular artist at the time, doing this, and popular for that
But there were others, Duncan Hannah, John Bowman, Robert Longo, Willy Lenski, all of whom broke down straight representational painting and interjected something odd and mysterious and awkward in it, by means of manipulating the fictive space of the painting, and keeping all other elements quite simple and plain (this all, however, really didn’t take off until John Currin and Lisa Yuskavage figured it all out, fusing this tendency with “bad painting,” another train of thought, at the very end of the decade, see my piece on Currin, same arguments).
Then there were painters like Mark Innerst, who, in my language “literalized” painting, much in the tradition of the photorealists, by “literally” painting the severe reduction of content caused by the framing of things in this way
this, then, putting the frame up front, that would be an adjunct space, bestride the fictive, I would guess
this often involved what I then clumsily called the new landscape, where frame was literalized–again, that was my term for foregrounding the medium by reading it literally then peering at the usurped reality reduced to mere signs of “painting” to be seen far off
And then there was Troy Brauntuch, and all sorts doing this sort of thing, all but making opaque the surface space, to all but entirely efface the content as a mere phantom or mirage seen in the solidness or surfaceness of the surface
Something like this
and then Jack Goldstein who, I think this is right, thought, OK, the medium is intervening, but what if we sharpen it up by way of silhouette or other shock or highlighting devices, like you see in movies, would that again as it were by a kind of end-around reinvigorate the subject matter or painting of the painting to make it reach back and enrich that reality to be seen in a new way
And I guess schematically, I will just map him to the back of the surface, fictive and support breakdown, so he is about manipulating media to see the support and ground behind it in a new way
Robert Longo also more or less doing the same thing. And, then, in that little world, which I was enchanted by, Doug Blau was the curator of choice, all his included works wiggle-rooming one way or another about these shiftings, and all the variations possible, and I of course liked it that because Chesley Bonestell’s space drawings now had “surfaced” and “literalized” as fantasies of reality embedded in the media (same language), they were included in Blau’sk landmark exhibition, Fictions, at Kent Gallery (there was a whole tranche of the Jack Goldstein groupies all centered around futurist Paul Virillo’s language, and Z Magazine, the cyborg enthusiasm of the moment, I mean it was thrillingly “postmodern” on a larger level of reaching out to popular art and, in my theory, popular art that had now “migrated out” of its one-dimensional straight period, to now be seen as what they were, subjective art with medium intervening
And I will also say that every artist, once they figured out at least the ballpark notion of their armentarium, that is, their strategy in how they wiggled in and around the deconstructing of the medium of photography by way of picture theory and doing what I generally called at the time “photo based painting” (my best essays written on this topic were for Inherent Vice, an exhibition I curated at the Woodstock Center of Photography (1991), and about the painting of Willy Lenski in a brochure I wrote for Neo Persona gallery, 1989), it did seem to me that, at times, Innerst, for example, would thicken his surface enameling to allow for a crossover bridging the picture theory painting and the Neo Geo moment for all of it to kind of harmonize in the development of the market.
And, in fact, it is in his thick lacquering over in a dull, black way, then involving pop art or just pure simulation-painting non-content, that Donald Sultan snuck in the door, and made it big in his particular little wiggle room.
But, then, like I said, that is where he took up his place, in a narrow little wiggle room spot in the developing market. And that spot was already taken by Troy Brauntuch
or rather, that spot was an active place, and as he made work in that niche space that is what he became known for, and what people wanted of him, so, there it was, the market decided (and so did he) (the market is still the market, but it was highly parsed in the 80s).
And, now, it turns out that he was also, at the same time, in the background, creating another body of work that was also picture theory painting, but much more focused on the content as some reflection of the horror of the world, that is, in a kind of straight way; but then he sludged over it his signature heavy dark opaque flow of resin resulting in, perhaps, people having the same reaction to them that I had to them last week, you wanted to engage with them as if they were Longos or Goldsteins, or even Turners, the big subject matter, the strong, hard, rough content, the “disasters,” and you wanted to want his marshalling of the medium of painting in a more dramatic and mediated way like Goldstein, to bring new oomph and sharpness to the depiction of the content in a way that circled back to reconnect content to the reality of the world, creating, as it were, a kind of zigzag recapture of the straight photography ethos, but by way of acknowledging, then overcoming, the influence media has on how you see it, to get there by way of a filter, then, but…..because the paintings were covered by an insistent in-your-face surface with such a sludge of opaque black paint that as it were seemed to flow down over the content and even “put it out,” if a fire, or neutralize it, if other content, one did not know how to deal with it, it did not read as his Lemons did, it read in a way that by the pattern set in the market was not readable at the time, so, the impasse of this series of paintings. Thus, my first conclusion with this work is that, because it is titled the Disaster Series, one wants to engage with the subject matter and content and in a way that enlists the painterly style to reinforce and recharge the power of media filtered to capture reality, to reassign this formula of representation back to a straight purpose to represent the horror of reality, the cold dead horror of life today. But it doesn’t work. Then, at the same time, you want to stand back and accept the screen and view the art of the sludge of resin in front on the surface and see that as somehow metaphorical of the POV of the artist, or whatever, but that too does not quite work. Therefore, one is stuck, both ways, both ways, the paintings do not seem to quite work according to pre-practised strategems in classic picture theory, picture theory painting, or even Neo Geo painting. So, what is one to do? And here, I think, dynamic agency theory is required to unpack the problem, in part two.
The magical apotropaia of Donald Sultan’s Disaster Series, Sheldon Museum of Art.
Rev., Feb 25, 2018.
Note: This is a radical phenomenological reconstruction of a visit, to tease out what I actually thought of these paintings, then to come to a conclusion. Apologies in advance for hardly passable photography.
Having determined, or at least guessed, why it was that I might not have seen Donald Sultan’s Disaster Series back in the 80s, when it was done, and why I was surprised to see them in 2018, at the Sheldon, and using for all that a kind of postformalist model of onionskins of elements of works as derived from my treatment of movies, now I have to concede that the actual reason why the work confused me, and then maybe resolved itself into be acknowledged as of interest, is agentic. That is, a broader picture related to the fact that the pictures made a relational solicitation to my attention which involved either cult, intercessional, votive or apotropaic impulses.
To get to this authentically, I have the difficult task, two weeks later, of trying to reconstruct my brief tour of the show, and mark out what I noticed, what I paid attention to, as an indication of my response, agentically. First picture, then, right in the door (from the elevator), is of the scenic quality of the firemen fighting a fire
The shot seems to focus on the silhouettes, the men as heroes, of some sort, and then it expands to take in the whole of the flames. Sultan, my photo seems to say, does good flames. But, right away, in the next shot, I was worrying, what exactly are these things, are they pictures, or platforms? and this support structure, I don’t know what it means
then, I would have to say, by the noncommittal nature of these snaps, I drifted. I didn’t respond to Poison Nocturne, and, wondered, in fact, why so black, why so dark? I had no thought in the gallery about the idea of the “nocturne,” or any of its Whistlerian implications, which I would think effete and jejune rationalization in any case.
Here too, however, the physical question mark
and then, trying to take in the whole thing, to give it the benefit of the doubt
These were the paintings in the opening gallery, the gateway, introductory pieces, as it were, coming into the show from the elevator (which I now use).
Then, in the next gallery, the introduction seemed to be over, as right away I jumped back into the firefighting, and saw and felt that this was “good fire.”
And I think this close-up clearly indicates that not only did I like the fire, but I thought Sultan did a good job with capturing the facture and fury of fire, and the whole fire thing. This was my entrée into the work
And again, and it’s possible I even saw intimations, in miniature, though these were painted years before, of 9/11, who knows.
Then I focused on this part, in another painting, a church tower silhouetted against fire.
If I could deconstruct this according to picture theory I’m guessing I was trying to put it in line with both classic images of St. Paul’s cathedral during the Battle of London
And maybe obviously relate it to Turner’s pictures of the Burning of Parliament, in which he was clearly trying to symbolize the changing times by the disasters happening, truly with apocalyptic fervor
And the picture of the burning church inside the door of the Castavettes apartment, as snuck into by Rosemary at the end of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), one of my favorite movie paintings ever (see blog post, June 2013) (Note: I have since located a number of fire scene painters in 17th century Holland).
Smoke too, so by the clicks I was into it.
And then that little oomph of interest was resolved back into something more signature as a Sultan, because more abstract, Forest Fire (1984).
But, here too, my eye was licking at the fire
Curiously, at this point, I had taken a picture of a work in the first gallery, of a factory in silhouette, in some form, and now I turned to frame it in the doorway of that gallery and look back on it for reasons why I am not clear about, yet.
And there were more fires, perhaps emphasized curatorially in the truncated version of the show shown at the Sheldon, but it seems I just ambled by.
and then I fixed on what I later said was the best painting in the show, a picture of Auschwitz, Polish Landscape, and the trains and industrial complex about it.
and the surface and facture on this was quite a bit more intense, and directed, and more closely related to and involved in the subject matter than other paintings in the exhibition; that is, it seemed to me, that the space between treatment and topic was smaller, this was a tighter, almost descriptive painting, but with surface effects
It is the only picture I came real close into to focus on imposing passages of evocation of the horror of the place, this passage gives one a true chill.
And I tried to get the whole railroad verticality in a picture to capture more of the relation, and effect, this then the path of death, how it was done.
Then I sat down and looked at a catalog that was set out there, and it featured, apparently, a source painting, in the ben day dot way that abtracting postmoderns do graphicaly to give the scene an historic patina and distance, and maybe even aloof grandeur (the original picture in the press is a photojournalist picture meant to scare us, and make us terrified of the world and life, so that when other people respond to it, we can make them heroes, and thus buoy up our sense that our sensibility and our human interest in mankind will protect us from the world, this sentimentalization and romanticization of the tragedies of the world, so common in treatment of the news today (I mean, WHY cant we talk about Syria without right away talking about it through pictures of dying children?) I deplore as evidence of a corny and false belief in straight photography when most of the time it is propaganda. Then, as the picure theorists found out, and as I know from my attraction to muted sort of representations of old, I particularly like the blank, aloof tone of documentary photos from the turn of the 20th century as, for example, in my copy of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, all of these effacements are meant to distance us to accept the carnage of the world, and I do have a strong streak of belief in the God of Carnage, but…..I did not sense this apocalyptic spirit here).
Somehow, someone in the catalog relates this all to Bocklin’s Island of the Dead, no, Bocklin was a pagan who was seeking to find a place for death in life conceived of in as a more animated, numinous place (I have not read the catalog essay).
And I was reminded of the Donald Sultan I knew of in the 80s market, all at Blum Helman
The catalog also showed more typical abstract treatment of the flames, in ways that break the monotony of the black.
and a more lyrical tone
which feel like defintely not disasters, just nature (Note: this comment written before California burned down this year)
and more abstraction of the leaf form, closer, then, to the lemons work
then a super closeup of Auschwitz again
and another old photo
and other more Jack Goldstein-y gambits, giving graphic punch to photo sources and more
Concluding with a good dose of artist-as-god myth creation shots from the studio sanctum sanctorum, then an essay by poet Max Blagg which starts off with a thud with Shelley’s Ozymandias, for god’s sake, the most downloaded poem online in the weeks after 9/11, and then Blagg brings all the literary references in from Armageddon to Dante (and I thought it odd to read of the Odor of Ashes on a Valentine’s Day that was also an Ash Wednesday), the full romantic treatment.
which then goes on, somewhat contradictorily (middle class consciousness always Janusfaced) to rightly so deplore the romanticization of war photos and the like, my hated photojournalism, see above, but then indulges in all sorts of artist statement-based readings and artist-god tropes of feeling and depth and all that, and, oh please, I stopped reading. And……that was my show. A last shot at the blackness
and then a questioning departure
So, what did I get out that exhibition? And where does my feeling fall, in my somewhat bemused response to it, after, that is, I get over the art-critical market-sorting point, covered above, that I did not remember them from when they were painted.
First thing, a lot of people will go into a show by “Donald Sultan” and view each work as a token or souvenir of his mind and of the mind of the artist and therefore see these paintings, and their response as takeaway souvenirs to support their continued cult of the artist. If they happen to be an artist, then from these they will reflect back on their embrace of the heightened subjectivity which so many middle class people have in the past generation, being artists, have embraced, so, these are relics of a cult of the artist, and becomes tools of narcisistic self-regard and middle class consciousness wagon-circling. I simply do not see artwork like that anymore, it is all anecdotal rationalization, or only rarely and only for a very few artists, artists that merit it. Most of the time I look for nothing more in an artist than a kind of saint’s or shaman’s role, an intercessionary to open up a door to a different perspective, to help me see things in a way I might not have thought about before, and that’s that, all art functions as door-opening to by continual labor help me hope that I can keep an open mind about life when the overwhelming evidence of human life and existence is that over time most minds close down and stall in fixed opinions, resulting in a closed-minded culture (which, by the way, I consider cult of the artist culture to be).
But by the phenomenology of my experience, it seemed as if the show did, by gallery, divide into three zones, and three moods. Early on, in the first gallery, I hesitated, and was unsure, these were the concierge pieces, and yet they did not guide; the psychopomp role was called for, and they left me wondering where am I and what are these? This first impression of aloofness translated into a cool response to the art, in terms of taking up some urgent, impassioned, expressive meaning, ala Blagg, about the miseries of the world. In fact, it could be said that my interest in the flatbed quality of the stretchers meant that subcionsciously I felt a lifeboat ethos afloat, a kind of depressing despair at the state of the world, and the artist and us as caught on a lifeboat just trying to survive whatever. The main problem here is that this amounts in the end to a tepid apotropaic response to the work, that is, it did not open the door to the content, it did not pay homage to the firefighters, it did not glorify the dark evil and energy of life (like an action movie might), it shrugged, but maybe even, in the dark coloring, turned its back, somehow.
Thus, to figure out this tepidness, I need to place the apotropaic impulse more precisely. I use a model derived from Faraone’s Talismans and Trojan Horses (1992). According to this model, at the edge of a Greek town were the outermost apotropaic elements to protect the town, usually either blepophobic heads or trophies of vanquished enemies to speak the message, don’t mess with us, trouble if you come in here, or simply statues of protective gods thought to keep you out, gylloi they were called. These paintings, in this situation, definitely did not function in this way. Their abstraction in particular was problematic, even though I tried to get into the fires, they did not, in first impression, light up. Thus, I have to step further into the apotropaic circles by which on the model of ancient Greek towns we circle the wagons about us, and fix on the baityl, a strange abstract rock unhewn which somehow to them in its abstract, aniconic form nonetheless represented a grounding in the place and time, and which they honored by covering with olive oil to animate it, as some sort of calling forth of the spirit of the world to keep them grounded there. This baityl usually appeared early on in the approach to a house, but not directly by it, on the way. Therefore, protective, but in a more territorial way. As such, these early-seen works were simple “welcome to my world” statements, this is life as I know it, baitylic art, establishing the ground of reality as conceived by Sultan at the time, with no clear commitment to a political view one way or the other.
And then, in the next gallery, the fire took over. I think that I got into the fire to seek relief from the indeterminancy of my intial response. I mentioned the painting of the burning of the church in Rosemary’s Baby as my mental source point. That is what is called, subdividing now the apotropaic class of art, which I think we are in, a pure apopompic image, cherished by an owner who hates churches who likes to see and look at images of churches burning down because he wants to see the world burn down and that is that, it is a mental exercise in banishing from his world a church. So, this reference most definitely does not work because, even though I picked up a 9/11 vibe in my detailed appraisal of it, and getting into it, this fire is still depicted as a destructive force, an element of “disaster” and not as a cleansing force (one of the most basic tropes of Anglo Saxon cultural mythology, as evidenced by the ending of thousands of horror movies). So, to dig deeper. In a subdivision of apotropaic art that I have further tried to develop of late six classes have emerged, the phylacteric, or guardian; the apopompic, or banishing; the bleophobic, or outright scare-you; the binding, to curse or restrain you; and the epistatic, or the presiding guide over a site to make sure things go ok and keep bad things from happening off (this is the most problematic of translations as the word in this context does not simply mean presiding as in presiding over a meeting with a gavel to keep things moving along, it means putting out a force field that physically protects the whole set-up from problems); and then the telesmatic, the talisman art that embodies the place and keeps it safe in essence. Subdivided off these are the types that pile up, in the Faraone model, between the outer city wall and the inner sanctum of the house so that most of the propylotic and apotropaic house-related statues are phylacteric, but a herm is more apopompic, as is an alexikakic, warding off evil statue, as is a Hecatean tricephalic warder off-er of evil. Then, if Apollo is just depicted in the house, or the example given by Faraone is a god of fire represented on an oven to ward off his own power, he being both bringer and banisher of it, and that is epistatic. Then, further in, and in the center of the house, is the telesmatic, or talisman work of art, endowed and animated with empsychic powers which by that magic protects the whole field of the circled wagons.
The challenge then in the fire pictures, and my focus on it, though I wanted from it at first something that it could not give, a burn the world down vibe, is that painted in such a way (and more abstractly in works excluded), then overlaid with a “black sludge” treatment, then kept as if restrained on a stretcher, it is as if fire is presented, but put out, feared, but warded off, in the very execution of it. As such I still get a fear of the world on fire, a fear of fire per se, the worst fear homeowners of others have, but also a more generalized sense of its inevitability and naturalness in the world, for by its representation to somehow label it and thus control it. Therefore, though I felt an apotropaic vibe, to ward off this evil, the way it is reversed in the physical execution of the work makes me think of the epistatic function of images, of the god overseeing the safety of a site from the thing that the presiding god both brings, but, then, for that, by auto-reverse of like-to-like magic, repells, as he is also the best go-to guy to ward it off and put it out. So, Sultan presents us with a world of disaster, but in a way that says, it’s not the end of the world, it’s just the way of the world. This is not a newsreel meant to make us fear the world (every night the job of the evening news), to seek escape from it, it is picture meant to as it were resign ourselves dourly to the reality of it, these things happen, the paintings, that is, shrug. They are not then heroic, or sensationalizing, but neutral, in the manner of so much art of the 80s, as it was, as a decade, often seeking refuge in artifice, and resigned, in a kind of nonpolitical way. This is not a new feeling, I have written of it before, it is called “abandon,” a surrender to the destiny and fate of life. Not a popular viewpoint, most definitely not “woke,” but the “what are you going to do about it?” daily ethos that a lot of people adopt to get by and get through (my dad once expressed this when we were watching some news about killings or deaths over in China, and though his comment has a tinge of his-generational street-bias as to the fact that other cultures treated life less respectfully than Americans did, he only said, “life is cheap.”).
So, after confusion and hesitation in the first gallery, the foyer, as it were, to the exhibtion, in the first room, where I am welcome, an urge to see the apopompic is quashed, an interest is enflamed but then doused, and I resolve to an epistatic sense of the work as simply helping me face up to some hard facts about life.
But, then, if this is so, then it turns out that my claim that the Auschwitz painting is the best piece in the show, also means that that last gallery (first gallery if you come in the other way) is the sanctum sanctorum, holding the true value system of the show. There is little question to me that the Auschwitz picture, with its much more careful connection between surface and fictive space, with treatment and content, with its many more dark, but descriptive, commemorating passages, as if to freeze forever a response to an actual visit the artist made there, perhaps, this is a much more telesmatic, or talismanic painting. It exists like the palladium or the telesmata at the center of the house, embodying in it, by its extra degree of animation and empsychization, the endowment with a numinousness, the central principle which supports, protects and magically secures and keeps the force that makes all these paintings come alive. It is like the palladium of Troy, a small statue which, if that is stolen, the whole town goes down, it’s spirit is stolen, it’s power lost, it represents then the true cult ground, the prototype of all the other art in this hanging of the show, and, as such, grounds Sultan’s “abandon” faced with a bleak world in the memory and event of the holocaust, thus marking him as a clear member of his generation (as it would not seem that a memory of the Holocaust informs the worldview of anyone born after 1970). This painting IS a cult painting, it is about what it is about, it is an attempt to memorialize a visit, and to memorialize those who died there, it looks in its facture that Sultan was trying to evoke graveyards, mass graves, ashes, death, maybe even gas chambers, it is a rough, explicitly bleak picture in a way that no other picture in the show is, it comes closest to living up to the rhetoric slathered over the show by Blagg’s commentary in the catalog.
But, then, it functions here only as a telesmatic painting, as a magic power-source of protection that the world it pictures will, by this representation, and, then, by this series of painting, that sense of fate and abandon sent out into the world (who knows maybe pars pro toto Sultan believes that painting fire will let fire be the extent of disaster so that no worse disaster like a Holocaust ever happen again?), imbue all the world with the protective shield, represented by that black sludge treatment, not so much cooling everything off but burying it or embedding it in volcanic ash, binding it (another large class of apotropaic art), to fix that generation, and that time, in time, as in a bel jar, so that nothing like it will ever come back. In any case, then, that is my take, using terms of subdivision derived from Faraone, on what I think my response amounted to, these are apotropaic paintings, but in layers of response, the apopompic punch I wanted is not here, primarily, they represent in the nexus of physicality and content epistatic paintings, all then backbuilding (in this iteration of the exhibit) to a single telesmatic painting which embodies the power of fatefulness to ensure that the world in which the artist is alive is forever spared a recurrence of a holocaust memorialized in the grounded bleakness of the prototypical painting of his universe.