Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Song of the Sea: Sean Landers and His Sailing Clown

Sean Landers: Around the World Alone at Friedrich Petzel Gallery

May 6- June 18th, 2011
537 West 22nd Street. between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212-680-9467

Sean Landers, Around the World Alone (Boy Skipper - Dawn), 2011.  Oil on linen, 52 x 68 inches.  Courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery
Sean Landers, Around the World Alone (Boy Skipper - Dawn), 2011. Oil on linen, 52 x 68 inches. Courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery

Sing in me, Sean Landers, and through me tell the story of a sad clown who weathered many bitter nights and days in his deep heart at sea.

Landers’s new exhibition at Friedrich Petzel Gallery, does not sing, nor is it particularly poetic or lyrical, though the narrative depicted could certainly be described as an epic.  Around the World Alone, presents a series of flatly stylized portraits of one of his alter-egos, the clown, on a solo-circumnavigation – a life-long voyage from boy to old man.

The clown appeared relatively early in the artist’s oeuvre, together with images of aliens, robots, monkeys, rabbits, and naked hippies, serving to liberate him from the widely popular text-based works for which he was known.  Though the texts were certainly solipsistic, they were highly entertaining and visually compelling, and when contemplating his subsequent style of deadpan affect and purposefully banal image presentation, one may occasionally ache for the challenge of deciphering hundreds of misspelled words chronicling ambition, insecurity, bawdiness, and witty self-reflection.

Clowns are problematic icons in popular culture, calling to mind Steven King’s Pennywise, The Joker, John Wayne Gacy, and any number of cheap jokes.  Artists Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman have tackled our discomfort head on by creating the creepiest of creepy clowns (Sherman) in unpleasant or vile circumstances (Nauman).  Landers embraces his anti-hero fully however, freeing him from the circus and sending him around the world as skipper of a disturbingly un-seaworthy and shape-shifting vessel.  He eschews the laws of physics and narrative continuity in this series – the captain’s wheel shrinks to flimsy inadequacy and expands to dwarf the helmsman. Though the artist is an experienced sailor, the details of the boat are purposefully wrong or missing; the jib is not tied to the boom, the gunwale appears to consist of carved wooden bannisters, the wheel sometimes faces the stern.  His brave avatar is far from land, in a deliberately inadequate craft.  The ocean is rendered more authentically – shifting from green to blue to calm to roiling – indicating that on some level this journey is real.  Despite the perceptual ambiguities and challenges present, this voyage is not entirely doomed.  In Around the World Alone (Force Ten Stalwart) Landers has equipped the ship with a compass, a life saver, and red and green port and starboard lights.  Around the World Alone (Arctic Endurance) depicts the threat of icebergs safely past – enigmatic menaces whose true mass is concealed beneath the surface, where what you don’t see coming can sink you.

The metaphor of solo embarkation is hardly a new one (remember Bas Jan Ader’s foolhardy and ultimately fatal quest) but though heavy-handed it is quite effective.  Landers may or may not aim for seriousness but he strives for a level of honesty and clarity– desiring always that the viewer recognize him or herself in his work.  This is not a tall order in Around the World Alone – who has not felt adrift in life, sabotaged by faulty equipment and at the mercy of the whims of weather and fate alike?  The artist’s deployment of the clown indicates that only a self-defined outsider or fool would deliberately take such a hazardous journey.  When considered in terms of Landers’s oeuvre however another level of interpretation presents itself – the artist felt that his clowns were neither understood nor accepted for a long time and in this series they heroically survive against nearly impossible odds.  The cast bronze heads of seafaring clowns at the exhibition’s entrance are positioned as if busts of famous nautical clown captains past.  In Landers’s own words, despite his experience, he is “an armchair sailor first and foremost” – he prefers to let the clowns have all the glory.

Sean Landers, Around the World Alone (Lord of the Seas), 2011.  Oil on linen, 78 x 126 inches.  Courtesy of Friedrich Petzel Gallery
click to enlarge