Saturday, September 27th, 2014

Trompe-l’oeil and Postmodern Cheek: Paul Sietsema at Matthew Marks

Paul Sietsema at Matthew Marks Gallery
September 13 through October 25, 2014
522 West 22 Street and 502 West 22 Street (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 243 0200

Paul Sietsema, Red painting, 2014. Enamel on linen, 50 1/8 x 46 3/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.
Paul Sietsema, Red painting, 2014. Enamel on linen, 50 1/8 x 46 3/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

Though trompe-l’œil in its purest form is generally considered aesthetic froth, a stream of modern practices from Op Art to Arte Povera found new ways to exploit perceptual enigmas born of visual confusion. But it was Jasper Johns whose painting opened the neo-Duchampian era by combining a deft painterly touch with a more cerebral version of the same parlor trick. Depicting the already flat image of a map, or painting the word blue with red paint introduced philosophical inquiry under the auspices of a visual gag. But significantly, Johns remained a painter, meaning the self-depreciation implied in his paradoxes reveals a shared confusion between artist and viewer, reflective of both painting fluency as a medium and the human limitations of perception. Johns’s early work represents the watershed moment between the fall of self-discovery inherent in painting and the ascent of the assured and declarative, if not dogmatic tone of what became conceptual art.

What’s interesting about Paul Sietsema’s exhibition at Matthew Marks this month is how it begs comparison to Johns, as Sietsema, with similar confidence in painting as a visual medium, takes the viewer beyond visual gags to again provoke difficult questions pertaining to the meaning of a painted image. Where he differs from Johns is in his uneven use of painting as a method, which he applies brilliantly in some pieces and to almost no effect in others. The discrepancy has to do with Sietsema’s apparent wish to be both painter and pure conceptual artist. Consequently, he is divided against himself.

The gallery, in synch with the artist’s often-articulated purposes presents the work with typical speculative hyperbole as, “… address[ing] the production, consumption, and proliferation of cultural objects, and the systems in which these objects circulate” — a program meant to train the viewer’s focus on attendant associations accompanying images of telephones, coins, newspapers, and industrial labelling. However, like any artist, Sietsema’s technique best reflects his intuition and sensibility, and is apparently hands-on and informed by a painstaking construction of visually juxtaposed realities. Regrettably, these elaborate processes sometimes prove irrelevant to the efficacy of his final image. The result is that some pieces are far more compelling than others because their technical complexity provides the greater part of their visual and conceptual punch.

The more successful canvases — as Johns often were — pair common imagery with the viscous medium of thoughtfully applied color, yet with the significant difference that Sietsema’s paint is itself depicted by a trompe-l’œil manipulation of the medium. Where Johns used a leaden encaustic membrane to keep the paint layer foremost in the viewer’s mind, while allowing flat imagery to rest uncomfortably on the picture plane, Sietsema creates convincing illusions of paint puddles and painted objects that function as a layer in a peeling deconstruction of the picture plane itself, advancing beyond what Johns did 60 years ago.

Paul Sietsema, White painting, 2014. Enamel on linen, 69 1/4 x 46 3/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.
Paul Sietsema, White painting, 2014. Enamel on linen, 69 1/4 x 46 3/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

White Painting (2014) joins the illusion of a floor or table surface with the linen surface of the painting, then places on this visually amalgamated plane the image of an old telephone, coated with the same white paint that forms the puddle in which it sits. The surface beyond the perimeter of the paint puddle is scumbled with a duller white, revealing a section of bare linen at the bottom of the frame. One’s grasp of the illusion is then challenged by the fact that the shadow of the phone halts at the edge of the puddle, leaving the remaining painted canvas as flat as one knows it to be. Its effect is truly bewildering.

Closer to Johns’s preference for flat imagery like maps and flags, Red Painting juxtaposes several small areas of exposed linen within what appears to be a physically disturbed puddle of dried red paint. Optical confusion ensues as the light, masterfully implied in the modelling of a disturbed paint surface, is contradicted by the texture of the actual linen, which appears to be bathed in the even light of the gallery. There are other canvases that play with coins slid through paint puddles and across newspaper fragments.

Ironically, by raising the bar with real and determined skill, he manages to make his other work shallower by comparison. The link in these other pieces between the medium used and the subject addressed is missing. What he refers to as drawings — paintings made with ink — do not transcend their obviously photographic source material. By a transfer technique inadequately described in the press release, Sietsema paints black and white photos of studio activity, reminiscent of late-1970s performance art; he uses halftone patterning, which has long been a cliché in both conceptual art and commercial design meant to mimic “serious” art. Wrapping the image around the frame, as Sietsema does, merely adds a conventional assertion of postmodern cheek.

Paul Sietsema, Painted oval, 2014. Ink on paper in artist's frame, 77 x 53 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.
Paul Sietsema, Painted oval, 2014. Ink on paper in artist’s frame, 77 x 53 1/2 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery.

Several paintings, apparently products of a similar method, depict the rutted surface of weathered stones carved with a single date, yet neither offer much more than the mystery behind the dates. Like On Karawa’s Today paintings, Sietsema’s use of paint as a medium for these images is void of any purpose specific to the medium of paint itself. The artist’s hand is all but invisible, leaving one with the reliable supposition that in spite of how many hours of brushwork it must have taken to complete the image, the viewer remains, in essence, confronted with a manipulated photograph. In similar fashion, several films in the exhibition fail to transcend their considerable technical dependency, leaving only their deadpan content. If anything, Sietsema’s few genuinely marvelous paintings suggest that painting cannot be used as just another visual medium for addressing preconceived ideas. Painting’s timeless relevance is inseparable from its contrary and uncooperative nature.