Hand Upon Hand : Christopher Bedford

HAND UPON HAND

Peter Sacks’ painting Aftermath 6 (2014), hangs on the wall with the heft and aura of an ancient stone slab—not one with clear iconography or an established point of origin, but something more fugitive and indeterminate, worn and mysterious. A single line creates one’s memory of the work, a feathery vein snaking from the lower right corner in an arc towards the top left, before dissolving as it makes its turn back towards the bottom of the canvas, nodding all the way, though likely inadvertently, to Jasper Johns’ masterpiece Diver (1962-1963). The apparent weight of the canvas derives from the various materials applied and compressed to create a density of field like thick impasto: old hand-made garments, cloths, linens, work shirts, shrouds, prison shirts, fishing nets, cardboard, wood, and fabrics with specifically autobiographical resonances. Together these m,aterials create optical effects that fluctuate in the same glance between figure and ground. The ground is seen from 35,000 feet, ridges of a mountain range pushing razor sharp through the skin of the earth. Yet those same ridges are a dense lattice of veins festering beneath the blue body of the canvas, its skin pulled tight. Here, conventions of figure and ground are dissolved and collapsed into a single plane of activity, utterly absent of perspective yet rich in details that double in their signification: a painting made of landscape and body which insists on being both and is, by consequence, neither.  At seven-by-seven feet, the painting is a radiant aerial view, and something microscopic, bodily. 
 
Word and Image 
 
Missing from this characterization of Aftermath 6 is any mention of the central role text plays in Sacks’ work. Deeply subsumed and all but illegible in this painting, it is nevertheless present, functioning, as in all his paintings, as a substructure or under-painting atop which the composition is built. This idea of text as foundation can be seen readily as the thematic/conceptual structure of Sacks’ work. If the painting in question rests on a socio-political commitment or question, for instance, the specifics are likely alluded to in a particular textual source, or in the confluence of many. Fragments of those sources, variously redacted, litter the surface of Sacks’ work, suggesting that these dispersed fields of word and matter can be ‘read’ metonymically to produce an interpretation of his paintings that relates textual substrate to formal invention through the durational act of reading in combination with the event of looking. This double act of looking and sleuthing is one very satisfying way to experience the artist’s work. 
 
Perhaps more interesting, however, and innovative, are the formal and phenomenological roles text is made to play in these works, and what in turn this can tell us about Sacks’ project as a whole. Text as image, text as line, text as aftermath, text as sheer matter, even text as index of labor. Though a celebrated poet and poetry critic himself, Sacks does not use his own facility with language as a creative force in his paintings.  Rather, his ability to ‘write’ is reduced, almost brutally, to an act of labor and performed through transcription on a typewriter, hour-by-hour, day by day. In this way, Sacks reimages himself as a machine for the reproduction of the written word—a very slow photocopier, let’s say—using that act of labor as a way to establish the ground for painting.  
 
The textual sources embedded in his most recent paintings range broadly, “back to ancient religious writings and forward to contemporary materials—Upanishads, Zen poems and pilgrimage routes and notes, Jewish mysticism, Gandhi's autobiography (especially excerpts regarding his time in South Africa and experiences with the home-making of cotton fabrics in India)— passages of John Ruskin (as influencing Gandhi), and segments of E.M. Forster's Passage to India (particularly about the surface of the Marabar cave walls)”.[1]  Other sources have included Franz Kafka, Nelson Mandela, transcripts from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation trials, Abraham Lincoln, art historian Aby Warburg, and Walt Whitman. Though this list is far from exhaustive, it is fair to say Sacks’ range is without borders. It is also and equally fair to say that the tenor of his chosen texts—searching, heady, uncompromising— establish the bar for the seriousness and solemnity of his paintings, and that this tendency towards heavily burdened material is informed by the artist’s childhood as a white South African coming of age during Apartheid.  As Sacks remarks, “I was waking up always too late in a ravishingly beautiful garden mostly run by thugs, and guess what, I was one of them.” [2] 
 
If the text is ever-present but ever less visible in Sacks’ work, then what role does it play in the way his paintings are constructed, and how can the presence of the words of others, visible or otherwise, be taken by the viewer?  Most obviously, text is, like the wood, cardboard, or linens that feature in his canvases, a found object. But when he identifies a text, it is painstakingly transcribed onto linen by his own hand using a typewriter. Painters throughout history have talked about the agony and anxiety of beginning a picture, and the compulsion to find new beginnings over and over through work. This is one function of text for Sacks: a way to begin.  
 
More important, however, is the three-way symmetry the artist strives for between the weight of his chosen texts, the attention and duration taken in their transcription, and the need for the resulting painting to carry with it the same atmosphere. Whether the text is visible in the eventual work is less vital than the phenomenology of the transcription process and the alignment it implies between the laborious act of making, the seriousness of Sacks’ subjects, and the register of encounter desired with the viewer. Even if the extensive time put into typewritten text is invisible, its presence as under-painting – literal and conceptual - is acutely palpable as atmosphere. A process less arduous than this would somehow be inadequate to the purpose of Sacks’ work. Were these paintings depictions of the world in a mimetic sense – oil on canvas pictures, for instance – then the terms of production could be different, less taxing. But because the artist has chosen to incorporate into his work a range of heavily indexical materials drawn from the world to embody that world, then the texts he chooses and the way they enter the painting must be ‘worked’ too, not simply added.  Words are found and weathered like a prison shirt or a shroud, stripped of their capacity to depict the world, and instead made to embody, channel, or conjure it. Nothing signals Sacks’ transition from being a writer to a painter quite like the mechanics of this commitment.
 
Cut from the Earth
 
I began this essay by observing that Sacks’ paintings hang on the wall like ancient slabs of stone, all weight and aura. I would add to that observation the feeling that they hang on the wall as a nod to the centuries-old convention that paintings should meet the eye of a sentient observer, not necessarily because hanging on a wall, 60 inches on center, is their natural state.  In fact, an expansive triptych like East Cliff (2014) appears more excavated than painted, cut from the earth in three giant swathes and hoisted into position for inspection.  Writing for Artforum in 1972, Leo Steinberg coined the phrase ‘flatbed picture plane’ to describe this phenomenon:
But something happened in painting around 1950—most conspicuously (at least within my experience) in the work of Robert Rauschenberg and [Jean] Dubuffet. We can still hang their pictures—just as we tack up maps and architectural plans, or nail a horseshoe to the wall for good luck. Yet these pictures no longer simulate vertical fields, but opaque flatbed horizontals. They no more depend on a head-to-toe correspondence with human posture than a newspaper does…The pictures of the last fifteen to twenty years insist on a radically new orientation, in which the painted surface is no longer the analogue of a visual experience of nature but of operational processes…It is not the actual physical placement of the image that counts. There is no law against hanging a rug on a wall, or reproducing a narrative picture as a mosaic floor. What I have in mind is the psychic address of the image, its special mode of imaginative confrontation, and I tend to regard the tilt of the picture plane from vertical to horizontal as expressive of the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, the shift from nature to culture.[3] 
 
I’ve quote Steinberg at some length because Sacks’ engagement with this concept is complex and profound.  Parallel with Steinberg’s argument, Sacks’ paintings do not simulate or allude to the visual experience of a sentient viewer or provide a window onto the world.  As already noted, they confound this possibility. They are views from above and details derived at impossibly close range, excavated rectangles sliced from the ground. Despite their visceral materiality and earthy heft, they are culturally embedded from corner-to-corner, top-to-bottom, most obviously through their incorporation of text, but also and significantly by virtue of their engagement with the history and problematics of abstract painting from the mid-century mark to the present.  Though Sacks’ way of working and the address of his paintings aligns neatly with Steinberg’s theorization of the flatbed picture plane, his ambition as an abstract painter, with one eye trained on the achievement of mid-century American abstraction, is equally apparent, and in this sense his work departs from and builds on Steinberg’s concept.  
 
By Other Means
 
Like many of the most important abstract painters working today, Sacks negotiates between the prohibitions that limit what abstraction can be in the 21st century and the ongoing desire to produce expressive effects in that format which do not shrink from the high aspirations of midcentury abstraction, specifically the Abstract Expressionists. Artists like Laura Owens, Jacqueline Humphries, Charline von Heyl, Mark Bradford, Sterling Ruby, and Amy Sillman use various non-painterly and/or non-gestural means to produce expressive effects. Without leaning too heavily on irony or criticality, each artist acknowledges that the progress of history has caused certain doors to close for painters interested in abstraction, and, in order to perpetuate the tradition, they know that other outlets must be identified.  One consequence of this negotiation is the sense that some of the most interesting abstract paintings of the last 10-15 years do not feel so much painted as built.  Paintings constructed in this context are hard won, brought into existence against the background of obstacles, objections, and taboos, but brought to life nevertheless. 
  
Quite self-evidently, Sacks’ paintings share this quality. Where Bradford, for instance, constructs gestures with paper and an industrial sander, Sacks’ palette includes various and sundry found materials in combination with pigment, passages of text, and gel medium, all compressed, ground down, coated, even burned to form palimpsests that are as dense with hidden information as they are expansive and affecting. And like his peers, Sacks harbors an authentic investment in the expressive possibilities of abstraction, but is properly thoughtful about the means he uses to produce those effects, particularly the hermeticism and existentialism associated with Abstraction Expressionism.  Consequently, his paintings are of, about, and for the world, just as they reach for the next step in the long, burdened march of a formal tradition.  
 
The result of these combined aspirations are monumental recent paintings like East Cliff, in which Sacks holds worldliness and his shamanistic approach to materials and invention in taut balance.  
 
“At some level,” Sacks notes, “I suppose I'm a near-mystic believer in the readability of the world itself, the elements, water, earth, air – well certainly its palpability as something that makes a claim on us to look more closely and feel the pressure of a meaning that may exist within the thereby “thickened” surface.”[4]   
 
In East Cliff we see a compression of materials, wood, linen, fabric and cardboard among them, under a dominant palette of steely blue. The thick, rugged surface shows Sacks drawing and painting with linen, wood and gel medium in combination to produce sweeping marks, like brushstrokes and sinewy lines, with neither brush nor pencil. Each passage contains intimations of landscape and bodily presence with a co-emphasis on the painterly gesture, the latter born without recourse to conventional mark making. Sacks’ hand elaborates on the many hands and minds that preceded him in the construction of the work, among them authors and craftsmen, most if not all unknown; theirs might be a shirt, a shroud or fishing net. Of and about labor, the artist’s works are densely constructed fragments torn from many worlds but made whole in themselves as paintings. These are not closed orbits, but open planes of information that point outward to their many sources.  The best way to describe Peter Sacks’ current works could be as a kind of embodied abstraction. They live as history by other means, conjure feeling by other means, achieve gesture by other means, are paintings by other means. 
 
Christopher Bedford
 
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[1] Peter Sacks email to the author, June 14, 1014

[2] “Some Questions for Peter Sacks” from "Peter Sacks Works/Oeuvres 2003-2006", catalogue for Galerie Piece Unique, Paris, 2007.

[3] Leo Steinberg, ‘Reflections on the State of Criticism’, Artforum, March 1972, p. ?

[4] Peter Sacks email to the author, June 14, 2014