The Village Voice :: October 2012

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The Village Voice
Wednesday, Oct 24 2012
By Robert Shuster

Peter Sacks: 'New Paintings'
History, geography, literature, and culture all merge into dense streams of consciousness in Peter Sacks's beautifully textured semi-abstractions. The gallery calls them paintings, but paint is really secondary here. Sacks constructs each work by gluing to the canvas numerous items made of cloth, many from the 18th and 19th centuries. Wrinkled layers of lace, linen, and embroidery—stiffened with thickly applied adhesives—form undulating surfaces that suggest topographic maps, sometimes embedded with subtle pictorial elements. Running over the contours, long stretches of text—manually typed onto the material before it's attached—give each piece an underlying theme.

A prizewinning poet and an English professor at Harvard, Sacks frequently pays homage to literary work. In Cargo 2, he has arranged sailcloth sections, netting, and pieces of various garments over a patchwork of linen sheets to depict a vessel carrying a lifeless figure—the death ship, it turns out, from Kafka's "The Hunter Gracchus." Excerpts from the story, along with Virginia Woolf's journal entries, flow across the scene in curving sentences, like lines of wind. Elsewhere, the haunting triptych Se Questo è un Uomo—the Italian title of Primo Levi's account of the Auschwitz death camp—combines work clothes, shrouds, and burned wood with selections from Dante's Inferno, Jewish mysticism, and Levi's writing. Colored black and ochre, smears and jagged streaks lie across a grayish background like ash and bones.

Except for the titles, none of these references have been made explicit; sources for material and text are available, but only by special request. Although the typed passages offer hints of meaning, they're mostly unreadable, distorted by folds in the cloth. In Durban Point (Indian Ocean), the listed texts—a Homeric hymn to Apollo and several oceanography reports—appear to be completely buried under a rich indigo. Forms and figures, too, aren't immediately obvious. It might require some study to identify a leg, an arm, a cap, a rifle, and a canteen of the sprawled Civil War soldier in the stonelike memorial of The Living (Gettysburg). But Sacks isn't interested in bold statements. The subtlety of the detail suggests his efforts are deeply personal—an intensity of thought, revealed to the viewer or not, that makes each work here so engrossing.

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