Sampler and Sediment: The Art of Peter Sacks
Wade Wilson Art, Houston, Oct 29 – Dec 11
Peter Sacks is a South African painter, now residing in the U.S., with a distinguished history as a poet and literary critic. Responding to the most recent exhibitions of his paintings (in New York and Houston), one could introduce his work by saying a few words about late modernism, or about an African variant of modernism (see his Migration series), or about exile and painting, or even about poetry and painting. Many of Sacks’ paintings, for example, incorporate fragments of texts, typed out by the artist on scrolls of cloth with a manual typewriter. And in some of these paintings, if one looks closely, one discovers scraps of poetry (Rilke, Celan) pressed into the sweetness of decay (Visitation 1 (Celan), for example).
Visitation 1 (Noah), detail
Thinking about Africa, or modernism, or poetry in relation to Sacks’ paintings would not be inappropriate, given the context of the artist’s work and some of its dominant stylistic properties (scale, abstraction, collage), along with its melancholy affinities for text and textile (Visitation 3 (Job and Dante), for example). Yet Sacks appears to have found a way to deploy the tool kit of modernism to ends more or less alienated from the conventions of modernist ideology: formal experiment, depersonalization, critique. For the coolness of these paintings is not a matter of technique or cognition but a mapping of the erosion of feeling—its sediments and strata. The poignancy of these images, entirely at odds with their scale and abstraction, evokes a world that is captive yet resistant to the historical world: a world that summons in the viewer something like the mysterious affect and the irretrievable motives of one under enchantment, one controlled from afar.
Visitation 3 (Job and Dante)
Responding to this phenomenon in Sacks’s paintings is hard to talk about: the images deepen one’s solitude, bringing one to the threshold of “frozen tears”—a crystalline formation of inaccessible feeling. Facing these images, I felt several times the impulse to weep beside the paintings, but the predictable suppression of such feelings seemed also to be implicit in the operation of the image. It was as if these saturnine—and saturnalian—images caught me up in a ceremonial web, then released me into a kind of nostalghia, all the while continuing to bind me, to suspend me inches apart from the realization of feelings summoned by these paintings.
Seeking to define more closely the effects of modesty or deferral, one could also say that there is something atavistic but also domestic about the discoveries induced by Sacks’ paintings. The viewer is at once enchanted and forewarned by the artist’s preservation of scavenged lace, linens, garments, shawls, in these compulsive tableaux (Necessity 14, for example). The humble materials embedded in these large, serial images hover as well in the anonymous well of those arts—such as stitchery—that are produced without expectation of recompense or even acknowledgement, reminding us how mysterious the relation between identity and artifact must remain. These paintings might help us to relearn how to make art in this way, how it might be possible to produce works without signatures–at any scale–to render the enigma of the sampler, the embroidered pillow case, or the lace collar. In addition, the use of corrugated materials in many of the paintings—Visitation 1 (Noah), or Summoning 5, for example—suggests a kind of quilting, or honeycomb, associated with these “pale” arts. For similar reasons perhaps, one discovers in the paintings of deep, obliterating color—Necessity 9 or Summoning 20 for example—the welling-time of an amber fossil: a lone, garbled clue trapped within its sumptuous depths.