Don Suggs’ Uncertainty Principle: We Are Experiencing Interference
Some one seems to have failed to persuade Don Suggs of the fact that painting is dead. Not to mention drawing. And photography. And sculpture. He’s obviously been fully informed, has read all the right obituaries, but he keeps poking the corpses of these dysfunctional plastic categories with a sharp stick -- and darned if they don’t keep twitching back to life. Configuring conceptually and formally dazzling hand-crafted artifacts that put agreed-upon diagnostic criteria to the test, Suggs successfully incorporates the supposedly fatal art-critical and art-historical challenges of the last half-century into the very same (allegedly insufficient) traditional media they are credited with neutralizing. So while Suggs’ work is a response, a returned challenge to the novelty-addicted technophiliac art culture – it is mostly an urgent invitation to continue (and to continually redefine the terms of) the conversation. In living color.
To undertake a conversation with the art of Don Suggs is a lengthy and open-ended commitment – possibly an infinite one. Even a casual perusal of his oeuvre provides the distinct impression of an almost incomprehensible breadth and depth of activity and inquiry. His drastic and unpredictable stylistic about-faces between (and sometimes within) solo shows give an impression of a willfully perverse polymorphism, demanding constant vigilance from his audience if they’re to recognize his subsequent bodies of work. His painting practice ranges from Geometric Abstraction to Abstract Expressionism to Conceptualism to Photorealism to Pop (though it usually manifests in the form of some unholy hybrid between two or more of these), rendered in robust faux-expressionistic impastos, smooth illusionistic exactitude, eloquent gestural washes, or painstakingly built-up – indeed, sculptural – decorative surface events molded entirely out of paint.
His darkroom-based photographic works range from intricately choreographed arrays of tiny, individually printed appropriated symbolic elements to large-scale temporal/geometric mosaics composed from scores of individually printed 5-inch square original images, as well as maintaining an osmotic integration of painting, drawing, and assemblage elements – with occasional forays in literary and New Media terrain. A Suggs sculpture could be an example of motorized kinetic geometric site-specific urban Land Art (Sundog), or a segment of a recombinant chain of appropriated plastic pop-culture signifiers presented in an iconic ethnographic/modernist form (the recent Feast Pole series).
Unsurprisingly, on closer inspection Suggs’ work is paradoxically rife with underlying consistencies. Many of these fall under the rubric of formal visual tropes, but the consonances in his stretched-to-the-event-horizon dialectic are attributable as much to Suggs’ pointedly evasive conceptual strategies as his deliberately variegated material trail. Since the early 1970s, Suggs has engaged in a systematic – though adamantly non-linear – interrogation of the contemporary received wisdom regarding the acts of creating, organizing, looking at, and understanding images -- and the material conventions through which these acts are encoded. This persistent skeptical remove from comfortable semiotic ruts is maintained with unswerving indeterminacy; a measured, deliberate restraint from assigning fixed meaning to any particular visual event, tipping the onus of rationalization away from either artist or viewer into a constantly renegotiated equilibrium between the two.
Throughout Suggs oeuvre, the desire to “get it” is fed back on itself, directing the viewer’s attention to (and disrupting the dynamic of closure conventionally afforded by) the very mechanism of “getting it”. Like in the quantum physics truism that any small enough particle will be altered by the force of its observation, the very attempt to fix meaningful coordinates ensures that those coordinates will be inaccurate. A see/change. A faith-debased initiative. I’ll return to this underlying constant variable, but I wanted to lay it out at the offset, so that we might turn our attentions to the wealth of individually articulated incidents of agnosticism his works manage to communicate in exquisite detail.
The earliest work included in “One Man Group Show” is the remarkably precursory Idol II from 1969 – the year Suggs received his BA from UCLA. A shaped panel depicting a vertical linear segment of Day-Glo tantric circuitry, the work places the twenty-four year old painter solidly in the post-Stella supergraphic school of geometric abstraction, while coupling neatly, ourobos-style, to his most recent work to date – the Tondototems, Feast Poles, and Patrimony/Matrimony series – both in its sequential color-coded geometric formalisms and in it’s apparent uneasiness with pure abstraction’s implicit claim to transcend, supercede, or disable painting’s semiotic function. The painting’s interlocking sequence of channels and pools shifts gently between post-painterly flatness and aerial illusionism, while pulsing out a repetitive, distinctly nonverbal syntactical sequence, like a mysterious line of intercepted code or a crop circle. At the time of its execution, Idol II hinted at Suggs’ imminent epiphany which revealed unto him the 9 underlying geometric forms of nature (the circle, cross, triangle, square, teardrop, spiral, mandorla, wave, and spire) that were to recur in his work regularly over the coming decades.
In 1977 in the first of his 8 solo exhibitions at LA Louver gallery (including the one concurrent with this show), Suggs offered a group of conspicuously textured abstractions composed from these nine structures, which contained and channeled a variety of gestural flourishes and surface activity. This obstinate painterliness and the insistence on a symbolic vocabulary referencing a world outside painting were disorderly enough in those late Greenbergian times, but Suggs’ work soon began to play at inverting the prevailing hierarchy of visual codes, submerging the prescribed planar geometry into the background of his Passions painting series, before camouflaging it entirely in his Autochthonous landscapes.
The early painting Lady (1975) prefigures how Suggs -- on his own terms -- would later allow geometry to resurface as a tool of semiotic interference. But the most exhaustive roadmap of these future concerns was laid out in his Decodes, a little-seen but remarkable group of small, playful collagey interventions. Also known as “Paint Ons”, the Decodes overlay an extensive array of found and appropriated imagery – often from magazines or other commercial reproductions such as postcards – with various painted configurations of the nine geometric forms. The Decodes prefigure much of Suggs’ later work involving obscured vistas -- as well as the signature obliterations by John Baldessari which they predate by a decade. These small works set the template for Suggs’ multivalent use of ideal geometric forms superimposed on (or otherwise conflated with) stock pictorial representations: they interrupt the trompe l’oeil conspiracy between the viewer and the ground image while delivering a formal structural translation of the picture’s mechanism – simultaneously destabilizing and reinforcing the image; diluting its authority while corroborating its essential authenticity as a picture.
While this is a potent formula, easily (and elsewhere) mined for an entire career, Suggs adds extra layers of playful consonance by incorporating aspects of the source material’s narrative content – often simply through his choice of imagery, as in “Ike,” a rectilinear reduction of General Eisenhower delivering a perfect 45˚’ salute – I mean like, how square can you get? Other examples undermine the order of symbolic codes by looping them back on themselves, as in Premier Alambic w/ Monk Chartreuse, which superimposes (among other geometric figures) a vessel-shaped silhouette in the titular hue – obviously a jug of the very yellow-green liqueur presumably being distilled in the underlying image. This sort of punning subversion of the platonic idealism of the geometric overlays throws a monkeywrench into the implied dualism of the pictorial/abstract pairings and keeps the viewer on his or her toes. The visual clarity, sweetness, and wit of these works rival the best “Grafis Annual 76” had to offer (which is saying a lot) and suggest that Suggs, in the Modern tradition, has one foot (and a phantom potential career) in graphic design.
Another collateral oeuvre demonstrates Suggs’ graphic skills along a very different line. His Ink Drawings -- dating from mid-60s through the early 70s -- exhibit precision draughtsmanship with ridiculously Rapidographic detail, delineating ghost contours of various forms -- overlapping, interpenetrating, morphing into schematics, maps, architectural and technical drawings, petroglyphs, fragments of underground comix; a uniform linearity disrupted by sudden shifts in subject, scale, and degree of abstraction. The similarity to the epic associative stoner doodles of today’s Vitamin D generation is inescapable. It comes as no surprise that virtually every graduate of UCLA’s well-represented undergrad and graduate painting programs has been taught at some point by Suggs.
A more direct but idiosyncratic piece of evidence testifying to Suggs’ lengthy (non-) tenure at UCLA is the 1971 site-specific kinetic public sculpture Sundog – a giant motorized rotating steel circle suspended in a courtyard in the UCLA Medical School providing a complex, layered exploration of the titular atmospheric mirage -- pairs of bright colored spots on either side of the sun (also known as parhelions), caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere diffracting light. A shifting 3D version of the Decodes, with the architecture of the building framing the circle as the circle frames the sky, interrupting the image of the sky, creating a slithery pomo observatory referencing Earthworks, Masonic geometry (in a brick courtyard!), and his own history as a NASA brat (his Dad was allegedly the guy on the ground in Apollo 13 who figured out how to jerry-rig the oxygen link between cabins so the astronauts didn’t die). A striking articulation of the tension between 2 and 3 dimensional representations, the engineered circle/sphere contained by the negative architectural square/cube is also a succinct self portrait of the artist as witness to simultaneous but irreconcilable impulses – the squaring of the circle – disclosed by the reduced Spoonerist anagram of the title.
As Suggs’ focus shifted from the ideal geometric to the immediate mess, the result was the Passions series, a balancing exercise between the abstract/figurative, geometric/gestural, and improvisational/predetermined polarities. Cursive calligraphic brushwork hovers over subdued geometric landscapes, barely insinuating bodies and architecture in spatial constructions that are either theatrically shallow (Christy’s Question) –or shiftily indeterminate (Sculptor’s Game). Liminally figurative, Suggs’ Passions tickle and tease our hardwired desire for pictures of people doing stuff. In the first of a series of increasingly drastic shifts in visual strategies, Sugg’s Autochthonous Views buried that particular strain of anthropomorphism in a series of immersive, claustrophobic close-up landscapes rendered in a vigorous oil impasto, devoid of all but the vaguest implication of human or other animal presence in a torrent of choreographed vegetative noise.
The powerfully composed horizonless fragments nevertheless often bear a queasy visual similarity to exposed viscera, which the juiciness of the materials does little to discount. The Autochthonous Views are only identifiable as landscapes through their employment of formulaic (though off-kilter) landscape colorization, inscribing a not necessarily true atmospheric spatial structure on top of the original; destabilizing both. They also raise the first of several affinities between Suggs and Max Ernst, whose periodic aesthetic gear-shifts resulted in a similarly variegated oeuvre. The Autochthonous Views resemble unresolved versions of Ernst’s feverishly clotted aleatory image-finding strategies frottage and decalcomania – a parallel that would come to full fruition in Suggs’ turn-of-the-Millennium Heuristic Paintings. For the time being, though, his work refrained from speculative pictography in a concerted attempt to disrupt the illusion of locale. What had been broached in these exploded details -- “Autochthonous” is a geological term meaning “formed in the place in which it is found” but it is hard to imagine less site-specific works – would form the basis of his most emphatic attempt to dislodge the picturesque in the series called Proprietary Views.
The disorienteering impulse behind the virtual immersiveness of the Autochthonous Views led Suggs next to explore the polar opposite by layering configurations of Minimalistically abstracted geometric forms over pre-detached picture-postcard mountain landscapes rendered with a meticulous but impersonal photorealism. The first official entry in this series (though the closely related Decodes explored the same terrain first) was Proprietary Views (Mount Shasta) (1985), for which Suggs undertook the laborious conceptual task of executing the entire vista before blocking out more than 1/3 of the resultant image with a series of green and white stripes.
This particular work can be seen in part as a corollary to the (often green) striped site-specific landscape interventions of French conceptual artist Daniel Buren, whose reductive anti-painting practice was at its controversial peak at the time Suggs painted and veiled Mt. Shasta with Buren’s trademark 8.7 cm stripes. Buren’s hortatorical purity of purpose and his conviction that his formulae were somehow able to short-circuit the hardwired representational impulse smack of a yearning transcendentalism that is hardly at odds with the romantic conventions he aims to undermine. In comparison, Suggs’ striped landscape oozes hard-nosed pragmatism, reserving judgment about the relative merits of representation and abstraction while pointing out their mechanisms, their interdependence, and the subjectivity of each viewer’s capacity for engagement.
Having dispensed with one of Painting’s foremost armchair eulogists, Suggs soon moved on from the stripe motif to explore more complex and potentially symbolic formal arrangements. Mt. Shasta was also the only work in the series to be painted in its entirety as a landscape, then painted over with the abstract “screen”. Although the notion of interrupting the art-history laden pictorial gaze is central to much of Suggs’ oeuvre, this adjustment suggests a movement towards positing an equivalency or simultaneity between the dissonant elements. As always, Suggs soon began disrupting the conceptual patness of the resulting dialectic by grafting improper metaphorical narrative connections on the pairings. Proprietary View: Garden of the Asylum (1988), for example, consists of a painted copy of a black and white photograph of Van Gogh’s view at Saint-Rémy (taken some years later) interrupted by a post and lintel configuration in the colors of the original 1889 painting. The visually arresting Proprietary View: Red Mountain/Green Mountain (1985-88) alludes to the dueling painting-centric critical positions of Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg.
In these works (as well as the photographic landscapes that followed) Suggs is deliberately damming up the flow of unexamined presumptions that normally allows the easy appreciation and dismissal of depictions of the landscape – particularly the American West. This impeded transmission results in fractal torrents of cultural backwash, inviting closer interrogation of almost any received aspect of the history of humans depicting or even looking at the land. One of the most productive of such veins is the equation of the devouring aesthetic gaze with Manifest Destiny, the role of landscape painting and photography in the promotion, mythologizing, and eventual dis-remembering of its accomplishment, and its dynamic similarity to the history and marketing of pure abstract painting as the final frontier. These are the voyages of Starship MOMA.
Landscape is one of the two oldest and most deeply embedded traditions of representational painting. The other is portraiture. At the same time he was obstructing communion with nature in the Proprietary Views, Suggs was messing with facial recognition in several groupings of smaller pieces that performed the same act of semiotic frustration on black & white photorealist portraits The Disappearances series (1986) literalizes the negation of identity symbolized by the defacement of the image by depicting subjects who had disappeared in a literal sense, like Jimmy Hoffa painted on cement or Anne Frank hidden behind a claustrophobic post-and-lintel abstraction -- or metaphorically Cassius Clay disappearing into Muhammed Ali, Dalton Trumbo blocked out by a black monolith inscribed with the pseudonyms with which he evaded the Hollywood blacklist.
In two series, further layers of associative political meaning result from the use of flags as the abstract element. The Citizen series used a generic passport-style photo (incidentally the beardless young Fidel Castro) with pairs or sets of chromatically anagrammatic flags – Ireland and the Ivory Coast, for example. Moderates -- the faces of three assassinated political figures (King, Sadat, Romero) draped with the flags of their respective fatherlands -- appears to have been a bridge between the Disappearances series and the subsequent political brace, Big Communists and Big Capitalists (both 1987-88) which obscure sets of four images of iconic businessmen and comrades (Rockefeller; Stalin) with single-star flags identical except for their colors. This is an iconoclasm of sweeping impartiality: disfigurative to all, representing no one.
As if this weren’t enough to chew on, Suggs was working concurrently on a monumental drawing project originally designed as a labyrinth for LAX airport but eventually mounted in a large gallery at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In the Heideggerrific Clearing (1984-87) ten six-by-seven foot panels were papered with pages of poet Paul Vangelisti’s manuscript pages, then drawn over with Suggs’ Autochthonous-style charcoal sketches of foliage (with one Proprietary burst towards the end), translating a process-oriented engagement with textual metaphor in the actual landscape into a post-literary metaphorical environment mimicking the amniotic envelopment of poetry and the forest, articulated in a flurry of fruitful dead-ends.
Wryly entitled Old Genres (as opposed to the NEA category turned academic catch-all New Genres), Suggs’ next body of work shifted abruptly away from painting and toward elaborately encoded photoworks abetted by ink drawing and collage. The pieces encompassed figures and still lifes in addition to the ubiquitous landscapes. Compiling dozens of tiny found photographic images contact-printed into grids of elegant obscurity that border at times on avant-garde graphic narrative or experimental cinematic montage, they are fascinating, funny, and dazzlingly designed rebuses that thwart any attempt at neat resolution, while they continue to pull you in with a constant stream of surprising and formally exquisite miniature imagery. The intricacy of the work translates directly into intimacy. As the viewer is drawn close to the surface in attempting to decipher it, he or she experiences a scale-shift in their attention, an immersion in detail that precludes simultaneous comprehension of the totality.
With Old Genres, Suggs seemed to be looking for a set of parameters flexible enough to accommodate his restless curiosity, and the breadth of content and inventive visual strategies evident in such disparate works as 81 Objects (reintroducing the vocabulary of essential geometric silhouettes which -- floating on a complex staged still-life photo – push informational density to the brink of the Decorative), Big Tree, Little Tree and Little Tree, Big Tree (compressing centuries of formulaic (if successful) landscape compositional conventions into a single lesson), or the faux-stereoscopic Periscope: Balthusian Garden (haunting, lyrical pastoral undercut by the implied voyeurism of its industrial masking and a frisson of Antonioni’s Blow Up), suggest that he found and adequately elastic formula to accommodate whatever formal, philosophical, or intuitive impulse crossed his mind.
One of the most singular works from the Old Genres series is Guide: Prosaic Landscape (1992) a klunkily symmetrical photo of a scenic rock formation (“Twin Rocks” reads the helpful in situ interpretive panel) nestled squarely in the center of a possibly infinite field of oddly poetic text fragments: “An artist scours LA for a woman” or “A drifter corrupts a yuppie”. These are, in fact, capsule plots lifted from TV Guide listings and arranged to form a garbled stream-of-transmission poetics. What is remarkable about this piece -- apart from the typically humorous pas de deux between the Extraordinary and the Mundane – is the fact that it is the only piece in Suggs’ entire body of work apart from the Dalton Trumbo Disappearance to make significant use of the written word.
Given the cerebral nature of many of Suggs’ concerns, the care and wit with which he titles his work, and the close relation of his work with that of many logocentric conceptualists – this is an astonishing realization. The artist does, in fact, keep copious notes on his interests, activities, and art ideas in small notebooks and file cards (see endpapersX?) horror vacuiied with tight, crisply legible extrapolations of contemporary art theory, reminders of meetings with grad students, and sketches for dozens of artworks – many of them unrealized. His work is deeply engaged with the Verbal and even the typographical – he has collaborated repeatedly with literary types, most notably Paul Vangilesti, for whose 1997 volume “A Life” Suggs produced a number of specifically verbal and typographic illustrations. An urban landscape element in a recent Tondototem drawing (reproduced in Vangelisti’s latest volume “Caper”) is a sequence of “letters” rendered in the “Webding” computer font.
Suggs’ deliberate dis/integration of text -- while mimicking many of its structural characteristics -- insists on the differences between verbal and visual languages, and demonstrates repeatedly how a dead-end in one tongue is not necessarily so in the other. It is, in fact, a single forked tongue -- and the lie of confusion between menu and meal arguably a matter of mutual consensus. But as paths fork they have less and less in common, until there is no overlapping view and no points left to agree upon. Pictures and words haven’t quite reached that degree of alienation yet, in spite of all their quarrels. Nevertheless, the gap between what can be conveyed in words as opposed to images remains the crux of Art’s power to compete with other – mass – media for our attention. Suggs likes to operate in the gap between words and pictures and the channel between life and art is thereby delineated.
Another of Don Suggs’ anomalous masterworks is his Picture Machine (1993) a spectacular genre-bending mechanical entertainment that produces a form of non-digital facial morphing, rightly recognized as dovetailing with contemporary critical concerns about the indeterminacy of identity in the information age; and awesome to watch. A rear-projection screen mounted in a gilded frame on a fake gallery wall displays a constantly shifting picture produced by dual 35mm carousel slide projectors and a rotating jigsawed interference mask. Infinitely reprogrammable and fun to play with, it is as much a tool as an artwork, and exemplifies Suggs’ approach to teaching – having evolved out of an assignment where students drew or painted from constantly mutating projections, obliging them to stay off auto-pilot and continually refresh their minds-eye to correspond with the destabilized source image and their own translation.
Picture Machine forgoes this interactive aspect (although I guess viewers are free to sketch from it if they choose) and codifies the presentation to emphasize its political, art historical, and cultural implications, merging the faces of various celebrities, politicians, art historical personages, etc. into a free-form essay on the mutability of personality. In other carefully programmed configurations -- landscapes, still lifes, or the “cryptic object”/portrait combo – Suggs destabilizes the respective pictorial preconceptions to similar epistemolysic ends.
Suggs’ next major body of work -- the Common Series (1993 -2000) -- is similarly mock-digital, made up of myriad varied identical structural units arranged in a “hexane” mathematical configuration to produce a deceptively mundane image. At first these appear to be enormous, handsome black and white documentary photographic prints depicting tourist locations ranging from Venice Beach to Yellowstone’s Old Faithful, and populated by lookey-loos in various states of engagement with the landscape. As you spend a bit of time with them, though, you begin to notice the curiously artificial quality of the tableaux, as if they were posed – how else could it come to be that one scene – Odd Man (1996) -- is composed entirely out of identically dressed couples, save for a single overweight man at center frame, sporting a geometrically abstract tee-shirt and leaning on a tripod cane?
Then you begin to notice more disturbing discontinuities – chunks missing from torsos, wrong heads on wrong bodies, severed limbs emerging from nowhere. Finally, when you catch a bit of reflected glare from the surface, you stumble onto the fact that these images are composites, painstakingly assembled from hundreds of overlapping 5-inch-square prints shot from a fixed vantage point over the course of many hours and arranged in an intricate geometric pattern reminiscent of Islamic decorative tiling, but basically invisible from any distance needed to resolve the imagery.
This elaborate and layered construct opens up numerous mutually interpenetrating cans of worms, from the nuanced new translation of Suggs’ continuous reframing of the picturesque landscape and meta-touristic voyeurism to structural interrogations of the medium of photography, exploration of its role in contemporary spectacular culture and its flexibility as a recorder and constructor of history – one can’t help but be reminded of the whole history of pre-digital photo manipulation from the vanishing commissars of the Soviet propaganda machine to the election-rigging montages of the American tabloid press. On a deeper level, the hexane works may suggest an underlying morphogenic pattern to constructed consensus reality, scientifically verifiable reality, and sensually perceptible reality -- possibly arbitrary but undeniably organized with complexity and intelligence. Intelligent design.
Encounters with the numinous in reflected patterns of light are a recurrent motif in spiritual traditions and anecdotal accounts throughout human culture. The hexane photographs operate as time machines -- condensing, splintering and rearranging temporal reality in accordance with an invisible matrix that reveals itself only in glimpses at the edges of our perception, opening onto sacred time/space through the mundane. The Common Series also bears some relationship with the mathematical abstraction of the 70’s – Sol Lewitt et al -- but persists with Suggs’ willfully perverse impurity by pushing humanistic image content to the surface of a precise geometric screen, and beyond -- bulging through the grid like a butterball turkey caged in a factory farm. Who wants a leg?
Since this virtuosic exercise in darkroom discipline, Suggs’ work has once again exploded in multiple directions – most of which exhibit bright colors, playful or absurdist content, and a reemergence of improvisational fluidity. As visually masterful as the hexane composites were, their essential element of predetermination occluded the joyful spontaneous engagement of the senses and the free play of non-linear creative decision-making -- at least from the bulk of the in-studio process.
Among the works that have emerged are several groups of paintings – the Pacifiers (1995 – 2004 ; symmetrical iconic landscape photos partially obscured by “embossed” multihued concentric circles of poured paint), the Heuristic Drawings (1994 – present; a loose grouping of stochastic aleamorphic works mining imagery from chance), the Brush Drawings (2004 – present; tighter, more liquid updates of the Ink Drawings from 35 years ago), the Patrimonies/Matrimonies and the Six Point Landscapes (2006 – present; core-sample concentric-ring paintings on round canvases, abstracted respectively from signal art historical works and scenic landscapes), and the Tondototems (2001 – present; vertically stacked quatrains of multivalent pop iconography). Related to these most recent series are the concurrent sculptural works Feast Poles (three-dimensional totem poles assembled from all manner of found plastic – toys, kitchenware, 7” vinyl, display food, etc.) and Fleurs du Mall (more condensed, lotus-like clusters of similar found plastic).
These generous works collectively indicate a return to literal painterly concerns, with much more precision and variation in material/structural formulations, as well as the forcible return of the restrained improvisational impulse through a jumble of playful strategies. The process Suggs calls heuristic empiricism recalls Max Ernst’s stochastic image-generating processes, where Suggs extracts a complex pieta or a floral still life from a dried splash of chromium green acrylic wash, plants a landscape with elongated pictorial equivalents of the Feast Poles, or populates a large canvas with 66 appropriated images of birds from art history (including Loplop of course).
In these Heuristic Paintings (and to a degree in the Pacifiers and Tondototems) the range of image-making techniques is encyclopedic, ranging from tightly rendered charcoal drawings to arbitrary cascades of pigment; from passages of candy-like lozenges of poured acrylic to precise geometric abstraction. Of all of Suggs’ major bodies of work, these are the most fun – and look like they were the most fun to make. While they are as labor-intensive as the hexane composites or Proprietary Views, their relationship to meaning is lighter and more ambiguous – more trusting in the spontaneous generation of connotative, associative interconnections when two or more semiotic units are gathered in one place.
This intuitive approach to signifying is systematized in the Tondototems --elaborate kundalini stacks of circular Pop iconographs ranging from obscure or invented design glyphs to photorealistic drawings of body parts, each with a whole passel of wooly but specific references and symbolism – referencing art history, politics, philosophy, and other cultural phenomena) carefully worked-out in notebooks and preparatory sketches. Each tondo is named, so a single cluster of four might be called Sundog/Moondog/Mondo/Menace or Nemo/ Mnemon/Hemo/Teton, constructing a model “sentence” out of the vocabulary items. Originally, the tondos were painted individually, then assembled into totems; the most recent are single elongated panels. This is ultimately just a cosmetic difference, as the sequences are worked out before execution.
But the implied interchangeability of the units is obvious. The Tondototems extend the interest in experimental graphic narrative evinced in the Old Genres. The tondos have specific, intended but ambi- or multi-valent readings rendered in a visual language that is manifestly public, deriving from advertising, graphic design, comic books, corporate logos, news images, and art historical icons. Their totem configurations suggest a linear narrative, but in utilizing a vertical structure instead of a conventional left/right scan (or the boustrophedonic borders of his Old Genre composites), the viewer’s syntactical biases and temporal framework are bypassed. Unless they’re from Mongolia. Assembled, they resemble some kind of alien or future signage, the billboard version of Hesse’s glass bead game.
The Feast Pole sculptures share a similar narrative thrust, but their more literally totemic presence and the fact that they’re assembled almost entirely from visually unaltered appropriated objects shift the emphasis to an all-at-once experience. The sequence “tiki mug - pumpkin with donut orifice - Tasmanian Devil - bowl of fruits and veggies - happy face” is not unworthy of exegesis, but the sheer priapic suchness of these World’s Fanciest Dildos are more richly and immediately rewarding as exclamations of abundance and status – ironically so, in that they’re assembled from the detritus of industrial consumerism which has almost rendered these principles meaningless. But their sheer visual and structural delight tempers this critique with a plug for the potent alchemical will of the creative human, still able to turn any crap into gold.
The frequent polar shifts in Suggs’ oeuvre form a dialectic negotiating a variety of variously emphasized and recombined formal and theoretical concerns. One of the most pronounced oscillations is between the formulaic, carefully scripted execution of a work according to a prescribed set of criteria – the hexane photographs for example -- and the setting up of an arena in which spontaneous flow of ideas can be transcribed directly and immediately – as in the Heuristic Paintings. This results in groups of similar works in which a set of ideas is explored through various permutations and combination, and groups of heterogenous works any one of which might contain just as many unique ideas.
The Tondototems – which, while initially composed via considerable free-associative improvisation are realized fairly strictly – signal a swing back to the variations-on-a-theme mode, which has manifested in the gorgeous circular concentric ring abstractions known as the Patrimonies, Matrimonies, and Six Point Landscapes. These works appear almost certainly to be pure abstract painting in a tradition encompassing Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and Kenneth Noland. Extracting the concentric color bands from their screen role in the Pacifiers and their structural function in the Tondototems, Suggs allows them to speak for themselves -- independent of any mediating pictorial content, inviting interpretation as tunnels, eyes, dendochronological charts, mandalas, or minimalist hard-edge abstraction.
That missing pictorial content is, in fact, embedded in the form and process of these works. Each of the large-scale Patrimonies and Matrimonies derive their colors and bandwidths from one of a dozen or so canonical paintings from art history (the dudes in 80 year leaps back to the Mona Lisa, the ladies in 20 year leaps forward from Hilma af Klint’s De Tio Största Nr 3 Yuglingaaldern). Like demonstrations of some esoteric theory about great art – sampled spectral cross-sections that can be compared and contrasted according to an as-yet unarticulated set of criteria – these painting arrive at their considerable beauty by seemingly oblique and arbitrary means. Beginning with a more-or-less central point (in the case of the two-part Frida Kahlo piece, two eyes) and working roughly outward to the canvas edge, Suggs assigns a portion of the circular surface to each color (with occasional subtle doses of dimensional illusionism) according to its prominence in the original composition.
A similar process of distillation goes into the smaller Six Point Landscapes groupings, but with Suggs working primarily from detailed memories of such scenes as Two Buffalo in a Field of Wildflowers. The disc encoding the view at Old Faithful, for example, is centered on the erupting geyser, followed by bands of sky, foliage, salt deposits, tourists, and long shadows on a wooden deck. The preparatory work for these paintings is enormous, including Suggs’ design and construction of a room-sized spin-art mechanism with a suspended platform with mattress from which the artist deploys his pigments, and a massive built-in ventilated flatbed drying chamber. While these elaborate procedures are evident in the craftsmanship of the final product, the rationale behind it is not – these ring cycles are more distanced from their ostensible generative texts than any of Suggs’ prior experiments. In fact, the paintings have to stand apart from their source materials to act as test cases for the question “How much can be removed from a picturesque landscape or an accepted artistic masterpiece without losing its impact?” If the concentric translations are equally inspiring as the originals, the abstractionists win.
With this latest body of work, Suggs has integrated the abstract screen and the representational ground of his earlier oppositional constructs with paintings that seem intended to reconcile the map/territory schism by the reification of the screen’s domain and the expansion of its claim to autonomous validity independent of its relation to more photographically accurate abstractions. But you know how dialectics go: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, thesis….
“Getting it” is an essentially verbal transaction that allows for the closure of inquiry and a return to whatever conceptual status quo helps one make it through the night. Whenever Suggs’ work is in danger of getting got, he queers the deal by infecting whatever puzzle with a dose of something tangential, spoiling the elegance of the routine but keeping the ball in motion. One result of Suggs’ overriding policy of irresolution is the work’s startling perceptual immediacy and surprising cultural currency, delivering a zen-like whack upside the head that snaps you into the phenomenological (and art historical) here-and-now. Many of the artists of Suggs’ generation pursued similarly reflexive objectives, but most – often succumbing to a dogmatic form of puritan idealism – wound up throwing the sensory baby out with the conceptual bathwater, merely substituting a different set of ossified interpretive regulations while purifying their diktats of any distracting formalist seductions; ie: sensory input.
While these works bear some historical significance, the very fact that they failed to put an end to the wallowing self-indulgence of artists working with actual materials renders them irrelevant anachronisms. In contrast, Suggs’ work of the 70s and 80s remains as functional as his latest, due largely to the fact that it is encoded in the hardwired, aeons-evolved formalities of visual communication. Ideas about color, form, composition, surface, structure, material, narrative, and illusion are dealt with in their own terms, rather than through verbal abstractions. They are embedded reporters – in the Art World but not of it. What’s true in a verbally articulated reality isn’t necessarily so in one that is sensually articulated. Just because words lead you to a dead end, doesn’t mean painting is fundamentally retarded. Get it?
From the catalog for "Don Suggs: One Man Group Show" (co-curated by DH & Meg Linton) Ben Maltz Gallery at Otis College, 14 April - 23 June 2007