John Sabraw

at Thomas McCormick Works of Art, through February 27

Jefferson Little

at Lyons Wier, through February 13

Craig McDaniel: More War Stories

at Jan Cicero, through February 13

By Fred Camper

Each new development in technology seems to remove us farther from the sensual world. Writing is less immediate than speaking, typing less tactile than writing, and of course now most of our mediated discourse takes the form of electrical signals. Film is less palpable than painting, video less sensual than film. Music is now often produced electronically.

Painting itself–supposedly freed by photography from the need to depict the seen world–in this century has moved away from the sensual world of recognizable objects. Some abstract painters even deny that nature has had any influence on their compositions. Art should lead us to new realms, they argue. But if so, the illusionistic still life should long since have vanished. Why, then, has it so often returned, most recently in shows by two young artists who are unaware of each other’s work but both name first as an influence the 17th-century Dutch still life painter Pieter Claesz?

John Sabraw at Thomas McCormick and Jefferson Little at Lyons Wier both address the alienation between human beings and objects by depicting the lush surfaces of one or a few simple things (a gear is about as high-tech as we get from Sabraw) in isolated spaces that focus attention on singular objects–a welcome contrast to our culture’s image glut. Building up their surfaces with painstaking and exquisite care, each gives bright pieces of cloth or kitschy toys an almost spiritual presence. Objects have a preternatural luminosity, as if the brush had caressed each millimeter of the surface and were now inviting the eye to do the same.

One common argument against illusionistic art is that one might as well look at a photograph or, better yet, the actual object–that art should not offer a substitute. But Sabraw’s and Little’s work is engaging partly because neither artist is trying to fool anyone into mistaking his objects for the real thing. Indeed, each includes a thoroughly modernist acknowledgment of painting’s limitations. The resulting works in no way claim to reunite us with the world of things but rather articulate a tension between the desire for sensual union with the world and the adult acknowledgment that that’s impossible. They paint objects with a vividness that reminds us of what we’ve lost, while other elements recall the artificiality of painting–reminding us that what we see is merely a human construction. This self-awareness prevents us from mistaking the dream for the real but doesn’t completely rob the dream of its seductiveness.

Sabraw’s 20 mostly small panel paintings (there’s one drawing, too) present their subjects as if they were specimens. But just as a butterfly collector must kill in order to possess, so Sabraw acknowledges the destructiveness of his own possessive urges. In Oppie’s Vishnu a partly shattered blue globe, convincingly painted to represent the tactility and opacity of glass, is further cracked by being pinned to a wall. A piece of lavender cloth in Pinch is pinned at its center and constricted, an exaggerated version of the hourglass shape fashion sometimes forces on women. These objects are given a hyperreality, yet pinning them up for viewing–and painting–has in some measure ruined them.

Sabraw, born in England in 1968 to American parents, grew up mostly in Lawrence, Kansas, where he lives today; he received an MFA from Northwestern in 1997. He acknowledges that his painting has some of its roots in his earliest childhood, when he was an intense observer of things as simple as “four blades of grass.” A microscope became a favored way of observing things; he would study flower petals and paper to see “how they were put together.” He also remembers using a magnifying glass both to “look at the structure” of bugs and to burn them. Though as an art student he experimented with multiple layers of very thin glazes, his works today are mostly “straight oil paint–I’ll work with it a long time to spread it thinly, and oftentimes paint wet into wet.” He paints each work somewhat differently, aiming to let the object determine the technique.

In a statement, Sabraw writes that the objects he collects and paints suggest personal meanings to him and that viewers drawn to look “closer at an object than most ever have before…acquire the object’s history as their own.” And indeed his works’ precision draws the viewer into an engaged inspection of tiny variations in color and texture, some of which do suggest individual history. In Proper Procedure, for example, a black-and-white photo pinned to a tan wall shows a man apparently undergoing a medical exam. Some details–the doctor wears a suit rather than a lab coat–suggest that the scene is decades old and that the photo is part of a family history. But while the photo is realistically rendered, such details as the way the print curves slightly away from the wall, the shadow under it, and the texture of the wall are just as luminous, and of course they’re three-dimensional. Finally the scene in the photo has less presence than the process by which the photo is examined; the tiny pin that holds it to the wall, for example, introduces a compelling diagonal depth.

Sabraw’s statement notwithstanding, his pictures seem to me as much about the process of examining objects as about the objects themselves. Examining the act of looking, he pairs his contemplative faith in things with a strange emptiness. L-7 shows a white panel, perhaps just prepared for painting, nailed to the wall. But the nails are causing the panel to crack–and it looks as if these cracks are just the beginning of a process of devolution. The confinement that contemplation imposes on an object also inevitably separates us from it–yet the purity of Sabraw’s blank white remains seductively beautiful.

Jefferson Little was born in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1972 and has lived there all his life; he’s never crossed paths with Sabraw. Yet both artists often use a kind of straw-orange-tan color as a background, seemingly related to the orange tone of many of Claesz’s breakfast scenes. But where Sabraw usually paints single objects, Little often gives us two or three in each of his eight paintings (seven on panel) at Lyons Weir. And there are other, greater differences.

For one thing, Little paints toys–not brand-name toys but small, anonymous figures and objects (motorcyclists, spaceships, road signs) of injection-molded plastic. And his backgrounds are even more spare than Sabraw’s. In fact, Little says Regina’s topography may have influenced him “in a subtractive way–the landscape around here is very flat and treeless, and if we’re lucky we have only six months of winter. I’ve gotten used to it–it’s become kind of attractive to me.” But it’s not a place to go “if you’re looking for excitement in landscape.” Most of Little’s pictures are more than twice as wide as they are high, perhaps reflecting the prairie around Regina; at any rate the effect is to separate the toys from the cultural clutter of which they’re a part.

Sometimes Little’s scenes suggest impending disaster. In Still Life With Daredevil, two motorcyclists head toward each other from either side of a tiny, goofy-looking clown at the center. In Still Life With Armed Stand-off, two red ray guns are pointed toward each other. At first these pictures might cause a chuckle, but they’re painted with such care and conviction that the objects have genuine luminosity and depth. The painted cyclists look at once ridiculously small and ineffective and disturbingly real, their gray suggesting invulnerable metal armor: they may soon crush the brightly colored clown.

Little first used such toy figures in installations–and like Sabraw he was returning to a childhood activity: he used to play with such figures in the sandbox. But soon after seeing his first Dutch still life paintings on a trip to New York, he began to paint the figures in these arrangements, adding five or six layers of oil glaze to an acrylic underpainting to “build up dark, rich texture.” The glazes also add spatial depth, creating the sense that the figures are hovering in or traversing an immeasurable emptiness. But Little’s panel paintings generally lack the smooth surface of northern Renaissance panel paintings; the wood’s grain adds a palpable texture and tends to deny illusions of depth. This was at first an accidental effect–Little thought he’d sealed the wood adequately–but he grew to like the aging it suggested. Like Sabraw, he both aims for illusion and denies it, just as he both sets up his figures and suggests their imminent destruction.

There are other contradictions within his scenes. Still Life With Science Fiction pairs an astronaut who seems planted on the ground with a tree that’s levitating, making a joke on weightlessness but also asserting the artist’s power. In the miniature dream-theater he’s created, Little can do what he likes–even place his figures in physically impossible arrangements. The picture frames themselves are beveled inward, suggesting the architecture of a theater. And in Still Life With Gravity–the only work in the show on canvas–Little paints red curtains around his two objects, a road sign and a toy rocket ship, placing them onstage. These references to theater both foster illusionism and destroy it, inviting us “in” yet emphasizing the constructed nature of what we see. Little’s subtle, resonant colors for these kitschy plastic objects also offer an implicit critique of a culture that encourages the quick glance over a contemplative look.

Modernist painters rarely comment on the current glut of objects, instead balancing style and subject matter: a depiction of a wall or the sky is inseparable from the way it’s painted. Sabraw and Little intentionally disturb this balance: subjects threaten to overwhelm painting with their power, and paint then reasserts itself. The ensuing contradictions are the unavoidable consequence of the artist’s self-consciousness: such an artist cannot naively accept the illusionist approach yet wants to assert the particular sensual power of the things depicted. Part of the pleasure in Little’s work comes from imagining for a moment that the motorcyclists are about to collide; in Sabraw’s, it’s the possibility of seeing actual fabrics with renewed sensitivity. But the multiple contradictions of their “realistic” work give it a wounded, broken quality.

Craig McDaniel–a painter and critic who lives in Indianapolis and teaches at Indiana State University–mostly abjures illusionism without abandoning referentiality. His two two-part installations at Jan Cicero (there’s also one separate painting) deal with “the tragic and melodramatic tensions that have been created as my own parents struggle with the process of aging, especially…my father’s ongoing battle due to severe memory loss.” These multicanvas installations are mostly painted words telling stories about his father’s difficulties, with the occasional image substituting, rebuslike, for a word (a ship for “trip”) or, at times, as a failed attempt to find a word (on one canvas “he’s in” is followed by a placid, mysterious domestic scene).

McDaniel paints his words with playful inventiveness, using varied lettering, colors, and backgrounds–it’s almost as if he were trying to defuse the raw power of his story by rendering it decorative. But at the same time such pictures as the one of a plane about to crash above a ship make clear that McDaniel is not glossing over anything; in fact, reading these almost prettily painted words merely heightens the contradiction between painterly design and the tale of disaster they tell. Like Sabraw and Little, McDaniel shows that an artist need not turn to abstraction to be true to the medium of paint, and like them he never abandons content. And if here reality itself seems broken, that’s sadly appropriate to McDaniel’s story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Proper Procedure” by John Sabraw; “Still Life with Science Fiction” by Jefferson Little; “News from the Front” (detail) by Craig mcDaniel.