at Feigen Incorporated

I’m not much of a gambler, but I’m willing to bet Chris Sasser’s oil paintings are the weirdest canvases now in Chicago. Sasser combines realist, expressionist, and abstract styles to produce biomorphic shapes that often resemble fleshy deep-sea creatures. His technical approach is interesting, but the real success of these images lies in their double-edged quirkiness; they are simultaneously goofy and disturbing.

Four of Sasser’s untitled works are similar compositions on square canvases. In these, the dominant feature is a large, bug-eyed form centered on a smooth, painted background of vivid blue, green, burnt orange, or aqua. Each gray blue creature has its own odd, curvilinear shape, but all of them possess a sort of tail, near the right edge of the canvas, and each tail ends in an expressionistic swish of monochromatic, upward-arching paint. In addition, the creatures all seem to be “looking” toward the left. Thin lines of paint squeezed from a small tube begin at the left side of each “body” and cross over it as they run to the right edge of each work. The lines function to suggest speed and direction, cartoon style, in the swimming or flying figure. As a final important touch, a section of each creature’s outline sports a chain of paint composed of raised flower-head shapes squeezed from a cake-decorating tube.

Because each anthropomorphic being is the focus of attention inside its own canvas, the four pieces work together as a sort of portrait series. The sarcasm here is heavy and humorous. All four beings have the same intense, driven expression worn by attacking predators and social climbers. The flower chains of paint “frosting” seem to point to the ambition that characterizes the mainstream art world, in which art is often made and purchased as a tasty confection. The portrait format makes one wonder if the artist had anyone particular in mind as he painted these pieces.

On a formal level, Sasser’s varied but tightly controlled handling of paint holds our attention. Most areas of the single-color backgrounds are brushed in a flat, smooth way that allows the central figures to pop out. But in other areas the artist seems to have spread the pigment on with a spatula–again, as one might smooth frosting over a cake. This not only reinforces the motivation behind the more overt frosting chains but adds an extra, subtle lusciousness to the canvas surface.

The organic figures are much more complex. The beings in the four portraits seem realistic renderings of actual forms. Definitive shape and line are complemented by a logical, expertly modulated chiaroscuro. We even see elements we can call a tail or an eye. Because these bio-forms are not really recognizable, however, we can only understand them as personal artistic inventions or abstractions. Their soft, stylized shapes are comical, but their apparent capacity for locomotion is disturbing, perhaps even menacing. Immediately to the right of the pseudorealistic creatures are a small number of rough, paint-laden gestural brush strokes, a reference to the 1950s action painters. But this brushwork also suggests the creatures’ capacity for powerful self-propulsion. It seems more than coincidental that these action strokes evoke a decade characterized by horror-film classics and America’s explosion onto the international art-world scene.

Two further compositions on larger, rectangular canvases expand and embellish Sasser’s eccentric vision. In one, a pair of black saddle shapes coming from the left appear to shoot across the canvas. Their high speed is indicated by black horizontal squiggles emerging from their behinds and melting into the flat orange yellow background. These saddles, placed one above the other, are in the process of overriding two gray blue pillowlike shapes, also placed one above the other. Surrounding the right side of the pillow forms and extending to the right edge of the picture are the familiar curving action brush strokes.

Here Sasser combines the skillful technique evident in the portrait pieces with a more intriguing composition to make this work the best in the show. One feels a strange sort of empathy for the helpless, bovine pillow forms. By comparison, the zooming saddles seem ruthlessly aggressive. The arching expressionist strokes of thick, sometimes gloppy black and gray paint on the right seem to block the pillow shapes’ most direct escape route: these strokes corral the poor creatures into the gaping “mouths” of the oncoming saddles. To complete this fable of relentless consumption, the saddle mouths are rimmed with the symbolic chain of paint frosting. Though initially the painting evokes a psychological state–empathy–the frosting chain brings us full circle, back to the commodification of art.

The other large composition is not nearly as accomplished. Its strongest point is a pleasing color scheme that pushes beyond the monochromatic tendencies of the other pieces. Conversely, the paint handling here is much looser; compared to the other pictures, it borders on the sloppy. Most of the expected elements are present–the large organic beings, the squiggles, and the sweeping gestural brush strokes–but they are not rendered with Sasser’s usual control. The huge violet creature and its two smaller companions somehow lack painterly elegance. Nor do the squiggles coming from their left sides articulate propulsion as powerfully as we have come to expect. In addition, a couple of new compositional details seem gratuitous. These include several forest green rectangles of various sizes scattered around the picture. And in two areas the artist has pushed light blue pigment into sumptuous but puzzling grid patterns. The light green background sets off the other colors beautifully but can’t make up for the lack of tension in the passive organic forms that take up most of the composition.

Sasser’s work is haunting because it functions on a multitude of paradoxical levels. It is funny and fearful, profound yet absurd, and familiar in its strangeness. It provokes strong feeling while remaining itself emotionally detached. And because these organic entities look prehistoric as well as futuristic, we ponder their relationship to time. As imagined beings they must exist outside of time, yet they’re also locked into the artist’s time.

Sasser has borrowed three well-established painting styles from three different periods to produce his own utterly unique visual language. These unpredictable shapes seem to be psychological archetypes, and somewhat resemble the rounded sculptures of the surrealist Jean Arp. But Sasser’s inventions are too deliberately manipulated to be associated with a movement that often depended on chance to make art. Like all true archetypes, however, these forms seem to signify everything and nothing. This final paradox is perhaps the key to their underlying appeal. They seem to express exactly what we want–and get–from life itself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Feigen Incorporated.