Nicholas Sistler:

Concentrated Views

at the Evanston Art Center, through July 19

Nicholas Sistler, whose 17 miniature still lifes are now on view at the Evanston Art Center, names as influences surrealists de Chirico, Dali, and Ernst and abstractionists Mondrian, Josef Albers, Hans Hofmann, and Philip Guston; he also acknowledges inspiration from the more representational imagery of Balthus and George Tooker. And at first Sistler’s pictures–only a few inches wide and long, with brightly colored geometrical shapes placed within strangely stripped down interiors–do look a bit like de Chirico meets de Stijl. But these carefully selected, arranged, and painted objects seduced me more than de Chirico’s images ever have.

Still Life With Pink Beads gains in impact and meaning as it’s examined, its mystery deepening. On a round yellow table, pink beads sit opposite a skull, while under them is a drawing or print of what looks like a schematic skull. Behind these objects is a tall, solid purple cone. What seems to be a cord snakes across the floor, at one point passing through a little tunnel in an abstract shape, a pinkish half-sphere. At the upper right is a window, whose red frame reveals a twilit scene of gray earth and deep blue sky punctuated by a few blue or red cylinders and balls.

While this image contains extremes of color, texture, and objects, a range of middle grounds links the apparent opposites, creating an almost subliminal feeling that the parts of the image are in some cryptic communication with one another. Almost never does a shade exactly repeat; and as a result this strange agglomeration of forms could easily have disintegrated into the familiar disorganization of a bad painting. But many of the objects are similar shades, so that two slightly different blues may echo each other. And Sistler sometimes juxtaposes colors: the pink beads reflect light, making each a sensuous mixture of pink and white. The skull is painted in various shades of white and gray. Yet most of the other colors are almost as solid and undifferentiated as a Mondrian color field, while a few in between reveal tiny brush strokes, creating texture. These surfaces help link the opposite extremes of rendering–from realistically modeled to even, solid colors.

The objects also range from the naturalistic to the abstract, from the skull and beads to geometric shapes. The bridge between them is the picture of a skull–an artist’s conversion of a natural form into a schematic design. The strange purple globe built into the table’s base provides a link between ordinary furniture and the cylinders and cones. There’s an obvious dreamlike air to the scene, but what’s really strange is the feeling Sistler creates that all these objects are somehow in touch with one another. Because of the formal continuities he establishes, one begins to feel as if the skull were somehow aware of the beads; as if the cylinders out the window were somehow in touch with the table inside.

Still Life With Ruler and Map recalled for me my first visits to a planetarium, where I was fascinated by a scale model of the solar system, its rotating planets built into the ceiling, and by the way the planetarium’s projector re-created the complexity of the night sky. An orange table with two drawers occupies the left center of Sistler’s picture; lying on it are several everyday objects and abstract shapes: a map of part of the Near East, a ruler, a green cylinder with a red sphere atop it, a key. A blue table in the foreground holds additional abstract shapes, and a window at the top left reveals a simplified landscape in which a solid yellow ball, the sun, rises over a green field.

To a young child, for whom the distinction between symbol and real thing is somewhat blurry, there was a kind of magic in that tiny solar system in the planetarium, as if someone who knew the right code could make the planets move. Sistler’s image gave me a similar feeling: that the key, a classic surrealist symbol for unlocking the unconscious, could here unlock the drawer and reveal a secret device that, when attached to the red ball on the table, would make the sun rise and set.

Realistic touches in Sistler’s miniatures enhance such magical thinking. The ruler is too small to show individual lines and numbers– the whole picture is 1 ¾ inches by 3 6 inches–but it does contain a delicately painted gray field just uneven enough to suggest such markings. The colored lines representing borders on the map are painted with similar care. And the way the map and the ruler and the desk drawers, with their carefully rendered round handles, seem like natural objects encourages the viewer to believe that the abstract shapes are painted with similar “fidelity.” Focusing on the mostly abstract forms in the foreground, then the objects on the yellow table in the middle ground, and finally on the sunrise in the background, one is drawn into a scene full of mystery–but one also feels that the real sun is rising.

The ruler and map, tools for measuring, combine with the sunrise to suggest a more specific fantasy than those the surrealists typically encouraged: a fantasy of mastery over the earth and sky. The measuring and mapping of actual objects leads to abstract shapes, which are felt to suggest, even contain, whole worlds of other actual objects. The viewer stands almost as if on a precipice, at the beginning of dream, the specifics of physical reality cut open to reveal an infinity of possibilities. Sistler adds to this feeling of vastness by suggesting that the worlds of his paintings extend beyond what he’s pictured. In Still Life With Ruler and Map the side of what could be a blue picture frame hangs on a wall at the extreme right that appears to open into a new room. Similar fragments in many of the pictures also hint at unseen spaces beyond, realms unknowable from our limited perspective. For everything these pictures allow us to begin to understand, they suggest more that we can never know.

Sistler’s interest in mystical knowledge is apparent in Still Life With Numerical Chart. At the center is a magic square–a grid of numbers that add up to the same sum in every column, row, and diagonal–which he copied from Albrecht Dürer’s etching Melancholia I. Such squares fascinated medieval and Renaissance thinkers; they were said to reflect the hidden perfection that underlies nature. To its right is a portholelike window that looks out onto a black sea; the reflection of the moon in the water makes a line stretching toward the viewer. To the left of the magic square a door opens onto another room, while in the foreground are two tables holding a skull, colored balls, an empty wine bottle, and an upside-down wineglass with a tiny red ball inside it.

This scene seems a complex agglomeration of different worlds. The view through the open door is rather bland, while the view of the moonlit sea is spectacular. But if we’re at sea, isn’t the upside-down wineglass in danger of being overturned? Sistler also incorporates different systems of perspective: the sea image creates one kind of depth, the space behind the open door another, and the lines of the tables lead to still other vanishing points. These differences create an effect like that of Sistler’s diverse colors: the magic square–with its green numbers, blue border, gray backgrounds, black grid lines, and red tassel–is a kind of metaphor for how Sistler’s pictures are to be read. To the careful viewer, they contain hidden harmonies, secret unities amid apparently diverse patterns. Just as the viewer who stops to add up rows and columns of numbers will identify the grid as a magic square, so the viewer who takes time will find the key to unlock a world in which colored cylinders are akin to planets.

In a phone interview, Sistler seemed an intuitive artist who doesn’t analyze most of what he does. A Chicagoan born here in 1954, he experimented with a variety of styles, also producing performance art, in the years before and after his 1980 graduation from the School of the Art Institute. He began doing these small paintings in 1992, following a year of inactivity, by drawing a design on a small piece of museum board–a kind of all-cotton mat board: “The only conscious thing,” he says, “was that I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on it.” Another reason he chose to work small is that he likes “to have large areas of solid, flat color–but on a larger scale they would be less interesting.” And each small area of color does have an intense, almost jewellike magic, adding to the mystery of the scene.

In some of these works, the natural world seems to interact with the abstract shapes. But many of them abjure objects from nature. In Still Life With Shaving Brush a table holds the brush and a jar; behind them is a mirror that reflects these objects, clearer and larger than life, as well as parts of the room that we otherwise couldn’t see: a hanging blue sphere, a brown floor, a green strip running along the wall. To the left a target with concentric colored circles hangs near a picture of a single dark line spiraling inward against a pink ground. As one’s eye travels from the jar of shaving cream, the cylindrical brushes, and the spiral to the target and a strange half rolling pin on the table, all the circular shapes create a continuity between complexly textured, recognizable objects like the brush and utterly abstract forms.

The perspective of this image positions the viewer just beyond the table’s edge and just to the side of the mirror, which is tilted ever so slightly to suggest that it’s at least logically possible that the painter would not be reflected. Enticed by the seductive colors and the formal links between objects, the viewer is drawn in even more immediately by the way the mirror reflects that part of the room behind him, placing him at the implied center of this imagined space. One is virtually immersed in a strange world of colors and shapes, plunged into an alternative universe.

Still Life With Bubbles, one of Sistler’s most recent pictures and perhaps his strongest, shows a door opening onto a twilit scene in which a crescent moon hangs over a green field surrounded by hills; through the hills runs a brown line, suggesting a meandering road. The rich reds of the room in the foreground entice the viewer even as he’s led down the thin, winding road toward infinity. Two lines of bubbles drift toward the background; in the right line the last bubble hangs next to the moon. These lines suggest a “V” whose apex would be just in front of the work, where the viewer is standing. In this picture it’s as if the viewer were now a full participant, blowing the bubbles, contributing to the creation of the scene.

Many artists say their works require a viewer to complete them; but this picture, even more than those with multiple perspectives or magic squares, makes the viewer a prime actor. The twilight near the horizon is richly and realistically textured; the walls are fairly even reds; and the viewer must become the mediator between nature and abstraction, between real things and objects from dreams, blowing bubbles that at once resemble the solid dark ball near the table’s right edge and the crescent moon.