Visual Arts: Wryly wrought

Paul Sutinen's Captiva Meditations at Nine Gallery

Late in 2012, Paul Sutinen spent a month at the Robert Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida. During that time he completed two related series of small paintings, and started a blog. (The blog continues here.) Both the blog and paintings crystallize what Sutinen has done and thought about for quite some time. Which means they are both thought-provokingly serious and dryly funny, all to unmask the processes and objectives of art itself.

Sutinen is exhibiting the first series of paintings, “Captiva Meditations,” at Nine Gallery this month. The fifteen, 12” x 12” clayboard panels of acrylics, ink and graphite are all done in black, white and gray. They follow another exhibition last April at Nine Gallery of the second series from the residency, his “Captiva Suite,” consisting of twelve 16” x 20” panels done with acrylics and in color. Had I seen the latter in a timely manner, meaning with more than a few days left in the show, I would have written about it at the time. However, to now examine the black and white series (a classification of convenience, just as it is for that type of photography, and unobjectionable as long as gray is recognized as the midrange) without including the color work would provide an incomplete assessment.

Paul Sutinen, Constellation of Drawings (Memory)

Paul Sutinen, Constellation of Drawings (Memory)

Paul Sutinen, Memories

Paul Sutinen, Memories

We should also look at precursors, namely his “Constellation of Drawings (Memory)” from 1990, which hangs at Oregon Health & Science University, and a mural, “Memories 1990-2011,” painted in 2011 as part of a group show at the Hoffman Gallery at Lewis & Clark College, both in Portland. We see similar shapes that have echoed over the years in Sutinen’s painting, and although the work has become progressively less structured, the process has become more refined.

Nor is this current body of work too far afield of Sutinen’s sculptural work, especially his numerous house-like structures. A while back, and again at Nine Gallery (he is a founding member), Sutinen strung a single strand of dark (12 gauge?) wire around the gallery, placing it a little above waist height and held several inches away from the wall. On the back wall was a piece of wire running off from the main line and toward the wall. At it’s end was a little wooden house. The piece in its entirety, while sculptural, made for a perspectival drawing.

Flatten that house and we get a polygon. And if I may, memories are comparatively flat.


It may be a natural inclination to compare the two approaches used in this “Captiva” work, especially knowing that the B&W preceded the color work in the studio. The “Meditations” may be aptly named as a forerunner to the “Suite,” much like a study or even a contemplative practice, not that it does not take an equal amount of commitment to a process of discovery as knowing when the collective end result is sufficient. Both the B&W “Meditations” and the “Suite” share a combination of hard geometry and a more casual-looking mark, illustrating something we have grown to appreciate in terms of abstraction, yet there is also an uneasiness about the work, and it is not entirely the same for each series.

Paul Sutinen from Captive Meditations

Paul Sutinen from Captive Meditations

Many of the “Meditations” are not as complicated or reworked as the “Suite,” and because of this there is a dimensionality/physicality to several of the B&Ws that is less apparent in the color pieces. The B&W pieces also seem less forgiving, perhaps because of the starkness of the simpler palette and extreme tones.

Paul Sutinen from Captiva Suite

Paul Sutinen from Captiva Suite

The twelve color pieces elicited a chuckle from me when I first saw them. The rigidity of the interspersed, polygonal shapes were in sharp contrast to the backgrounds with their slurry of colors peaking through and blending into the overall white surfaces. On closer inspection, many of the shapes themselves seem to be no more than smears of acrylic paint, with only their edges “exacting.” (Knowing now that these edges were made with an Exacto Knife, I smile again, but only to the degree that a pun deserves.) The B&W works utilize the same technique, and it is this singular aspect of meticulousness that highlights the richness contained within their blurred backgrounds, making both bodies of work at the very least exercises in contrast.


For some reason we tend to privilege the verbal, to give weight to words as ‘meaningful’ and if there is meaning that cannot be put into words then there is a tendency to dismiss it, to act as if it is silly, it can’t exist if it can’t be verbalized. And when we are new at this art stuff, or not really connected with it at all, we tend to hear an ‘explanation’ and be satisfied that that is the final answer, that it is in the words attached to the art—not the art itself—that is where the ‘answer’ lies.

The above is a quote from Paul Sutinen’s blog. Whether “the verbal” is privileged and for whatever reason, it is a fitting caveat for the way we understand the art Sutinen made during the residency. Yet, one might also think it a little peculiar that an art professor expresses such sentiments, someone who must surely use language to examine specific pieces of art to help his students go on to explain their own art.

In viewing any art, we give primacy to the image as medium of meaning, and allow an open-endedness to its descriptions that favors an ongoing discovery process. Likewise, if the teaching profession did not attend to a persistent care in the relationship between teacher and student, the student’s progress toward a more sophisticated vocabulary would suffer, both in her chosen media and the thinking (meaning acting as a kind of byproduct) that surrounds that production. And, I might add, successfully combining these two objectives in the classroom makes it impossible for someone to level the old adage about “those who can’t, teach.”

No doubt, Sutinen also recognizes the privatized realm that is abstraction as more than a binary exposition, just as the derivation of meaning is more than a simple juxtaposition of existing ideas. Meaning, then, might be considered something that is strung along, a continuation, a retourneé that in its temporality must necessarily be considered as moving forward as well as revisiting, or, if you will, a reworking, and therefore not the same as it was. It is serial in its references but individualized by its place within that time frame. Making sense, then, comes in the repetition of remnants of something familiar amidst the transience and variables that carry and surround —or even slip away— to form mutations destined to be repeated if they are to form new contexts.

While my description is very general, it is from this overall structure meaning accumulates into some coherence, and it happens over a period of time. It is also a description that can suit a series/suite of abstract paintings.

And it suits Sutinen. Harkening back to his quote above, the difficulty in constructing The Meaningful arises through occasionally getting things right, or rather, close enough to hold on to; but it also takes a lot of missteps —evidence of the true process, so we must acknowledge them— to get there. Sutinen’s “Captiva” pieces, whether B&W or color, look like they are riddled with mistakes: botches, smudges, over-blending, peaks and gaps in the application of media, both provisional and bad at the same time were it not for these islands of pure, precise intentionality that arise and float atop with perfect diction, but only if we can find it within ourselves to allow for their imperfections. Both the “Captiva Meditations “ and “Captiva Suite” draw upon and then go beyond the fundamental push/pull of abstraction’s own curious formalism to play with the viewer’s expectations within those constructs.

In them Sutinen is drawing from the breadth of his experience as an artist, pushing the process, and all the while having a bit of fun with us at the same time.


Read more by Patrick Collier.

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