The Men Who Knew Too Much
Two Versions—One Clear, One Muddy—of Being Information-Rich
On the surface—in fact, especially on the surface—two young Seattle artists, Adam Satushek and Eric Elliott, have nothing in common. Satushek makes big, bright, smooth, ultraclear photographs. Elliott makes thick little gray oil paintings. But it's even truer in art than in life that looks aren't everything. These artworks think similarly, in sculptural terms, about the relationship between innards and skin.
Satushek's photographs picture simple and familiar subjects, often trees and houses (before or after they've been inhabited). In them, the time is clearly now—the unreality of real estate has been dramatically revealed, the natural environment tensely beckons and reproaches, and everything has the feel of a rickety facade. A row of identical new houses—two of the three marked by signs that say "This Home Is Occupied"—is the embodiment of emptiness. A sea of parked boats in a gravel lot sits along Interstate 5, where cars pass by in whirring waves. The cute, abandoned home on concrete blocks on this odd property is in the style of a Cape Cod vacation home. Its picture windows face the freeway. A vast gray sky hangs overhead. The photograph is called Yard.
Satushek, showing at Gallery4Culture and SOIL, makes poetic but sobering images by layering several photographs to create a final scene. Contemporary photography is full of shooters who do this, including megastars like Andreas Gursky, who uses extreme detail to heighten the spectacle in massive, sparkling photographs of commerce, architecture, and, most recently, car racing. But Gursky is creating scenes that exist only in his photographs. Satushek is literalizing his subjects, not fictionalizing them, a tactic that goes hand in hand with his subtly eye-opening social critique. Satushek takes photos as much as makes them: He shoots each area inside the frame at close range, giving the viewer maximum details—details that, startlingly, add up to the scene that is, rather than the scene that is seen. The edges don't fuzz. Distant objects are in high definition. Tiny rocks and wildflowers pop forward as if you were right there, bending over them. You notice at first only that the images seem slightly off. They seem digital, which makes you think they're untrue. But it's the opposite. The images are impossibly true.
Such literalizing is an impulse from minimalism, the "aesthetic high adventure," as Peter Schjeldahl calls it, of the 1960s, which remains the most influential radical idea of the 20th century. Schjeldahl describes minimalism in Platonic terms, as "the difference between the idea of something and the thing itself." Minimalist art—early on called literalist art—is concerned entirely with the thing itself. The artworks are what they are; they are not false representations of other things. In Satushek's refreshing photographs, false representations are revealed, gently, as the backbone of American life. He turns the art idea of concretism—that artworks can be things in themselves, rather than abstractions of other things—into an ethic: to see things as they really are. (Another fascinating young conceptual photographer in Seattle, Isaac Layman, is also a concretist, of a less social and more philosophical stripe. He has a show opening Thursday, July 17, at Lawrimore Project.)
Elliott doesn't paint out in the world but inside his studio. Using thick, thick gray paint, he essentially coats the rarefied zone of art in concrete. It looks like an empty place, a tautological place—one that exists only to be depicted. It has a table, stools, a Brita-filter pitcher, cans of paint, a sink, and the kind of common potted plants you'd find at Home Depot. In the clearest of the paintings, the studio is aestheticized, turned into a special place hit serendipitously with light. An entire history of lovingly solipsistic, art-for-art's-sake studio still lifes comes to mind. But the six paintings at James Harris Gallery depict the studio and its plants as if under various lenses, or plastered with varying thicknesses of concrete. In one painting, it is nearly impossible to distinguish the objects from the ground. In all the paintings, gray overcomes all other colors and sensations.
Is everything lifelike in these scenes smothered to death, or does everything take on more substance? A little of both. Elliott's postminimalistic constructions can't help but bring to mind Jasper Johns, the master of gray and of concretism. There is always something documentary about gray.