Falling off the Horizon: Paul Sietsema at the MCA Chicago

How do we prescribe shape to flatness? For the earth, it was a ship. For painting, it was once the illusion of space opening up though the canvas into other worlds, other imaginaries. The preoccupation of rendering the dimensional out of the un-dimensional is one that the conception of pre-modern painting has struggled with from the start. This revolt, against flatness, is more deeply a fascination that centuries of artists and thinkers have since worked to undo. The rejection of depth has historically been the revolutionary voice in overthrowing “truths” in art – the denial of space representing the ultimate mutiny against illusionistic and pictorial ideologies, “changing the system against a utopian promise.” The full potentials of this upheaval are realized in a current exhibition of Paul Sietsema’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.

In a stunning survey of paintings, drawings, and films, Sietsema recreates the photographic vernacular in its most spectacular trompe l’oeil representations; never capturing the thing itself, but instead the lens that looks onto the tactile object. Sietsema’s images often reference his own process, imitating the material inherent within the making itself – the folds, wrinkles, and markings of wear on a piece of paper painstakingly rendered on the surface of an ink drawing, the sun stained quality of a Technicolor photograph replicated in washes of de-saturated hues. The stamp of time that occupies Sietsema’s historical, and often archival, encyclopedic subjects is reworked, recontextualized, and eradicated from history – replaced instead by a commonly constructed memory of romantic subjects – sailboats at sea, pages torn out of books, postmarked parcels and traces of transcontinental travel, the paint brush on the canvas itself – a fragile texture that floats on its viewers own image of nostalgia, while opposing any facile or comfortable recognition. Like a film that erases itself as it plays, Sietsema locates a moment between the vanished and the never present – a revolutionary relationship to flatness that can only be imagined as emulating the very first moment the ship fell off the horizon. –Stephanie Cristello, Chicago Contributor

Paul Sietsema | Folded Corner, 2012. © Paul Sietsema. Photo: Ron Amstutz, courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

Four sailboats occupy the page like a compass rose, the sails pointing east and west face front, while north and south more diagonally oriented – white swaths of fabric against the grainy blue of the sea, a window of film photographed from above. The margins of the page holding the printed image form a neat frame along the perimeter of the print, the corner of the page turned over for a place marker. This is the first image we see in the exhibition. For those of us who have seen reproductions of the piece online, the image looks customary, perhaps even a bit predictable – though Folded Corner is anything but. As with many of the works in the exhibition, the sheer realization of knowing that the piece was unmanufactured and done entirely by hand is staggering – though as Sietsema points out in an interview in Art in America, machines were made by people, too. So then how are we to explain the seduction? Is what Sietsema puts forward really all that Romantic of a proposal, so poetic a promise, that we are disarmed by the image of a sailboat? In short, no, but the selection of work on view builds upon that promise, entrusting that Sietsema has democratically lifted from a history of images, when in fact we are given an abbreviated selection.

Paul Sietsema | Brush painting (green), 2012. Terri and Michael Smooke. © Paul Sietsema. Photo: Ron Amstutz, courtesy of the artist and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York.

Entering the first gallery to the right, the idea of accessing a historical image is put on hold. Instead, we are presented with a group of paintings that picture tools, often peripherally used for making the painting itself, imposed on the surface of the canvas; hammers, paint stirrers, chisels, and industrial brushes thickly coated in enamel and slapped onto the canvas, as if held together only by pools of high gloss, monochromatic paint. This idea of objectness is collapsed almost immediately, as viewers approach the canvas and realize that each object is carefully rendered on the surface. There is no scale shift in these pieces, unlike the photographic replications, which are scaled to roughly 5 x 4 feet. The one-to-one ratio maintains its illusion, exposing invisible subjects – ghosts and apparitions of utility. We are left with a process that denies immediacy, denies time – instantly registered, but infinitely regressive, doubling back on the image as an instantaneous moment, and a history all its own.

Installation view, Paul Sietsema, MCA Chicago, Sep 7, 2013-Jan 5, 2014. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.

The idea of time is stamped throughout the galleries, miscellaneous dates suggest momentous events without substantial evidence, and point us toward the possibility that we exist within another time – or multiple times, all at once. Sietsema stages this in a way that resists gimmick, going back to the idea of prescribing depth, clinically, topically, on the surface. A temporary other world. We see a newspaper clipping replicated from 2009; the sails in Folded Corner read 1968, 1929, 1964, and 2011, NESW respectively. One of the last galleries in the exhibition contains a series of four nearly identical sailboats, each bearing the clear marking of a year, progressing from 2010 to the present – a calendar fleet. Each is painted with the same weathering marks, the same folds and indentations, as though this snapshot was taken at different times, yet lived the same history. Artifice becomes the sole tenet we are able to rely on. This artifice is what suggests that we are not viewing the archival, the past, the dead – but instead living fragments of possible histories, infinite and immeasurable moments in time that suggests to us the promise us everything, generously delivering the welcomed failure of that utopian promise in its finest form.


Paul Sietsema, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, runs through January 5, 2014.

Stephanie Cristello is an artist, curator, and writer who lives and works in Chicago, IL.

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