John Sabraw: Pulchritude from Pollution

There's these streams, these, like … death streams, running all along the hollers and open wounds and scars and deep, dark hills of southeastern Ohio, like in Athens county or Crooksville, Sunday Creek country, these fucking chameleon streams, born crystal virgin pure—a hideous faux-virginity! pure fatality, no other kind of purity suspended in there!—and eventually, running along like Leiningen's ants or pyroclastic flows or Kali, in that dread, beautiful motion, which sweeps life away, they eventually begin blooming into this fabulous reddish-orange, the color of rafflesia petals, and running along with nothing but gravity and iron and sulfuric acid in it, no aquatic life at all. This ichor flows all along the hills, perfectly beautiful and perfectly deadly, a conflation of the earth and the vicious byproducts we left when we entered the earth, gross seeping wounds we didn't bother to cauterize or seal properly when they stopped sustaining us, when the black precious coal could no longer be found, when blood from a stone no longer made economic sense, and after we left the earth cut open, vivisected and scooped out, it sat still and decided to slowly poison us, poison the fish and crawdads and deer, in vengeful retribution. – B. David Zarley, Chicago Contributor

John Sabraw | Arco, 2015, oil on canvas, 96 x 62 inches, Photos courtesy of Thomas McCormick Gallery

Beauty from destruction! That is John Sabraw's practice, if we want to reduce such a thing to three words and an exclamation point; Sabraw tramps up into those hills and down into those hollers and out into those gnarled and scared and exsanguinated portions of what was once mighty southeastern Ohio, and he pulls forth—just as your reviewer's great grandfather and his brothers and uncles did, my veins running black as theirs—something of real value from the earth. Sure, it is not the chthonian conquest of my ancestors, and no one is writing folk songs about it, not yet, anyway—namely because he doesn't animate an entire region of the country, doesn't send ripples of modernity and life and light up into the blackest places of Appalachia (well, he does, but it is a more ... metaphorical light, light being particles and waves and hope, with Sabraw's being the last of these), doesn't cause irreparable harm—indeed, the opposite—and doesn't need to come in and dig out his dead brother on his day off, because company time is for company business, that six-eyed ballistic scholonged union rep be damned—but John Sabraw is taking the folly of man and giving birth to real pristine beauty, the kind those death streams dangle as a siren's call.

There is a tendency for artists to speak of creating life and causing change with their works, and, sure, they really believe it, and some surely do, on some kind of micro scale, but John Sabraw is just about the best example of an artist out there not only claiming both of those things but actually, empirically, inarguably, doing so; he is Pygmalion-cum-Captain Planet!

In Sabraw's biographical blurb on his website, he calls himself an activist and environmentalist before artist; Resonance, his massive solo exhibition at McCormick Gallery, is a perfect blending of the three. The paintings in Resonance—massive, beautiful leaves; satellite image aerial views of islands and channels tossed there as if by children; magnifying glass excerpts of wood—are all made from the very poisons of the death streams.

Sabraw and his Ohio University cohorts tramp on up to these ghastly moving corpses, pull forth some venom, and disabuse it of the acid and iron; the freshly purified water can be returned to the stream—an act of penance—to flow safely and sustain, as it was meant to do, while the pollutants are mixed with sundry oils and plastics and ground beneath Sabraw's glass into high quality pigments, which can then be bent to a greater political good.

John Sabraw | Folia I, 2015, mixed media on canvas, 62 x 48 inches. Photo courtesy of Thomas McCormick Gallery

The colors Sabraw draws forth are breathtaking. The various greens and reds vibrate like Tom Wolfe run-ons; one can drown in the deep, luxe purple-browns. In combination with a masterful control of texture—take, for example, Folia I, wherein the mottled British Racing Green and death stream orange and lane line yellows of the vascular underside of a colossal leaf are riddled with scarps and dimples and knurled beadings whilst the curling topside is as smooth and rich as a Dali—it takes all of one's strength and good graces and socially desirable considerations to not gasp and stare and reach a hand out to caress, as if seeing a believed-dead loved one. The leaves appear deliciously wet, a glossy coating which shimmers in the clinical McCormick, as if Sabraw had plucked them right from an ichorous tomb, and excitingly, dreadfully alive; this, in combination with their mephitic nature, allows such compositionally simple—yet perfectly realized—images of supposed banality to harbor massive implications vis-a-vis humanity and nature, industry and the price of industry, even life and death and what we can do against such seemingly un-mutable eventualities.

John Sabraw | Bijagos, 2015, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Photo courtesy of Thomas McCormick Gallery

Bijagos, an astronaut's eye view of the titular East African islands, faces Washington Street in the window; composed of decadent daps of poison which resemble flower petals, it is a nature preserve rendered in pollution, a near reversal—on a smaller scale—or what would be Sabraw's greatest—perhaps the world's greatest?—art project: The Acid Mine Drainage pigments can be created on an industrial scale, an industry whose main concern would be art and whose byproduct would be clean water. Could you imagine? New media, beautiful media, colors created from death, and the end result being clear running streams! That is the great promise contained within Resonance, the alchemical dreams of an activist and environmentalist and artist, that the Cimmerian, weeping heart which produced your light and my blood can once again shape the world, this time, finally, leaving it for the better.


B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayist, and book/music/art critic based in Chicago. You can find him on Twitter (@BDavidZarley) and at


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