"Paul Sietsema's multifacted practice explores the ambiguities of authorship and cultural production, the mutability of history, and the effects of representation and replication. Working is drawing, painting, sculpture, and film."
How true. Come on over.
But you don't really have to be a graduate student or philosopher to be intrigued by and to enjoy the beauty in the work of an undoubtedly cerebral artist.
The work in Paul Sietsema is all dated between 2007 and 2012, with the vast majority having been produced last year. The visitor to the show will understand that his 2012 production is an almost superhuman quantity measured both in large-scale completed works (I count twenty listed in the catalogue, which doesn't account for all) and in quantity of marks made. There are five sixteen-millimeter films, a sculpture, and many ink drawings and paintings in enamel on canvas. His work in every medium is haunting with its often ghostly, bare beauty; its perfection of trompe l'oeil techniques, and its improbable explorations of scale.
Sietsema is absorbed with the idea of mechanically-produced multiples, like photographs printed from negatives and screen-printing, even though every work in the show is elaborately, exquisitely unique. In many cases, Sietsema has made what are indeed large scale, "hand-made multiples" that are distinguishable only by small details. One such impressive "set of prints" is a series of four identical sail boa drawings, each picture 64.25 x 50.5," each drawn in ink to look like an old, black and white photograph on paper that's crumpled and warped with time—each aged in exactly the same way. These huge and phenomenally detailed drawings, Calendar boat 1, 2, 3, and 4, appear to be identical save for the numbers on their sails: 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. The entire series was produced in 2012.
Sietsema has made many large ink drawings with the subject of sailboats, all with appearances of photographs on worn, creased and torn paper. A particular favorite of mine on aesthetic grounds alone is a diptych, Boat Drawing, from 2012. The right panel (each is a large 51.15 x 67.75) depicts sailboats catching the wind on a grey day. The left is another ink drawing of: fog? sea foam? clouds? the last images in the mind of a dying person? The sheet depicts something or nothing, in softly gathered form. Presumably related to the sailboats, it could be above, below, or surrounding them. It could be what they are in, have come through, or are entering. As the image of the boats themselves captures one instant in time, as we like to think photography does, roiling foggy masses can be from any moment— from the beginning of time to its end—and all equally relevant. Yet any one of them would be
"caught" in the same way.
These magnificent images—which I may not show you because no images of them are made available and photography that would represent them is not allowed—are, of course, not made in a way that captures an actual single moment in time. They are made to appear as if they do. At their large size one sees upon close inspection that their perfect level of verisimilitude is achieved through the extemely time-consuming process of penning thousand upon thousand of small marks in black and white inks. In fact, to examine the drawings close up is to experience drawing that satisfies on an entirely different level. The landscapes of tiny marks have their own rhythms, and the collections of shapes contain great variety, as if any six-inch square of the surface were carefully composed on its own.
Sietsema offers an interesting series of 45 x 53 Concession Drawings, all ink on paper and, again, all dated 2012. Each features, from ever closer range, the inscription on a tombstone, "Concession a perpetuite" which (with the accents this program denies me) means, "Released to the eternal." Each is drawn to give a nigh-perfect illusion of three weighty dimensions, as if the top layer of the granite stone had been effaced in a slab and framed.
The first, in gallery display order, presents a complete, arched headstone with the inscription in crisp, freshly engraved state. The lettering is an 18th century form, with extended verticals and strong contrast between thin and thick elements. This suggests to the viewer a sense of the gravestone's antiquity.
In a gallery remote from the first, another Concession Drawing is found. The major difference is that this one brings the viewer closer. We no longer see the top of the stone. The inscription is closer to us and shows signs of wear: The engraved edges are less crisp. The edge of the stone has a large nick in it.
By the time we find yet another, several galleries along, it is drawn on green-washed paper, and the perspective allows us to examine the inscription very closely—a good thing, because time has effaced the letters to rounded cups, lost to legibility. The face of the stone, even, is pocked, pitted, and broken. Yes, time is conceding even this memorial to the perpetuity of memory, even as we spend a couple of hours passing through Sietsema's show. (The granite memorial exists only in ink, of course, though our conclusions are about something far more solid.)
Each of the Concession Drawings "records" with photographic clarity time's depredations on physical reality. Yet each drawing hangs in a different gallery, in a different context, surrounded by a different body of work. We have no hard and fast reason, really, to concludethat they are supposed to depict the same headstone.
It is entirely sufficient to gaze upon any one of these—as it is to examine and admire any single work in this big show—and reflect on its considerable aesthetic beauty and connections to the viewer's experience.
But should one find all three Concessions during a gallery visit, questions might well arise about their relationships to a single or to multiple objects. Are their references to objects of the world or of the mind? Clearly, even memory itself doesn't last eternally, even when we consign it to durable granite, or even to its illusion. Sietsema has nudged us into the in-between world, where the mind somehow merges both perception of the physical world with memory and agrees that we'll call the outcome "reality."
A catalogue—Paul Sietsema, Ann Bremner, editor—accompanies the show, ISBN 978-1-881390-51-0. The essays and the interview are scholarly and general readers will find them difficult, but worthwhile. The photographs provide an invaluable record of the show.
Paul Sietsema remains at the Wexner Center through August 4. It opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, on September 7.