“Who’s Afraid Of Yellow?” New Paintings by Tony Sienzant at Gallery 514 at the Civic Theater in Allentown. Reception October 21, 2016 at 6:00 p.m.
“I am open to any tool, any method, any means, any material, any medium- high or low- to achieve the sublime state of not knowing what I’m looking at.” (Tony Sienzant, On Process)
It has been fourteen years since his last solo show, and Tony Sienzant is ready. In a studio full of oversized paintings and materials, I watched Sienzant prep for his opening. Having moved in a different direction from the minimal “X” series, the paintings to be delivered to Gallery 514 for his upcoming show reveal a departure from the discipline and order of his earlier pieces and graphic drawings toward the abstract psychedelic: “…maximizing divergent styles, mediums and techniques. These colorful images, often bordering on psychedelia, owe something to abstract expressionism, decorative arts, pop art, and comic book illustration.” It seems that he has embraced this quality, and run with it.
But how did he get to this place of wild forms, vivid colors, clashing elements, patterns and drips, matte and gloss, organic eclectica? By letting go, and by reaching.
By letting go, over time, of expectations and reaching for the next level, many artists tread these waters, and evolve from convention and willful diligence toward the call of their imaginations. “Reality”, ever present, becomes a context to bend, to juxtapose, to manipulate. We see artists go deeper, into the depths of surrealism and the subconscious, to the loosening of forms and composition, to exploration, to expressing in abstract ways. We often see the creative energies take a more primal turn, that influences both process and product. We see process liberation.
So how does that manifest in the new work of Tony Sienzant? Through a combination of exploration and experimentation with media- allowing different materials, often those that do not typically play well together on a canvas, free reign to clash. He lets gravity guide paint, lets pigment and toner powders cake and matte while stains wash over them with translucent shadows in umber.
Intensity, rebellion, organic spontaneity, the interplay of material and a permissive hand, the exploration of color and the nod to nature are all features of these collected works to be displayed in October. From the biomorphic “Squid” and “Barnacles” which features suggestions of the biological, or the aquatic in “Water”- these pieces are surprisingly unified by recurring motifs: industrial symbols achieved through stencils and found leaves, elements that seem at odds and disparate, dripping paint that mimics the deposits of minerals in nature, water as conduit as gravity propels the dripping paint across the canvas.
We discussed the dripping process: Sienzant also plays with the orientation of the canvas and the viewer’s conditioned expectation of a horizon. The dripping often presents in different directions, at times arterial, at other times- like tentacles reaching.
“Reaching” was a theme that I quickly identified as a common element, as a viewer, in the movement of most of the pieces in the group. Elements (villi, tentacles, tails) and shapes reach like fingers, conveying need in a very tangible, manifest way.
Sienzant described how he allows the materials to both participate and inform the process, and the importance of giving them their space. He respects both their behaviors even as he imposes their directives.
In one piece, the matte black of toner powder created a textured depth like coal or tar, immediately making me think of fossil fuels, next to vibrant lines of color suggestive of heat and haze. It did not realistically represent extinction against a setting sun, or the cycles of civilization and seasons and nature- but it evoked a sense of something apocalyptic, anti-nature, anyway. The sheen and matte and texture convey more in these pieces than color would alone. These are not discernible forms, they are felt impressions. They will be unique to each viewer, interpreting creatures and terrain and biospheres only hinted at.
In one, we talked about string theory and a visual representation of space, while I saw a minicosm, a bacterial colony, a petri dish. I made the joke that perhaps our universe is just that to another distant eye, a difference of scale. The eye will trigger what it needs to in the brain, and in turn, the brain will inform what we find.
For example, the Squid. I didn’t see a squid, but did comment on the biomorphic nature of the work- forms and elements suggestive of creatures, but not accurately depicting real creatures or yielding to known science. As I heard the word squid, my brain pushed my eye to see it. And I did. The power of suggestion at work, as it often is. This tendency pushes some artists to avoid many visual landmarks- artists like Pollack and Tobey. Arguably, the absence of the referential, event the suggestive shape, is often a move that is criticized as safe, random, “easy”. It prompts people to say: “hell, anyone can throw paint at a wall!”. It pushes us to reconcile our need to “see things” and our need as artists to plan, control, and execute. So is there a need, when we write about abstract art, to defend it?
A quick survey of Sienzant’s earlier work leaves no doubt that his is an artistic evolution that included a tremendous respect for skill and discipline. While his current work would likely be considered valid regardless, artists like Sienzant always bring up my curiosity about their thinking. Do they need to defend this direction? Explain it? Push the art into boxes and labels, apply parameters that people are comfortable with? Is there a perception of this art being “easier”?
I have wrestled with these questions many times with artists, not reflecting my own view- but rather, my curiosity about how different artists handle this type of criticism from others, or indictment of their techniques as “easier” to execute. I have no doubt about my own response to abstract work, and know myself to have been moved deeply where “realism” and “tradition” were far from present. I have felt significantly affected by colors, patterns, spatial relationships. I have loved paintings and experienced an emotional trigger from paintings that some might describe as “easy” or something their “kid could do”. So is there a need to confront this, or let it go?
What would an artist say to somebody who looked at “abstract” as “something anyone can do?” It is important to note that Sienzant confidently gives the space to the viewer to make these determinations. He knows, as other artists often know, that the body of his work is broad. I can say with certainty that many of his paintings and drawings are definitely NOT something that just anyone can do.
But is this mindset ever problematic? Sienzant doesn’t seem to think so. He doesn’t seem interested in changing anyone’s mind about art. He does advocate exposure, and seeing art- in person, in front of us.
Creativity must also bring us some degree of satisfaction and joy, not cloying toil.
It must involve practices that we enjoy doing. Many artists pay their dues with hard work to get to this place of letting go, and find that it excites them. It often relights the spark, connects them to something raw and tactile and wild. The new pieces become a different process, less about an academic study of objects but hands guided by an intuitive culmination of years of looking. The art becomes less “self conscious”. These are eyes that have seen lines, light, shadow, and have followed rules.
But now they want to find the spaces in between those structures, the impressions, the tones. Now they want to see further.
The canvas can be this vehicle of freedom, of reaching, of interacting with our materials, of playing with behaviors, including our own. We are driven to create, to reach. In these paintings, the reaching is palpable.
Let me know what you think- if you visit this exhibit, I would love to hear your impressions.