May 2010, Raymond Saunders @ Stephen Wirtz Gallery

Raymond Saunders, Untitled, 2009-10
Mixed media on wood, 54 1/2 x 48 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery


Raymond Saunders: Beauty As Empathy

Stephen Wirtz Gallery
49 Geary Street, 3rd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94108

Raymond Saunders’ new paintings at Stephen Wirtz Gallery come across as an elegantly orchestrated visual symphony of conflated materials, images, and objects. The works can be regarded as reflecting Saunders’ personal subjectivity, the social histories that inform it, and his lived inter-relationships with the world he inhabits.

Condensed here are what might be considered visual allegories that articulate highly developed, historically informed formal strategies, which Saunders uses to create aesthetically challenging — and pleasing — mixed media constructions.

The complexity and sophistication of Saunders’ work are rendered through his synthesizing a range of materials gathered form diverse sources with pictorial strategies that evidence the artist’s technical prowess. In the work, the appropriation of found objects and images from different sources, places, and cultures functions visually to comment on the way in which ideas and objects are re-contextualized, transformed, and given new meaning through alternate uses in the present.

One wonders to what extent the works, with symbols and images from a range of contextual and cultural displacements, allude to broader cultural and social issues, and how they may be interpreted as directly related to Saunders’ cultural history as an African-American artist — such as histories of slavery, migration, and exile, and the movement of people from their homelands into new regions, which was integral to histories of colonization.  

These possible references are significant, because colonization served as the catalyst for European global dispersion, settlement, and the development of economies based on slavery and indentured labor, as well as the migration of large populations, such as Indian and Chinese laborers. This history seems relevant to the current body of work, in as much as Saunders utilizes characters from the Chinese language, and images and objects from various cultural sources, and conceivably, reflects on Saunders’ identification with other peoples who have a shared legacy of displacement, however different.  

That European colonization disseminated high Renaissance aesthetic ideas through cultural dominance and transplanted cultural values seems equally relevant, not only because it created contact sites of intercultural exposure, exchange, influence, and transformation, but because it additionally changed modes of social organization associated with “modernity” and, by extension, created hierarchies associated with artistic “modernism.”

In fact, European exploration and colonization were integrally connected to a long interrelationship of art, science, the compartmentalization of knowledge, the development of industrial capitalism, and national and international divisions of labor, which led to the changing status of artists in society as free intellectual workers, the development of art academies, growing distinctions between "fine" and "applied" art, and demarcations between “art” and ethnographic objects.  

This is significant here because this history seems to be referenced and is evidenced in Saunders’ work, which engages and achieves its aesthetic significance by partaking, transgressing, and blurring such historical delineations and aesthetic hierarchies.

Raymond Saunders, Beauty As Empathy", 2009
Mixed media on canvas, 60 x 36 inches
Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Wirtz Gallery

In fact, it is important to keep in mind that much of the shock value associated with certain “modern” art was connected to an attack on what was considered dominant bourgeois ideologies, identified with judgments of “quality” often related to divisions between forms of material cultural and aesthetic taxonomies.

As an academically trained artist and college professor, Saunders is no doubt familiar with a history of artists using baser images, materials, and elements of folk culture as tactics for revolutionizing artistic form to confront and undermine academic values and institutionally sanctioned "high art" practices, through the incorporation of such elements from "low art."

More significant perhaps, in regards to Saunders, is that modernism in the arts was integrally informed and connected to colonial and imperial encounters with the cultures of Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Americas, and the South Pacific, whose cultural objects were collected and appropriated by artists like Picasso and others to disrupt conventions of pictorial illusionism and sculptural naturalism.

Saunders’ new works — mixed media constructions on canvas, wood panels, doors, and a blackboard — are formed by the juxtaposition, integration, and blurring of a variety of materials and historically derived cultural practices blened to form visual metaphors that grant equality between various forms of material culture, while alluding to a range of historical cultural encounters, appropriations, and art historical discourses.

In a number of the works, painting, collage, and assemblage strategies that combine found ephemera, artificial painted flowers, newsprint advertisements, still-life silhouettes, and painted vessels, function and allude to a range of art historical references to the Baroque, and realist illusionism, as well as Saunders’ indulging in the aftermath of modernist and post-modernist disruptions of the sanctity of "authentic" or "genuine culture," and through his integration and equalization of inherited art historical vocabularies.

Saunders congeals a number of elements in the works to reference still life painting, abstract expressionism, geometric abstraction, Mexican folk art, and Chinese calligraphy. He infuses painterly strategies and iconic forms from mass culture in an art context as a means of commenting on a historical predicament in which art and material culture in contemporary societies are characterized and leveled through the production, circulation, and distribution of commodities, and in the process of articulating his aesthetic strategies, comments on a history of globalization as it impacts and relates to his personal experiences.

Anthony Torres

Anthony Torres is an independent scholar, art writer, and art appraiser. He has curated and traveled numerous exhibitions, and published extensively in Artweek, New Art Examiner, Art Papers and others. Additionally he researched and wrote the “Illustrated Chronology” and essay “Negotiating Space: The Sketch Books,” for the book, Frank Lobdell: The Art of Making and Meaning (2003).   

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