Sean Sullivan’s paintings, sculptures and installations don’t resemble artworks so much as artifacts. They are excavated not so much from specific time periods as from memory and the collective unconscious. American myths and popular culture have been his theme; but now, in his latest show, “In Our Recreation,” which just opened at Sawkille Co., a gallery and showroom of handmade furniture located in Rhinebeck, he has embarked into new terrain. The streets, storefronts and hotels in his graphic-looking paintings are foreign, evocative of some Latin country.
The abstract color series titled Vacation smolders with the hot reds and oranges and cool greens and tropical blues of the South; indeed, the two large pieces, Yo Trabajo sin Reposos (I work to rest) and Yo Reposo sin Trabajo (I rest to work), each of which spells out the words in large spidery letters amid the wash of deep color, refer to a track on Buena Vista Social Club. “I’ve never been to Cuba, but I can imagine the scenery and the monuments and the vegetation,” Sullivan said, noting that music was a major inspiration for the new work.
Sullivan’s walls, windows, boxes and machine-like forms, in their linear precision, could have been conjured at some Bauhaus studio, while the patina of accidental marks – like the scratches on a record, and details such as clapboards, a striped awning, a comb, suitcase handle and crucifix – convey warmth, suggesting the folk tradition of worn things passed down over time. Although the black-and-white paintings look graphic, the medium is actually oil stick, which he makes at his day job at R&F Handmade Paints in Kingston and uses as a printing material, smearing it over newsprint and then transferring the image onto another sheet by tracing out a design on the back using a Bic pen and ruler. Curves are made by tracing the edge of a record or coffee can. The most mundane subject matter – including matches, an icebox, an open suitcase framing a folded shirt and comb, and his mother’s kitchen sink on Long Island, which got destroyed by Sandy – is translated into this language of straight lines, which makes the objects or scenes seem strangely disembodied.
In one sense, the images are flat designs on a page, like a blueprint, diagram or sign: cryptic, objective systems of communication that suggest much more than is seen. But they also can be read as narrative representations. The tilted lines of their isometric perspective, reminiscent of traditional Japanese prints, suggests receding rooms and alleyways; space is also indicated in the patterns of shadows and reflections.
Within the severe strictures of his medium, Sullivan wrings out subtleties of tones and a delicacy of touch reminiscent of Giorgio Morandi’s etchings. His masterful, off-kilter compositions have the cadence of a salsa tune. They speak of absence, suspense and stopped time, of anticipation and reminiscence, of the emotions that pervade an empty street baking in the sun in some foreign country. As always, Sullivan taps into spirit worlds. By eschewing painterly brushmarks and depicting the generic, he makes himself as anonymous as a folk painter. Indeed, the theme of “recreation” talks “about family and earning a living,” he said. “It’s also about rejuvenation”: themes to which any working stiff can relate.
That sensibility of folk art and Modernism is echoed in the “farmhouse modern” style of the stools, tables, chairs and sculpture also displayed in the showroom, which, with its scrubbed wooden floor, beamed ceiling and plain white walls, strikes one as a three-dimensional extension of the drawings. Crafted by Jonah Meyer in a manufacturing loft in Kingston, the furniture pieces, which utilize Northeastern hardwoods, draw from the Shakers, Modernist masters like Eames and the mid-century designs of the Scandinavians: “the best of the best,” as Meyer put it.
Meyer, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design before settling down in the Catskills, sells his pieces primarily in New York City and San Francisco and was recently featured in Martha Stewart Living. Sullivan’s art and Meyer’s furniture are perfect complements to each other, so head over to Rhinebeck for this exhibition of soulful art and exquisite craft.