A review of
Around the World Alone by Sean Landers
Friedrich Petzel Gallery
And since the mid 90s Landers has been trying his hand at representational painting to varying effect. For Around The World Alone, he returns to clowns in boats as his muse, a decision that feels more irreverent than sincere, an attitude that often propels his output. When asked in an interview in 2009, "Do you think that there is a pure place in art?" Landers replied, "I don’t know why but when I read this question I just thought of my perineum — I thought it might be nice to start these questions off with a little free association. Looking for truth or purity in oneself through making art is like peeling an infinite onion. Each layer alternates between irony and sincerity. I feel more comfortable being ironic and the audience seems to dig my sincerity. So I give them what they want — I tell them about my perineum."
Around The World Alone doesn't feel like Landers is telling us about his perineum, it feels like the perineum itself - the area in between the anus and the scrotum. But of course, Landers is full of contradictions. For the audience, this work is a pie to the face but apparently for Landers it's a sentimental homage to himself. According to the press-release: 'Landers’s clown character, then and now, is a poignant symbol of his stream of consciousness. It represents Landers’s interior life and, in his words, “broke the mold of people’s perception of me as the ‘text painting guy,’ helped me define myself as an image maker and emancipated my future as an artist.' The metaphor of artist as a solo sailor, one who risks everything to achieve a life’s work, is a central and recurring symbol throughout Landers’s work.
And there you have one interpretation of the work but mostly Landers has presented us with several large paintings of cliches: artist as isolated martyr, artist as clown, and ocean as unforgiving existence. And we can assume Landers is on the joke - clowns currently live in a kitsch wasteland along with retro-aliens, pirates, ape-men, and big foot (several of which make appearances in Landers's previous work.) Scale is the only thing keeping these paintings from looking like they weren't found in a thrift-store, the home to most clown paintings and for good reason. Clowns are culturally irrelevant because clowning has become a behavioral norm, you know, everybody's making pretty good jokes. Reality shows are the new sitcoms. The subway is full of guys dressed like the Statue of Liberty rapping Wiz Khalifa songs. Landers, perhaps addressing this, gives us an opportunity to do some clowning ourselves. In the back room stands an actual helm placed about 6 feet in front of a large painting of the sea. I watched as several viewers participated, getting their photo taken, hamming it up. The whole thing looking like those plywood cut-outs that you find in carnivals, painted to look like a scene, with a hole to put your face in. Now the roles are reversed as the viewer, not the artist, is the clown, suggesting maybe we are the real fools here, projecting our ideas and emotions, trying to make sense out of the nebulous ocean that is art. This piece is titled Epilogue 1, indicating that this is Landers final comment on Around The World Alone. All we are is
Landers is first and foremost a prolific maker. This is his 50th solo exhibition. Effort might be his true artistic achievement. When he relies on a singular, pictorial image, things fall apart. Around The World Alone feels like Landers plucked a line from one of his text pieces to use as the impetus to make the work. But it's one thing to write "I feel like a sad clown steering a ship through rough water" on a canvas filled with similar confessions but it's a completely different thing to make a body of paintings illustrating that concept. It doesn't feel confessional or improvisational, Landers's strong suits - it feels belabored and trite.
Landers's work I'm Not Cool and I Know It, (2005) a text painting from a previous body of work, gives insight into Landers's strategy. In order to know you're not cool, means you also have to know what is cool, so you can steer your clown-ship away from it. Landers said in an interview November, 2010:
"In the history of painting after World War II it became a checkmate situation in the Duchamp mode. You have Ad Reinhardt painting them all black; you have Ryman painting them all white, which I think of as cynical solutions to making painting intelligent. In a way they got to the top of that mountain to claim it dead. Then there are pathetic, efforts to revive it with photorealism, maybe New Expressionism in the 80s. Then in the 90s it was left off again until the end of the 90s when painting got more popular, primarily with people in my generation, many of them my close friends. People just truly believe painting is a completely viable art form and will self-consciously go about the practice of it and not feel the need to apologize for wanting to draw a cute animal in a landscape. Maybe you do the first one ironically, but everyone knows that irony is just an introduction to sincerity the more times you repeat it. I certainly went in that way, but then realized it fits in, it feels good." He says, "My affinities really lie with painting made before World War II, such as Picasso and some periods of Magritte, artists to which Duchamp was directly opposed to. I realized that a lot of my work has been in the wake of Duchamp up until now, and I have just realized I have a whole other equally vast, if not vaster, affinity with this Picasso way."
Around The World Alone is Landers best approximation of what is uncool. He champions Picasso as arts purveyor of what Landers calls "the pure artistic impulse" (uncool), and decided to move away from Duchamp's macho, chess game, whats-the-next-move scenario (cool). But not fully, later in the same interview he says, "You’d go through galleries and there’d just be one installation show after another. It was begging for someone to make a figurative sculpture out of clay, which I was doing, or make a figurative painting out of oils and my friend John Currin would be doing just that."
As much as Landers pretends to want to make earnest paintings that get back to "the pure artistic impulse" exemplified in the works of his contemporaries such as Dana Schutz and George Condo, his irony hasn't yet gone through the alchemical process that leads to sincerity. In order for that process to work he would have to want it to. His work is about thinking about his relationship to art. He's juggling Duchamp and Picasso in a self-conscious no man's land, wrenching cliches into something authentic, maintaining his perception of himself as an anti-hero. Interesting that Landers knocks Reinhardt and Ryman for having "cynical solutions to make painting intelligent" when essentially what Landers is doing, is coming up with cynical solutions to make painting dumb. It's exactly this struggle, between irony and sincerity, smart and dumb, that keeps his work moving along and like any clown worth his spots, Landers seems to thrive when the clown car gets full. He's a trickster of sorts, admitting something to draw you in, to disarm you, to make you sympathetic, while concealing his ulterior motives. I wouldn't characterize Landers as sincere, a label often attributed to him. Being sincere is different from being an open book. The former is genuine, the latter is easily understood.
In the end, in a way Landers is right about what we want from him, a documentation of his struggle, not the struggle itself. Less perineum, more talk about his perineum.