Dan Sutherland, "Headlands"

Moody Gallery, Houston

John Devine

Though inspired primarily by landscape and still life, the paintings and drawings in Dan Sutherland’s latest exhibition, Headlands, at Moody Gallery, never resolve into anything quite so prosaic. In a manner reminiscent of Arshile Gorky, landscapes and still life motifs seem to provide the raw material that is then filtered through the artist’s imagination and reconstituted though intense mark-making, resulting in works that are both expansively conceived and densely constructed. Even the smallest drawings in this exhibition (most of the works are from this year) have a spacious feel, a sense of scale and depth belied by their size. Conversely, in a painting like Mortal Elemental, the largest work in the show at seven feet by nearly ten feet, Sutherland’s painterly patches and color fields suggest dimensional volumes while playing against such a spatial sense, pushing forward to maintain and engage the eye at the painting’s surface.

Sutherland, who has a BFA from James Madison University in Virginia and an MFA from Syracuse University in New York, has taught at the University of Texas at Austin since 1991 and is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Art and Art History. This affiliation has afforded Sutherland opportunities to travel, especially in Italy, where he found the landscapes that have inspired much of the present work. This is most evident in the drawing Hill Town with Foreground, perhaps the most straightforward work (and title) in the exhibition, and the work that offers a way into Sutherland’s imaginative reworkings. In the background of the drawing one can make out the tracings, though abstracted, of a hill town. Some of the adjacent drawings seem suggestive of other hill-town landscapes, or perhaps those towns perched cliff-side on the Amalfi and Ligurian coasts. Elements within the drawings take on an architectonic aspect. This is true even in the one drawing that may be the most abstract, Mop Head Synth. Its odd tubular shapes, like pipes or penne, climb in perpendicular levels up and into the drawing’s space, topping out in cyclonic graphite swirls that appear to push the composition forward again.

The dynamics are a bit different in the paintings. Of the fourteen in the show (one shy of half the works), most are on aluminum, though copper and wood also serve as supports. Only two are on canvas, and, in one of these, the canvas is mounted on wood. There are also three small works on paper comprised, in various combinations, of watercolor, gouache, colored pencil and ink. The non-absorptive metallic surfaces push the paint forward, resisting the sense of depth so characteristic of the graphite drawings. In a painting like Brueghel Shadecrop, whose source seems to be a still-life painting presumably by the eponymous artist, a sense of depth is created by a slash of small abstract color fields and shapes that appear to cross in front of what nearly resolves into a vase of flowers at right center in the composition.

Similarly, in Mortal Elemental, spatial depth is created by recessive brushwork in rectangular spaces, and diminishing irregular shapes piling up across the painting on a lower-left to upper-right slant. High at the center right of this monumental composition, one can make out a smallish area of pale green containing shapes suggesting buildings; suddenly this abstract work implies that the viewer is standing above a plain of tilled and untilled fields, stretching into the distance. However, such a reading is almost immediately countered by an amorphous expanse of burnt reddish-brown and orangey-red shapes and squares in the lower-center “foreground.” Step back far enough—and stare long enough—and that expanse begins to resolve into something resembling a skull, a memento mori, and the painting becomes, perhaps, Sutherland’s take on an ancient theme: Et in Arcadia ego.

In the statement that accompanied his 2006 show at Moody Gallery, Sutherland wrote that he “would like these works’ visual and conceptual features to slowly unfold, generating as much as possible their own terms of engagement.” That’s certainly been achieved in this most recent body of work. But note: “slowly unfold.” The terms of engagement require of the viewer as much time, thought and care as Sutherland has invested in these paintings and drawings. Such effort is richly rewarded.

John Devine is a freelance critic based in Houston.

This exhibition runs through May 29, 2010.

Dan Sutherland "Plastic Harvest "

Exhibition Essay, Moody Gallery,  Houston,  July 06

Daniel Dove

Earthly Delight

Viewing Dan Sutherland’s work simultaneously feels like a complete experience and an inconclusive one.  His paintings and drawings are executed with extreme precision and articulation, displaying an unusual degree of refinement.  And yet, what they depict remains elusive, such that all his subjects feel like elaborately, subjectively morphed versions of the real thing.  So in this sense, Sutherland is being precise about saying something mysterious, which is exactly his point.

There are many contradictions to sort through.  Misty atmospherics related to landscape painting envelop seemingly tiny objects in shallow spaces.  Sometimes the work strongly suggests traditional still life, particularly flower paintings, only to be complicated by elements of form, style, and material that disrupt the unity of traditional illusionism.  Nothing is symbolic in any straightforward way, but many things have associative potency, bringing the viewer into a world of lush, organic overgrowth.  It’s as if Sutherland creates subtly new species of flora and accords them behaviors equivalent, but not identical, to the familiar beings of our everyday world.  To give these new species a place to grow, he invents strange hybrid spaces, equally built out of sensory experience and the stylizations from painting’s history.   And sometimes, it seems the reverse: the organisms in his work appear to be outgrowths of the intricate planar structures.  The spaces could be vast otherworldly vistas or mutant tabletops: as with other traits, scale is a fluid characteristic.

So what could a viewer make of this joining of rigor of execution with ambiguity of description?  There’s something of the spirit of Hieronymus Bosch in these works, starting with the degree of visual articulation.  More particularly, it’s the way that Bosch’s symbolism and narratives are somewhat opaque to many of us today, but nevertheless we still find them compelling to experience(1).  We sense that something important is happening, and that a network of causal relations (some physical, some narrative, some optical) binds together all the parts into a coherent if elusive whole.  Sutherland’s work has a similar way of making you feel like you’re all-seeing but not omniscient.   His work, in some respects, walks and talks like a duck while not being one, even though every feather-like object is exquisitely rendered.  His birdling has no counterpart in the actual world, only becoming real as an experience of a work of art.

Daniel Dove

June 2006

1. Jerry Saltz, Painting a la Mode,, 12/04/02