[This review of Derek Sullivan's We May Be Standing on the Shoulder of Giants But Some of us are Looking at the Stars, curated by Joan Stebbins for the Southern Alberta Art Gallery, first appeared in Border Crossings magazine, May 2008, 107-108]
It is sad that the decorative arts are no longer part of the curricula of our architecture and art schools. Contemporary architecture rarely features inventive pattern and decoration on its surfaces. The most visible decorative art in our cities is graffiti, a form I support, but one that is seen neither by its creators or enemies as a decorative medium: in any case, for most city-dwellers the look of graffiti is the look of dereliction.
Nobody these days is against the use of pattern, decoration and intense colour in our built environment; it's just that the historical demand for decorativeness has faded. There was a pattern and decoration movement in the 1970s that is being revived now in retrospectives, but that is not enough. We are ignoring a world of possibilities in art and architecture, and I look to artists such as Derek Sullivan for comfort and a little inspiration.
This exhibition's title is ungrammatical. Should it not read, as in Newton's original quotation: "the shoulders of giants" and not "shoulder"? Is this tiny omission a psychoanalytic clue to the ambiguous nature of Sullivan's program? If we take "decorativeness" and "deconstruction" as the shoulders upon which this artist works, Sullivan's slip elides the former and emphasizes the latter.
The show's didactic texts say that Sullivan is investigating the aesthetics of the public poster in his large handmade drawings, and I take that to mean that he wants to make a decorative contribution to civic life by example, through the reproduction of his designs in public places, and/or through the display of his handmade work in public. It would be good if posters of Sullivan's drawings, which put the artist's off-kilter decorative sensibility on display, were to cover our blank city walls, but it is clear that Sullivan puts his claims as a deconstructionist, meaning an artist who does cultural analysis and criticism in his art, above that of his desire to be an exterior decorator.
The show consists of nine large mixed media drawings, mostly rendered in pale Sol LeWitt-like coloured pencil hues, (referred to as "posters" in the gallery's brochures); five black and white sideways hung head-shot posters of perhaps the aged golfer Jack Nicholson (the inclusion of which I can't figure out); and, finally several strewn pieces of cut decorative fabrics of a retro design, some of which spell words.
If these things denote Derek Sullivan's interrogation of the mass media poster, I approve. He once showed a version of Brancusi as a 3-D billboard with posters rustling up the sides as a way of showing that he wants bring the his gallery art into the street.
In one of the new works in this show, over a set of Daniel Buren-like stripes (like much else in this exhibition they look as if they might have been rendered by Richard Tuttle and Sol Le Witt), Sullivan places the red block letters "Thank you for ensuring that everything is put in its place." Another text on a drawing reads "Taken and Changed," but with the word "changed" rendered upside down and backwards in decorative lettering.
In the 1960s Daniel Buren's stripes - always the same width -- took aim at the arbitrariness of the striped patterns of contemporaneous hard edge abstract painting by demonstrating that when high art abstraction is taken to the street in the form of posters, flags, and decorative patterning its signification as art is diminished even as it establishes itself as a (Buren the artist's) recognizable style.
I like the reference this work makes to the handmade pre-computer poster and the debased history of modernist graphics. Sullivan follows a centuries-old tradition of creating a personal "patte" or graphic style in works that show him as both a sophisticated adbuster of the Daniel Buren tradition and a quiet crusader for decorative art.
But perhaps radical decoration is something that can't muster many fellow crusaders these days.
Smartly, Sullivan appropriates no advertising texts or images in this show. His Buren in-joke will be understood by the rarified few with a specialized knowledge of postwar conceptualism. Of course, Sullivan deliberately distorts Buren's program, but Sullivan's rhetoric makes a plausible case for it.
Can Buren or Sullivan make their "deconstructive" claims survive outside the tiny world of art? And can Sullivan's deconstructions result in significant deconstructive art, given that Daniel Buren himself is still making Burens?
To argue on what I presume would be Sullivan's behalf, any overt references to actual advertisements would have taken this work into the tricky realm of pop art, where every attempt at a critique of mass advertising in doomed to fail with a smirk. Sullivan is smart not to become a pop artist. I'd count him even smarter if he were more verbally explicit about championing his art as a paradigm of urban decoration.