Sebastian Black


Sebastian Black: Period Pieces (installation view, 2011): Images courtesy the artist and Tomorrow Gallery, Toronto.Sebastian Black: Period Pieces (installation view, 2011): Images courtesy the artist and Tomorrow Gallery, Toronto.

By Romas Astrauskas

Sebastian Black
Tomorrow Gallery
August 19  September 17, 2011

Period Pieces, the exhibition of recent work by New York-based Sebastian Black, presents itself as a curiously compelling display of restraint and willful reserve. It’s a show of paintings that magically manage to slip themselves out of their own constraints of self-imposed banality to produce something far more playful and lyrical than the original conceptual framework could ever promise.

Sebastian Black: from the series Period Pieces (2011)Sebastian Black: from the series Period Pieces (2011)For this particular body of work, the artist exploits the pre-determined “imagery” of vinyl letterset sheets, exploring and toying with the formatting and arrangements of these signs and symbols, as well as recreating faithfully the physical properties of the original model. Being familiar with the artist’s previous output of “puppy” paintings  best described as paintings of droopy dog faces done in a gestural Matisse meets Braque style  it was surprising to come across the new work that appeared so sterile and reserved in comparison. What would attract an artist to such an unassuming and unlikely “muse”? Having had a chance to speak to the artist, I learned that the initial impulse stemmed from his desire to work with and around a ready-made object or image, yet have it be a ready-made that did not supply a concrete pre-determined image, but would leave room for compositional decisions. His solution was the vinyl letterset sheet that provides him with a pre-made system (the a priori forms of Helvetica-style letters and punctuation marks) that could then be freely and individually manipulated in an effort to create new pictorial relationships.

The result is a suite of ten impressively focused and unrelentingly disciplined paintings, the thoughtful and sensitive installation providing a perfect environment of quiet contemplation. Their sparseness and twee compositional strategies were hopelessly uplifting and managed through their simple arrangements to reference many art-historical precedents, including the paintings of Robert Ryman and Kasmir Malevich, Raushenberg’s “white” paintings, Bauhaus graphics and the less-is-more sensibility one finds in the work of Richard Tuttle. All the work is meticulously hand painted in up to six or seven layers using standard artisinal sign-painters enamel to physically build up the letters and punctuation marks, giving them a realistic three-dimensional appearance as the “figures” protrude from their grounds, thus providing them with a trompe l’oeil effect. The artist also cut into areas of the paintings with a fine blade to mimic the incisions seen in vinyl sheets, the result of the mechanical scoring process. On close inspection, the display of technical prowess is astounding and affirming. In many ways, this is what elevates the project from something that, at first glance, may have been dismissed as a superficial conceptual exercise and transforms it into a convincing meditation on the persistent power and ability of simple objects to engage and entertain both mind and eye. Here, the unassuming nature of the subject is contrasted by the intensity of their execution. It is within this complimentary relationship that their true power and potency exists.

Romas AstrauskasRomas Astrauskas is a Toronto-based artist and writer. His paintings, sculptures and collages have been exhibited widely throughout the city, including shows at Greener Pastures, Clark & Faria, Clint Roenisch, LE Gallery and Ruins. His most recent work, Fate is a Fool, is the subject of one of this issue’s artist portfolios.