PRINT October 1992


Any respectable follower of microtrends will probably need but the gentlest nudge to recall the rapid rise and disappearance of the mid-’70s movement known as “abstract illusionism.” A bastard offspring of Color Field painting, this short-lived phenomenon was based on the dubious visual premise that instead of creating literal blobs and squiggles of color that just sit there on the canvas, an enterprising painter might liven things up a little by making blobs and squiggles that appear to float over tromp l’oeil shadows of themselves. An infuriatingly obvious conflation of gestural abstraction and the overtly illusionistic tricks abstraction customarily shuns, the whole notion amounted to little more than a technical cheap shot meant to capitalize on the art market’s short attention span. What was most offensive about the movement (and perhaps the reason it was banished so quickly) was the shameless way that it cloaked itself in current critical issues, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, until the inevitable (and rather immediate) backlash against it seemed to certify its rebel status, and thus its legitimacy.

This footnote suggests itself in relation to the paintings of Christopher Sasser if only because the ease with which he exploits the vagaries of pictorial style comes across as comparably perverse. An artist who deals in a composite language of styles rather than mining a single historical lineage, Sasser seems to cram as many techniques as he can into a single work. His painting is cool and calculated, tightly conceived and obsessively rendered; the only apparent purpose of the painterly flourishes seems to be to fool the sluggish viewer into momentarily believing that the artist is just out to have a sloppy good time with his materials.

A typical work by Sasser features a single (or repeated) anthropomorphic form. Generally rendered in pink, fleshlike tones or industrial gray, these voluptuous shapes tend to suggest organs in the human body, albeit cropped and not explicitly recognizable in their shiny new formats. Sasser adapts these primary forms in a variety of ways. In one painting from 1991, black pipelike extensions oozing from the apertures of twin “organs” form a coloristically soothing accord with the oval shape on dripped pinstripe that provides the painting’s background. Yet the clash of textures is almost too much for the eye to take in. Similarly, his plump pink forms are milked for maximum effect, twisted into shapes like so many truncated cartoon piggies. If all of this—not to mention the gray or brackish-green color of many of his figures from the same period, which suggests dead meat that has artificially been made to seem fresh—sounds a bit repellent, it is. But that’s the delayed reaction; initially the unchecked eye can’t get enough of all this surrogate, rubbery flesh.

This is where things really get twisted. Like miniaturized opera scenery, the painterly repertoire of the last quarter-century begins to emerge (disguised of course) from the painting’s skeleton and skin. For example, in one fairly small, untitled work from 1991, an ocher/brown extension à la Tàpies (but with cake dots that form a clumsy stitch-line along the perimeter) catches our attention because it seems so out of sync with the rest of the composition. Similar discontinuities occur in a number of paintings from 1990, where the artist employs several discrete technical signatures within each work. It is almost as if Sasser comes to a sudden halt two-thirds of the way through a piece, decides he is a completely different kind of painter than when he began the work, and then finishes it off in his new identity.

Such apparent spontaneity, of course, is the product of pure artifice, and it seems clear that Sasser is eager that we take a kind of theatrical pointlessness away with us from the experience of his work. Does this mean that there is also a critical underside to Sasser’s project—that it is laced with a message to anyone who would be duped by less highly mediated representations of reality? Probably not—the stubborn idiosyncrasies in Sasser’s style are more likely the prosaic by-products of a typically Midwestern semioutsider point of view. At times his lack of any connection to current discourse about abstraction actually works to his detriment: one of the larger paintings in his last New York exhibition includes a central form that could have been derived from a mid-’60s James Rosenquist car-hood, except that its top and bottom ridges are articulated with palette-knife swaths of color, recalling the more static passages in Jonathan Lasker’s paintings. Generally, however, Sasser comes across as a slightly schizophrenic country cousin to Carroll Dunham, one of the few gesturally based painters in the United States whose work truly radiates energy.

Though much of the vitality of Sasser’s art seems to be of the hothouse, navel-gazing variety, it is refreshing to see that an apparent loner can still do unexpected things with paint, creating a tension between sensuality and fear of touch that can serve as an all-purpose metaphor, both for our need to believe in art, and for the psychic weakness that such a need reveals.

Dan Cameron is a free-lance curator and writer who lives in New York.