PRINT February 2007


RARELY COMFORTABLE IN HIS OWN SKIN, Andy Warhol wrote in 1975 that, unlike stars who “turn on” and look “poised and confident” when being filmed, he felt most at ease in slumber—alone, under the covers, and in the dark, on the way to relinquishing consciousness. “Where do I turn on? I turn on when I turn off and go to bed,” he wrote, making a syntactic slip that succinctly describes the animating impulse of his 1963 film Sleep. Nearly six hours of John Giorno snoozing, its only action a twitching knee or a rising abdomen, the movie is a protracted proposition that even an activity as unthinking as sleeping has a performative dimension, indeed a glamorous one—Giorno recalls Warhol asking him before filming, “Would you like to be a movie star?”

Berlin-based American artist Matt Saunders extends the same proposition in his series of paintings “Slept,” 2003, which take Warhol’s film as their lead. Executed in oil on large sheets of Mylar, these up-close individual portraits of sleeping actors are gorgeously lambent. The reflective support imparts a baroque sheen to the surface, but Saunders paints on both sides; faces coruscate even as they appear trapped under glass, and the effect renders these decidedly obscure figures—the leading men and ladies of films by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Christoph Schlingensief—mesmeric even while dazed or dozing. In one painting, Slept (Margit), 2003, his subject, Margit Carstensen, has skin the color of bruised strawberries. Set off by an aqueous backdrop of pillow and wall, her roseate glow makes her look almost radioactive or, to use a phrase of artist Jack Smith’s that Saunders is fond of quoting, “all incandescently amok.”

In “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964) Susan Sontag also speaks of the incandescent, writing that camp favors “instant character,” where “character is understood as a state of continual incandescence—a person being one, very intense thing.” To translate a fleeting moment into a statement of self might be considered a summa for the genre of portraiture, but other elements of Saunders’s practice suggest his camp affinities. There is his preference for the mannerist—Heidemarie Wenzel’s spiky mane of acid orange, Winfried Glatzeder’s wisp-thin neck, Hanna Schygulla’s makeup, overdone to the point of congealment—and for the epicene: Most of the men in “Slept” could pass for women, and vice versa. In addition, Saunders is drawn to the out-of-date: démodé interiors, expired publicity stills, and stars whose moments have passed, if they had a moment to begin with. (His inclination might partially explain his residing in Berlin, which he has praised for its “broke-down ethos” and “layers of historical ruin.”) This disposition is crystallized in the pairings in Saunders’s suite of so-called silver paintings, 2005–, in which, for example, Jean-Paul Belmondo is figured in one work as the handsome young man of cinematic memory and, in another, as a sunken-eyed apparition in later life. A 2004 series, “Co-Stars,” is out of time to the point of nonviability: Actresses of different vintages are arrayed at a table bedecked with ripe blooms and ornate candelabra, attendees at an imaginary supper based on a scene in Fassbinder’s Martha (1974).

But Saunders’s camp is not campy, which is to say that his choice of subject matter is not precious or parodic, coded or fetishistic; for him, the mode functions less as an attitude than as a method. Camp’s attraction to the “process of aging or deterioration,” Sontag wrote, cuts two ways: It “provides the necessary detachment—or arouses a necessary sympathy.” Saunders takes the latter route. The temporal removes that shape his practice are reinforced by material ones: It’s not unusual for one of his images to begin life as a Polaroid taken of an old movie playing on his television set, and then be transposed as a painting, a series of drawings, or matter for video or film. What’s remarkable is that this process seems to make Saunders’s subjects more familiar, not less, so that what he calls “the emotional pitch of the work” comes through as fellow feeling rather than detachment. His 16-mm film Double Matti, 2006, is exemplary in this regard. It is a dual-screen animation, shot from more than a thousand ink-on-Mylar drawings Saunders made of Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää in a few moments of Aki Kaurismäki’s 1988 film Ariel. Pellonpää’s career was one of chronological disjunction: He was just beginning to have big-screen success when he died in 1995, and Kaurismäki included photographs of him in a few films made after his death, even crediting him on the cast list. Saunders’s film is also temporally unresolved, as the animation on the left, more abstract and showing the actor sleeping, moves ever more slowly than that on the right, in which Pellonpää is awake and more in focus. Yet Saunders coaxes another second life out of the actor: One feels him to be a knowable entity even as—and perhaps because—his features slide in and out of legibility. The artist is drawn, here and elsewhere, to those filmic instants in which actors betray the self behind the character, which may account for the appeal of Fassbinder and Warhol, as well as for the frequency of sleeping subjects. In representing these hiccups, and emphasizing such slippage materially, Saunders succeeds in conveying something of the personality of those who are, by vocation, impersonators.

To locate Saunders’s output under the now-tired rubric of “celebrity culture” is thus misguided. His Volker Spengler, Charlotte Rampling, and Helmut Berger may be distant cousins to Elizabeth Peyton’s fifteen-minute icons and Karen Kilimnik’s postgoth adolescent gamines, and he admires the intentional artificiality of portraits by Kurt Kauper, who taught at Yale during Saunders’s MFA studies there, but Saunders’s fixations are personal, not mass-cultural, and his own fandom figures as a third component in the portrait’s transactions between subject and viewer. Moreover, his working methods, if not his themes, are surprisingly reminiscent of some Conceptual art strategies. For Double Matti he set himself per diem requirements for executing drawings; for Udo (20 Takes), 2004, he redrew a scene in an early Udo Kier film more than six hundred times and then scanned twenty of the drawings to create a video piece in which they appear in random order. Many of his videos are text-only and register a Conceptualist bent for listing and categorizing: One features the name of each character played by the actors in his paintings, while another, regularly updated work includes the cast lists of all the films in which Kier has appeared. Saunders is an undeniably virtuosic draftsman, but he takes pains to challenge, via a purposeful de-skilling, his own abilities. One series of drawings on Mylar, all of antlers, was undertaken to “dissociate the way the ink behaved from a certain, practiced way of drawing,” as an investigation of unlearning what he knew about the behavior of paint on his usual support.

Saunders’s immediate predecessors are, of course, the Pictures-generation artists, and like many of his contemporaries he has internalized their use of photo-based, preexisting imagery in the service of a practice unbound by medium or temporality. But he refuses the abjuration of self typical of that art, and closes up the distantiation on which it turned. In his 1979 “Pictures” essay, Douglas Crimp wrote that work by artists such as Cindy Sherman and Jack Goldstein “does not seek the transcendence of the material condition of the signs through which meaning is generated”; Saunders, by contrast, reveals—if not exactly transcendence—presence and beauty in the material residue of his own processes. The figures in the “silver paintings” are painted in reverse on the back of a sheet of Mylar; Saunders then applies silver paint to the other side where the portrait is visible, and finally coats the painted parts of the verso with white paint. Six works from this series, depicting German actress Hertha Thiele, were shown last year at Galerie Almine Rech in Paris. She appears fragmentary and spectral, and, depending on the viewing angle, occasionally imperceptible through the ectoplasmic puddles and streaks of silver paint; but she is also resolutely there, embedded in the layers of Saunders’s mediation. The pearlescent silver screen functions as a sort of test à la Warhol. It could have veiled the image and prevented the subject from being seen or known, yet Thiele is visible and fails the experiment—as Pellonpää, by exposing the self behind the actor in Double Matti, failed his screen test. It is in the depiction of such founderings that Saunders’s art paradoxically finds its force.

Lisa Turvey is a New York–based art historian.