Santa Fe

Paul Sarkisian

The new, shaped paintings that crowded veteran New Mexico–based artist Paul Sarkisian’s ten-year retrospective not only smack vaguely of anime, they look like the kind of thing that Bridget Riley might produce were she to embark on a second career in packaging design: wavy-edged fields of emerald and magenta applied to panels that seem inspired as much by Karim Rashid as Frank Stella. But the show, curated by Louis Grachos, director of Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery, also amounted to a cautionary tale about the dangers of dividing a solo survey unequally between styles (of the twenty-eight paintings included, only Untitled [El Paso], 1971–72, is figurative) and periods (seventeen of them were made in the past year and a half).

While Sarkisian’s most interesting paintings pay homage to the flat colors and hard lines of popular graphic design, they would arguably look just as good juxtaposed with work by those New Mexico peers of his who are identified with transcendentalism and illusionism—John McCracken, Florence Pierce, Frederick Hammersley, and the late Jorge Fick. Thus the larger question raised by the show is not that of its subject’s accomplishment but rather that of how postwar New Mexican artists as a group have confronted a classic modernist trouble spot: the problem of abstraction’s proximity to “the decorative.” Unfortunately this only made the inclusion of that solitary representational work feel all the more peculiar.

A life-size Photorealist black-and-white image of a shoe-repair shop window with an askew screen door, Untitled (El Paso) seems at first familiar to the point of genericism. Notable, however, is Sarkisian’s emphasis on the advertisements for oil and soda that Pop artists (James Rosenquist in particular) fragmented and reworked to emphasize the products’ sexy style. Also visible in the facade are a glamorous shoe ad and a fringed leather jacket, both flaunting similar associations with desire—albeit framed and commercialized. The painting has reportedly been confined to Sarkisian’s studio since its completion, but not only are the implications of this extended period of public invisibility never addressed here, our new knowledge of it makes the scarcity of work from the intervening period a still-more-glaring omission.

After his initial identification with Photorealism, Sarkisian shifted his interests during the ’70s toward Finish Fetish. Representing this move at SITE Santa Fe was a series of flat, mainly square, fiberglass or wood panels sprayed and swabbed with opaque polyurethane and resin finishes. Irregular shapes in Tonka-truck red and surfboard yellow, they look like the distorted pieces of an oversize jigsaw puzzle and boast magnetized backs and smooth front surfaces. Unfortunately, while such seamlessness announces extraordinarily skilled fabrication, it also preserves associations with craft and commerce that are perhaps no longer desirable. More unequivocally successful are Untitled (blackmark/amber/vertical3) and Untitled (whitemark/black/vertical3) (both 1994). Twelve-foot-square sheets of wood coated with resin epoxy, they offset a third, more experimental painting, Untitled (centerstripe3), 1993, with the tension of a low ceiling meeting a striated jungle floor. The imagery in all three, while highly abstracted, is striking nonetheless: Imagine a deluge of frog embryos frozen behind a surface with the puckered look of old custard.

Despite some fascinating work, this show ultimately failed to do the job of a real retrospective. The product of overly reductive curatorship, its refusal to admit those parts of a career habitually considered to be inessential made for a tightly controlled but ultimately frustrating experience.

Ellen Berkovitch