Paul Sietsema, Calendar Boat 1, 2012, ink on paper, 64 1/8 x 50 3/8".

Paul Sietsema, Calendar Boat 1, 2012, ink on paper, 64 1/8 x 50 3/8".

Paul Sietsema

Paul Sietsema, Calendar Boat 1, 2012, ink on paper, 64 1/8 x 50 3/8".

In “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” author David
Foster Wallace narrates an excruciating, ill-fated voyage: a seven-night Caribbean cruise funded by his editors at Harper’s magazine. Over the course of this dense forty-nine-page essay, Wallace learns to differentiate between “rolling” and “pitching” at sea as he is overfed, tortured by incessant disco drumming, and generally exasperated. Many thousands of words too long for a glossy magazine article, excessively detailed, and structured in free-floating non sequiturs, this amazing text itself seems lost at sea: a novella-length allegory for the waves of words rocking about in Wallace’s mind.

Paul Sietsema’s recent London exhibition, too, seemed to be located symbolically at sea. Four drawings, each titled Calendar Boat (all works 2012), depict a found vintage photograph of a cruising sailboat. Sietsema painstakingly re-created the original using a labor-intensive mechanical picture-rebuilding process usually reserved for restoration. Each unique drawing, identical to the others down to the details of its creases and imperfections, varies only by virtue of a differing year printed on each sail (spanning 2010 through 2013)—as if the copied boat floats not just in the water, but across time. Blue Square 1 is an ink drawing minutely representing every flaw, tear, and discoloration on the surface of a found square sheet of paper. Colored an ocean-map blue, the square becomes a kind of monochromatic trompe l’oeil, fastidiously mimicking a rippled surface. Several paintings depict ordinary tools—a paintbrush, a hammer, a chisel, nails—smothered in enamel paint, as if drowned on the canvas. Telegraph is a 16-mm film consisting of a sequence of stills looped to play uninterruptedly. Each frame shows strips of weathered wood arranged and rearranged against an inky black background to form a crude typography, eventually spelling out l/e/t/t/e/r t/o a y/o/u/n/g p/a/i/n/t/e/r. Made up of debris from Hurricane Katrina, the disjointed letters are almost indecipherable, yet they seem to transmit their mysterious message with some urgency in the dark gallery. Like a note in a bottle, Sietsema’s coded words may never reach their intended audience of struggling would-be painters but flash their warning nonetheless, like a beacon.

Sophisticated, quiet, and richly satisfying in its attention to detail, Sietsema’s exhibition seemed an allegory of the slippage between the tangible materiality of paint and the elusiveness of artmaking and its history. There were echoes of Bas Jan Ader’s lonely voyage in 1975 in his tiny sailboat and Lawrence Weiner’s 1968 sculpture-as-language reading one pint gloss white lacquer poured directly upon the floor and allowed to dry. And as the darkened gallery soaked up the projected light of Telegraph’s driftwood lettering, one might have reflected on the tendency of language itself to behave like liquid: spilling, seeping, drifting, or pooling—as the poet Kenneth Goldsmith has described digital language—on a screen. In Sietsema’s ongoing “Figure/Ground” series, begun in 2005, thickly painted objects are left to dry on newsprint, a material able to both “absorb” the stories and images that generate history each day and literally mop up a household spill. Here, Sietsema manipulates his materials’ overlapping conceptual, linguistic, and physical qualities with consummate skill.

In Wallace’s essay, he suddenly digresses, complaining of his frustration with students who grow bored when he teaches Stephen Crane’s story “The Open Boat”: I want them to feel the same marrow-level dread of the oceanic I’ve always felt, the intuition of the sea as primordial nada, bottomless.” Sietsema’s “letter to a painter” may similarly hope to caution young artists of the treacherous depths of contemporary art, with its bottomless deposits of history, language, and technique. In this assured exhibition, Sietsema proved himself a veteran artist, able to navigate the high seas of contemporary artmaking, ­­­­deeply reflective as he charts his own course.

Gilda Williams