Ryan Sullivan @ Sadie Coles HQ, Davies St. London, April 26 – June 04, 2016.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In the late 1990s, in the painting department of the art college I was studying at in Dublin, there was a small group of painters for whom a kind of process painting was the most logical way forward. It was a time when we were being urged from some corners to abandon painting altogether, at least temporarily, and to ‘interrogate’ our preconceptions or to ‘collapse’ our assumptions of what painting could do. It was the language of wartime and it made the task of thinking about art and reflecting on one’s work sound more like a national emergency. To throw ourselves into the unselfconscious application of the medium allowed us to switch off from the agony of second guessing.  

One way of looking at process art tells us that chance results, obtained through the application of a medium within a set of pre-decided material and procedural parameters, are themselves the aims of the artwork. The medium, and the way it responds to a variety of physical, temporal and chemical stages of intervention, is the message. On paper this definition of process in painting reads just like any kind of painting one cares to imagine. In the Renaissance workshop there were arguably far more complex processes being carried out at every stage of an artwork’s production than can be seen in the contemporary artists’ pouring from a pot or squeezing from a tube. So it could be that the term process painting is a misnomer.

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In virtually all process art, from the pouring and staining technique of Morris Louis to the fluid choreography of Bernard Frizes’ patterns, there is a single or at most a small number of very evident stages involving the application of the medium, which give the work its most apparent characteristics. We could call this a signature conceit. In process painting the conceit on which the work rests is most often presented on a large scale if it is not to risk appearing finicky, like a detail from a larger image. This signature, or the result of the processes involved in making the work, are so evident that each successive viewer asks themselves the same single question; How is it done?

In Ryan Sullivan’s latest show at Sadie Coles, the question of how the work has been produced is certainly immediate. But it is followed by a host of other questions which are prompted by the quantity and variety of gestures and marks, and the profusion of sometimes jarring colours. There is a lot to take in aside from our initial curiosity about the technique, or process. If we return to our initial statement about process art, that it is about the behaviour of the medium within a predetermined set of procedural stages; the content or narrative of the final resulting image being the story of that process itself, then the seven works on display here start to look less like process painting alone. The ‘signature conceit’ of these paintings should surely be the result of the way the medium behaves in the service of a single process of application. In this case the paint has been set into silicon rubber moulds, some of which are flat and others corrugated. In the corrugated moulds, from which the completed painting is later extracted, much of the pigment has gathered in pools and slid and bled into other pigments. There is evidence of movement and accrual of different pigments which has occurred slowly in the time following their initial application in the mould. However, there is much incident in these paintings which is not accidental. There is brushwork, directed spattering, considered placement of marks, not to mention the colour choices which have gone into the works.  

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Installation view, Ryan Sullivan, ~ / – ,Sadie Coles HQ, London, 26 April – 04 June 2016

Copyright the artist, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London

In his previous show at Sadie Coles in 2013, Sullivan presented us with a series of large panels which were more homogeneous in character. The process of applying exploding flares of spray paint to layers of wet oil paint created vast landscapes of slipping magma, like primordial landslides seen from space. We got lost in these unending, organic territories. The present series, whilst also being sizeable panels, appear more domestic in scale. The evidence of the brush here and there, gestures limited by the span of the artist’s arm perhaps, connect us more immediately to these paintings.

As striking as the 2013 paintings were, it is exciting to see the artist admit more variety of marks and hand-drawn interventions to his paintings. Whether or not Sullivan, as an American painter, feels any debt to Abstract Expressionism and Colour Field painting is not necessarily the right question to ask. It is fun however to spot passages in these paintings which are reminiscent of Hans Hofmann or Joan Mitchell, two of the more lyrical of the American painters associated with AB EX. This is not to suggest that Sullivan is trying to squeeze content into his paintings other than the content suggested by the medium as it sloshes beautifully around the surface. But why not have a little fun with our impulse to extract meaning from paintings?

Author: Robbie O'Halloran

Artist and writer working in London

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