Book Review: Cole Sternberg, The Nature of Breathing In Salt

Cole Sternberg. The Nature of Breathing In Salt. Photo Courtesy of the artist

Book Review: Cole Sternberg, The Nature of Breathing In Salt

By Shana Nys Dambrot

The Nature of Breathing In Salt is the new book from artist Cole Sternberg. But it’s more than that. It’s a proper artist’s book, a sumptuous physical and optical object in its own totality of form. Part travel diary, part conceptual self-examination, and part studio experiment, before it was a book, it was just a crazy idea. Sternberg’s adventures ultimately result in the paintings and photography that comprise the main of this book; selected works are on view in Los Angeles this month at there-there. The book presents the circumstance of their making, but not only that, their meaning as well.

So awhile back, at a Japanese ocean port, a massive cargo ship slipped its moorings and made its way out to sea, on a route to the Pacific Northwest to pick up its unspecified cargo. It hosted a crew of 20, and somehow also Sternberg. As a painter who also makes photographs, sculptures, and poems, Sternberg explains the inspiration for the trip in the book’s text that reads in part, “A lot of my paintings deal with the ocean, the sky, the horizon, and environmental policy; and why not take that into the physical realm and address the subjects literally through staring at the horizon, exposing works to the saltwater and rain, feeling the motion of a ship, dealing with seasickness…” He brought along a copy of Moby Dick because, “of course.”

The book proceeds, with sparse but potent text blending shades of Melville with the voices of crew members and poetics of Sternberg’s own composition. Informational, but not entirely — or not only — a narrative, the writing is evocative, philosophical, and comes in hefty fragments, just like the images themselves. Photographs both of the spaces inside the vessel and out across the views from its decks intersperse with images of the paintings he made on board. This discourse highlights both the painterliness in the photographs, and the textures of fractal geology in the paintings, making the link between subject, process, and product abundantly clear, despite the mysteries that linger both in and out of frame.

Cole Sternberg. The Nature of Breathing In Salt. Photo Courtesy of the artist

Sternberg’s work is enlivened by textures and color shifts along a cold maritime palette of up-close patterns, from full blede oceans and fog-lensed horizons to glimpses of coasts and paintings in progress and sometimes in the water. Many of the photographs exist in a deliberately grainy world of black and white, often there are flaring sunsets and sometimes a blue expanse of open sky. The arrangements make the situation explicit — the distance between what he sees in the world and the way he makes his paintings is as short as a breath. “It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life,” he writes, “and this is the key to it all.”

On the trip and in the book, there is of course, water, water everywhere. It is both meditative and lethal, picturesque and psychological, life-giving and seductive, demanding, and synonymous with adventure. In the photographs and even more so on the canvases, there are tidal flows, cracks in the ice and the sky, the darkest black, the mottled white, and the evanescent blue, all the blues really. There are captures of banal industrial mechanics and cargo, mimetic textures of canvas and sail which are folded, expanded and exposed. Is it the images or the artist that feels dizziness along a seesawing floor, seeks out elusive, slanted light sources, feels for a way along wobbly boundaries. “There are a lot of ways to make a painting,” writes Sternberg, “and it doesn’t have to be sitting in a studio thinking about life.”

At there-there through January 31

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