Facing Off: The Last Paintings of Don Suggs
L.A. Louver, Venice
Written by Constance Mallinson
Painting is always an argument. It argues with its own history and traditions, with accepted aesthetic tendencies, with other disciplines like photography, with its milieu, even with the artist’s own intentions and track record. The enduring power of a great painting is that there are never resolutions to these debates. The arguments can be obvious, such as Warhol’s soup cans’ mix of mass consumer culture with high art, or more subtle such as in the paintings of Gerhard Richter. Richter’s paintings are constantly waging internal warfare, and according to one critic, taking up opposing positions such as “resistance to easy pleasure versus exquisite hedonism…assertion of image as object versus mistrust of the image as representation….”
Few painters can claim the range of exploration and the play of dialectics sustained in the decades long career of Don Suggs. From technically flawless hyper realistic landscapes overlaid with minimalist-inspired geometric blocks to the more recent black and white landscape photographs with their painted concentric rings of color derived from actual on-site observations, Suggs embraced the disputatious nature of painting In these works, landscape painting, most revered throughout art history, had its pictorial systems unmasked by provocative comparisons to reductivist painting principles. Similarly, the long held antagonisms between painting and photography were revived in the “target” series, pitting painterly perception against the purported “realism” of photography.
So it was no surprise, gloves off, that his final and mature body of work entitled Face Off would make even more explicit and theatrical the tensions that foment within the painting frame. Cartoon-like graphic figuration reminiscent of the famous Alfred Hitchcock profile caricature that introduced his TV show in the 1950’s is crisply delineated over swatches and controlled smears of off-beat/ retro colors. Mustardy ochres, composty olive greens, girly bubble gum pink and kids room blue, hospital green, mauvy reds and snappy tangerines jar aesthetic norms. Like the untasteful colors that “fight” each other or the pure abstract forms that vie with descriptive imagery, Suggs’ hybrids of animal, plant, and human. often sporting horns, branches, and quirky hairdos are posed in verbal or physical combat. For example, “A Marriage” is dominated by two bullet shaped figures, one mostly female as deduced by her long eyelashes and breasts, another presumably male as defined by its phallic top. The female seems to be either soothing or cudgeling the male with her large appendage, while the male expression is sulky and peeved– sexual differences in light of #MeToo writ large.
Likewise “Critique” depicts two facing figures, one very Trumpish with his trademark coif, who point and yell at each other. Between them is a devilish horned beast, a metaphor for news media as the perpetual instigator. What could be more illustrative of the contentious and divisive nature of contemporary political and cultural discourse when no consensus seems attainable and substance is seldom heard above the deafening babble?
The Face Off paintings certainly are part of Suggs’ long standing meditations on how various elements in painting clash but are essential in creating meaning. He was always bold, adept and witty at exploring and exploiting those dynamics in profound and stimulating artworks. But Suggs also loved political sparring. His final paintings revealed that he was moving beyond his sophisticated interrogations of the medium itself to also engage the social, cultural and political wars of the present. Perhaps he had reached a point where he was really facing off with himself in order to allow the ugly and unsolvable realities of his era to argue their way into his paintings.