Sara Sosnowy, Blue, 1995, artist’s book: acrylic, oil stick and powdered pigment on paper, 13 x 12 x 2 inches (33 x 30.5 x 5.1 cm), closed. © Sara Sosnowy / Photo: Laura Mitchell
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Sara Sosnowy is known primarily for her paintings, which are beautiful and expansive, unfurling exuberant color across the walls. Blue, an artist’s book from 1995, is different. While this book showcases Sosnowy’s interest in intricate pattern and retains traces of her sensitive hand, it also works on another level: it conceals rather than displays.
When Blue is in its chrysalis-like box, only a shimmer of color in the taupe fabric exterior and the embossed word BLUE hint at the expressive color inside. Only when one removes the book from its box and opens it does this color assert itself. The blue expands to fill each page, sometimes with a soft dusty wash of color, sometimes with a rich velvety coat. The compositions change from page to page as well. Some of the drawings in the book consist of a single element, a circle or a line, but most pages are covered with undulating waves, lines, grids, and dots. These patterns and elements are either built up with collage elements under the blue pastel or scratched into the thick surface of the pages. The heaviness of the pages as you turn them and the heady scent of the oil stick that Sosnowy uses add to the richness of our experience with the book. The lines and dots shift and dance as one turns the pages; the color flows in and out like waves.
For me, that’s the most exciting aspect of this work, that our interaction is so necessary. We need to open the book, to turn the pages, for it to fully exist. Through this page turning we reenact the seriality that plays such a major role in Sosnowy’s work. For many years, Sosnowy has created sets of paintings and drawings in which each work grows from a particular color, pattern, or rule. Through turning the pages of this book we immerse ourselves in the poetry of this seriality; we help to re-create it.
Sosnowy told me that one interesting aspect of making this book was the need to take the binding process into account when planning the drawings. The book is composed of long sheets of paper, each with two drawings on its front and two on its back. These long sheets were stacked, folded in half, and bound together. This means that Sosnowy’s drawings appear in the book in a different order from that in which she made them. This disordering happens again as we open the book: by turning the pages, we can skip ahead and we can return to earlier drawings. We become a part of the artistic process; we create our own series and become aware of the relation of the works to each other, how the patterns shift and expand and contract throughout the book.
When I looked at the book and turned its pages, part of me wanted to read these shifting patterns as a story–not because there’s any hint of representation in these works in the traditional sense, but because the act of turning pages in a book feels so charged and natural, because that deep blue is so significant-feeling. The book becomes a story of the color blue, a spell-book, a family photo album of blueness. Sosnowy has often talked of the meditative aspects of her works, and others who discuss her paintings and drawings use phrases like “trance” or “dream-like state.” But to me, never is this state more accessible to us as viewers, never do we come closer to sharing in the artistic trance that must accompany the creation of these intricate works, than when turning the pages of this book, when reading and telling the story of the blue and the blue and the blue.
Stephen Dean seems to argue that underneath the world we think we know–the objects around us, and the people with whom we associate–lies a different universe, a universe of color. Throughout history, artists have been seduced by color, but Dean seems to have a unique relationship with this different universe. He speaks its language. His works read like anthropological field reports from a distant culture, like decoder rings for the cipher of color that surrounds us but that we never fully understand.
Dean’s drawings seem simple at first. He takes crossword puzzles and help wanted sections from national newspapers and works into them with watercolor. The results are familiar objects defamiliarized, grids of hues and soft black newspaper ink often surrounded by quotidian text. They are lovely objects. The medium is sensitively modulated, with a range of densities and transparencies, each square a slightly different tone. This interplay of color and shade seems to shimmer on the page. The crossword puzzle works speak to the long history of the grid in minimal and post-minimal art, with Dean working into almost every pixel of the already intricate geometric puzzles. Each of the two crossword works in this exhibition has a particular emotional resonance due to Dean’s specific modulation of color.
More than simply lovely objects though, these puzzles are also charged with meaning. One aspect of crossword puzzles that attracts Dean is their social element, that on any given morning thousands of people are working on the same puzzle published in that day’s newspaper, together-alone. The puzzles are a kind of fold in the continuum of space, linking people together without their necessarily being aware of it. His interventions into this quiet system—his reinvention of these puzzles and inscription onto them of the language of color—allows Dean to call attention to these links. By maintaining their siting within the folded newspaper sections in which he finds them, Dean explicitly points to the puzzles’ social power.
The third watercolor by Dean in this exhibition further demonstrates his interest in human connection, in shared experience within unique experience. Untitled (Help Wanted Half Page) takes the employment classifieds section of the newspaper as its departure. While the blank squares of the crossword puzzle drawings retain some of their anonymous potential, the text that remains visible in the help wanted work speaks more directly of the human stories that draw Dean to newspapers. These stories are both obscured and highlighted by Dean’s fields of colors, which differentiate each ad, each square, hinting at encoded connections between seemingly distant parts—at the possible overlap between the carpenter, the pharmacist, and the picture framer.
In his contemporary video pieces, Dean examines everyday activities until they dissolve into separate universes of color, which remain connected to the original activity but which also have their own rules. Through their indecipherable codes of color, the earlier watercolors in this exhibition similarly point to social connections across time and space. Dean’s watercolor washes over everyday objects and somehow, through his mindful modulation, he seems to penetrate to this underlying universe. The windows these works open, from the routine parts of our life into the world of color, reveal the indefinite, the loopholes, and the hidden affinities between our separate quiet mornings.