John Santoro: Slow Painting
Catalog essay published in conjunction with "John Santoro: Slow Painting" at Richard Gray Gallery. July 14 - September 10.
Depending on which study you cite, the average viewer, we are told, glances at a work of art for about 17 seconds. I believe it. I have attended enough openings, closings, artist talks, alternative spaces and blockbuster museum shows to know that most people glide through exhibitions like they are on a conveyor belt in an airport terminal. I have even witnessed “art professionals”—surely the antithesis of your average viewer—breeze through works at a far faster pace. Of all the myriad crises that periodically afflict the world of art, this, to my mind, is the most alarming Not the art fairs, not the glitz, glamour and money, but simply time, or lack of it.
Time, that most intangible, subjective dimension of our existence, is the invisible ally of art and it is the secret medium of the artist. Time creates space for the development of theme, expression, thought and form. Coupled with the sensitive retina of an attentive viewer, time completes the work of art. But our share of that which is infinite is by our very nature finite. In a digitally accelerated, post-religious age of absolute materialism, we no longer have time for anything—other than everything all at once.
Where there is a market, a product will arise to suit it. Undifferentiated surfaces, repetitive patterns, stripes, squares, circles, take your pick, contemporary painting is littered with works that are designed to be consumed as rapidly as their viewers can pass them by. And let’s be honest with ourselves, it is easy for an artwork to look good for 17 seconds. A competent work of art might even sustain goodness for the length of an opening reception. But to create a painting that nurtures one’s attention for weeks and months? To craft an image that reveals its secrets slowly, like an intimate companion over the course of years? That takes time, and today that most precious resource, is also our scarcest.
This is where Chicago artist John Santoro comes in. His works, with their inviting scale and lush surfaces teeming with painterly brushstrokes and heavy impasto are resolutely slow. That is not to suggest that they lack drama, dynamism, energy or velocity; they are pregnant with those qualities. But Santoro’s works are diametrically opposed to rapid consumption, impervious to the 17-second stares that glance off the surfaces of lesser works like eyes recoiling from a momentary glimpse into the heart of the midday sun.
The qualities that Santoro’s works possess—honesty, integrity and an abiding sense of the personal made universal—are ideals that all great art strives to achieve, and they emerge only after contemplation on the part of the viewer. You can't speed through these landscapes; these works slow you down, and in the act of slowing they become a balm, healing the psychic fissures caused by a life replete with multifocal ruptures and existential chaos. Perhaps what is most compelling is that Santoro’s work achieves these lofty aims without pretense.
From happy mesas to hot dog cars, to menacing thunderstorms on the horizon, John Santoro’s work is first and foremost rooted in the speed of the real. This is where the honesty and authenticity come from. Santoro’s artwork is guided by a physical relationship to the world, rather than—like so much contemporary painting—being mediated by an ideological one. Often begun en plein air, the scenes depicted in his sumptuous surfaces are real places, real memories and real objects. When Santoro speaks of the punishing rains of Hong Kong that spew forth from black angry skies, he speaks with the authority of having experienced it.
It is in experiencing these thunderstorms, storms that Santoro has described as “the most amazing I had ever seen,” that the works in his (appropriately titled) Thunderstorm series arise. Fierce, disruptive and chaotic, the blue-gray tumult conjured by Santoro’s brush swirls menacingly throughout these pictures, where sky, cloud and surface frequently dissolve into a single, impenetrable mass. The maelstrom thus approaching is illuminated by the crackling throws of a single titanic lightning bolt.
These works, with their rippling surfaces and heaving forms, are simultaneously Santoro’s most abstract and most representational images. Rather than simply depict or illustrate the force of the storm, they embody it. The turbulent facture and dramatic brushstrokes connect the works to their formal ancestors, paintings by the likes of Willem de Kooning and Phillip Guston—giants from an era when making a painting was as an event writ large in canvas and the audience had the time to sit quietly and take it all in.
To linger over Santoro’s churning evocations of nature’s wrath in oil and canvas is to come to see the world as you know it through the eyes of another, to see time and space more clearly. His thunderstorms are potent reservoirs that contain the distilled essence of experience, concentrated by the mental alembic of the artist.
Far from the trembling clouds over Victoria Harbour, in the dry stretches of the American southwest, there lie the hulking remnants of the area’s once volcanic past. Situated beneath a cobalt blue sky punctuated with fair weather clouds and just to the right of a fertile ridgeline is Santoro’s Happy Mesa an easel sized picture that is dense, lively and brimming with painterly confidence. When I first met with Santoro at his studio in Chicago, the picture was prominently displayed and we engaged in a spirited conversation about it.
After several minutes Santoro pointed out the “face” in the mesa, a hidden visage gazing back at me with tangerine colored eyes and bright red lips. The expression is playful, funny and imbued with the kind of distinct personality that only a carefully observed object can possess. In my admiration for the painting’s flurry of viscous serpintine strokes I had completely missed the face and admitted as much. In fact, if Santoro had not told me about it, I might have taken months to see it.
It is in Happy Mesa and in the clumsy but direct lines of the painter’s early series of Hot Dog Cars that his interest in Guston and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor is most acute. While much contemporary art claims to trade in humor, it is more often than not irony that defines the content. As the British art theorist Michael Paraskos once said, “irony is a problem, because irony is always false…and I’m not sure real art can be false.”
Just as the places Santoro paints are drawn from actual experience, so too is his humor rooted in the real. It is a pleasant reminder that the measure of an artwork’s significance comes not from the existential weight of its inspiration nor the biting cynicism of its content, but rather, from the sincerity of its execution. After all, genuine humor is serious business. Smile and the whole world smiles with you, or at least extinct volcanoes might.
To speak of an artist’s garden conjures visions of Monet in Giverny: a bespeckled old man, lost among brilliant green and violet hues, crossing a Japanese footbridge over a lily pond glistening in the afternoon sun. It suggests a private escape for an artist
for whom life had been good and painting lucrative. John Santoro’s garden is more unassuming, but no less ripe with the kind of perceptual “play” that captivates an artist’s eye. It is the kind, modest patch of grass, cherry trees, and blooming flowers that you might find caressing any number of homes across Chicago’s neighborhoods.
But an artist that is attuned to the world around him, need look no further than out his backdoor.
The lilting white flowers and rich verdant hues that dominate the humble limits of Santoro’s painted gardens are seductive and hypnotic. As Santoro himself once said, “My source of inspiration is the moment when you appreciate the beautiful simplicity of a single flower wobbling in the breeze.” Early versions of these Backyards are packed tight with liquid green painterly incidents that emphasize surface, creating a pressurized, almost airless space. Now, change is afoot.
The best art fuses form and function, medium and message, and in newer backyard works, Santoro’s libertine application of paint has become increasingly complex, enlivened by subtle changes in his approach. In many of these new visual excursions, particularly Backyard: Cherry Tree, (but visible also in the aforementioned Happy Mesa) a restraint has crept in. The bravura and vitality of the brush remain, but now it is tempered by delicate passes of the pallet knife revealing the grainy texture of the canvas beneath. Thin, skeletal applications of paint now jostle for position with thick muscular deposits.
In Cherry Tree, different visual speeds, and by consequence, time and duration themselves have become embedded into the structure of the work. The multitude of marks that invigorate the carefully orchestrated surface vibrate at different frequencies Some, like the audacious pops of yellow, orange and ultramarine blue come up rapidly, like a sudden trumpet blast. Others such as the scraped gray-green edge along the ambling path are like a soothing sustained note carrying the eye into the distance. Here, Santoro has arrived at a more dexterous use of materials and a surer, more mature sense of depth and temporality is achieved.
In the Middle Ages it was thought that through art a vision of God could come upon the viewer in the speed of a glimpse, that the soul could be illuminated instantly through eyesight alone. Gradually, as a result of schisms and skirmishes both real and philosophical, that perception evolved into a belief that held that the spirit’s elevation to the divine through images came about through a practice of purification. Only after the faithful had arrived at a state of readiness cultivated by long and intense periods of looking and contemplation could they then experience God in an image.
In the Byzantine East, the mystical nature of the painted image held firm, even in the face of repeated waves of iconoclasm. But in the Catholic West, buffeted by political instability and later a protestant reformation, this changing visualty became more and more pronounced. Scholars such as Cynthia Hahn have suggested that this shift in emphasis from spiritual instantaneity to progressive development was in part a consequence of the increasing complexity of western painting. As paintings grew from simple visual descriptions of Christ or the Saints to more elaborate historical narratives woven into intricate formal relationships, a greater demand was placed on the viewers’ focus, and its attendant currency: time.
Flash forward a few centuries and the roles are again reversed. Vitiated by the very devices we regard as evidence of our technological triumph over nature, our attention span flounders in a rudderless drift. Deluged by a ceaseless torrent of sound and images riding radio waves at 4G speeds, the emotional investment we place in any given experience is as lasting as yesterday’s news cycle, or today’s Snapchat. In order to keep pace, our art has traded serenity for spectacle, and substance for speed.
An encounter with a painting, once a rare opportunity to commune with the soul of another, is for many just another blip on the radar of simultaneity, a photo op, a flashing light in a rapid stream of flashing lights. But to know something deeply is to know it over time.
Whether it be a garden in Chicago, a beach in Michigan or a hotel in Hong Kong, we chart the oscillating trajectory of our lives through the spaces and places we return to. Born out of an innate desire to fix the flux of life, the best art accompanies us on this journey, aging with us and yet remaining in a state of perpetual spring. John Santoro’s works must be counted among this number. These fresh, restorative images assuage the psychic discord provoked by the incessant noise of an overly connected world addicted to speed. They are a clarion call for silence, for place, for authenticity, for slow painting.
 Paraskos, Michael “Reviving the Corpse of Art” All is Giving - Public Art SpaceGroningen, Netherlands. November 8, 2013. Lecture
 Hahn, Cynthia “"Visio Dei: Changes in Medieval Visuality," Visuality Before and Beyond the Renaissance: Seeing as Others Saw, Cambridge Studies in New Art History and Criticism, ed. Robert Nelson, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 169-196.