On ViewSperone Westwater
Above Our Lands
September 8–October 29, 2022
Peter Sacks, the expatriate artist and writer from South Africa, has long been in the United States, with extended stays teaching at Johns Hopkins and Harvard. His well-regarded poetry treats the suffering and natural beauty of his homeland. He has also been a highly regarded scholar, specializing in English poetry. But in the early 2000s, Sacks gave up writing to become a full-time artist. In this show, Above Our Lands, he maintains his penchant for the lyric, as seen in the series “Without Title 1-3,” three large collages of mixed materials. They can be seen as palimpsests of memory, or impressions of visionary experience. On the second floor, viewers can study a large selection from the “Resistance” series, in which persons who fought racial, cultural, and political oppression are celebrated. The compositions include a photograph of the person memorialized, framed by multimedia combinations of cloth and personal effects. Born in 1950, Sacks would have known well the social struggles generated by apartheid. This show portrays his strengths in double fashion—as an abstract artist and as a political memorialist.
The first floor of the gallery features Sacks’s “Without Title 1–3,” which are made primarily of linen, corrugated cardboard, and burlap. The image of Without Title 3 (2022) is built from rough forms of cardboard painted black, along with inchoate shapes of irregularly edged burlap found throughout the composition that exist alongside the cardboard. On the lower left, a red crystal occurs at the bottom of the mixed-media work, while on the right, a very small dark silhouette of a figure is found. But overall, a billowing, uncontrollable mass, the result of the cardboard, burlap, and, in the background, the linen, governs the space. Almost nothing in the complicated image can be read as figurative. The small figure we come across is eccentric, since it contrasts sharply with the piece’s abstraction, but it may acknowledge human frailty in the face of massive force.
On the wall across from the large collaged abstractions, a group of four paintings, titled “Without Name,” is found. Four-feet-square in dimension, the multimedia works all include shadowy figures. In Without Name 2 (2022), the figures appear in a silver netherworld where forms and materials are too numerous and involved to enumerate. The silver shapes of the work’s background crowd each other on a low relief; the result is an engaging, mysterious complexity. The people in the painting might be victims; they also might be souls in limbo, in a purgatorial void in which their past follows them without end. Both bodies of work incorporate a mist-like effect, emphasizing the indeterminate abstraction Sacks uses on a regular basis. The details are up to the viewer. Since we know that Sacks is a gifted poet, his allusive painterly scenarios enable him to suggest meaning poetically, intuitively.
Upstairs, there are examples from the series “Resistance,” all of which have been made in the last two years. In each case, the portrait-size work composed of mixed-media, epitomizes an eminent leader or writer who stood up to the deliberate cruelties of the state. In the background, one can hear contemporary writers read the works of the persons celebrated. There is a beautiful 2021 piece commemorating the great poet Anna Akhmatova. Rendered in profile, her sharp cheekbones and jutting, angular nose compliment her strengths as a writer. Using a variety of difficult to identify materials, Sacks frames her face, adding visual interest by providing these intricate surroundings. Resistance Series (James Baldwin 3) (2022) includes a photo of the remarkable writer with his eyes open wide, curious and alive. Colorful cloth geometric patterns in brown and black curl around him.
Sacks’s large paintings convey a tacit regard for the unknowable; the figure paintings can be read as studies in symbolic meaning. His combination of the abstract frames, along with the realistic details of the subject’s photographed image, enables Sacks to comment politically in the “Resistance” series by implying darkness non-objectively. Thus, the “Resistance” series, a tough-minded eulogy for those who fought intolerance, shows how committed struggle demands awareness and action. Remarkably, his social commitment is aligned with a skilled use of abstraction, in a way that politicizes the abstraction by its closeness to recognizable political imagery. Sacks has emphasized his intuition to focus on both abstraction and social commentary with marked success.