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S.J. Lee & Erik Sanner
at Charles Thomas Contemporary, Culver City
Preview by Bill Lasarow

S.J. Lee and Erik Sanner bring classical themes and tendencies to the latest video and digital technologies.

Opening August 20, 2011

This two-person show is actually the product of a temporary space taking over the Carmichael Gallery for the summer. Featured are two young artists, S.J. Lee and Erik Sanner who bring classical themes and tendencies to the latest video and digital media. Lee is based in Seattle, Sanner in New York, so formal and aesthetic connections, and they are there, are strictly coincidental.

Sanner is energetically engaged with the frozen in the moment relationship of easel painting to the time-lapse capacity of video. The landscape as a dynamically changing environment that can be conceptually frozen at a given moment has provided many artists a ready metaphor for our own passage through time. Sanner’s work expresses fascination with how unequal rates of growth translate into visual relationships that are attractively unpredictable. The static paintings are roughly equal to the first frame of a film from which an act more of growth than of narrative springs forth. The ghostly appearance of figures, a byproduct of projecting onto his painted image, reduces the human presence in the world to a fleeting and and peripheral matter rather than its central drama.

The traffic cone is a favored symbol of our cultural identity for Sanner, the triangular shape itself a humorous substitute for a compositional arrangement regarded as inherently harmonious and uplifting during several centuries of European painting. Sanner playfully places the object into his landscapes as what comes across as an inscrutable substitute for the observing artist, sets it on a sculpture stand and digitally dresses and undresses it with color, recording, so to speak his own straightforward cone-portrait painting. It all adds up to work that is earnest, good natured, and accessible. He is clearly making every effort to produce an up-to-the-moment body of artwork, but the sensibility that informs it is conservative, and perhaps too modest for its own good.

Less hang loose, S.J. Lee would be regarded as an acolyte of Bill Viola if she were based in Los Angeles. She favors a languorous but very sharp visual experience, and adopts a reverent posture with regard to the historical antecedents whom she embraces, ranging from Goya and Picasso to Fuseli and Sargent.

The fact that some among a series of 30 minute long video portraits feature elderly sitters such as “Sevillano” invests them with striking beauty, even as age and its infirmities are readily visible, only adds to the impression of reverence. She conveys equal interest in children, composing “Waiting to Grow” and others on specific visual quotes, in this case Picasso’s “Child with Dove.” Lee’s version artificially elevates the young subject into a theatrical event that is quite different from Picasso’s expressive embrace. But Lee does build up an emotive component in these works that is a product of the length of time that subjects are asked to pose. What Lee refers to as their “struggle to maintain” actually transforms the up-to-the-minute use of media from the usual trendy appearance to having a feeling of grounded persistence. This is no passing fad.

A conceptually intriguing work that currently exists, in Sol Lewitt fashion, as a written instruction is activated and interacts via cell phone, texting, or email. A set of 26 pencil leads gradually melt down from this interaction, sending out a Morse code message in the process; the 26 pencil leads presumably correspond to the 26 letters of the alphabet. Fans of the show might take a hand in what visitors see and hear by remote. But the words and fingerprints of the artist are all over the work.

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