A Different Order (J. Yau)

Sandro Sanna is a contemporary artist whose paintings don’t fit comfortably into any of the contemporary trends. This doesn’t mean that he is stricken with a deep nostalgia for a golden age of art or that he is trying to revive a familiar style, because he isn’t. His art is very much of this time, which is also our troubling present. His relationship to his peers is somewhat akin to the one Alfred Jensen (1903-1982) had to both the Abstract Expressionists and the younger generation that included the Minimalists and Conceptualists. A consummate high-minded modernist, Jensen never tried to make paint become paint, as did many painters who took their cue from Jackson Pollock. He showed that there were other ways to be both for and against Pollock. For Jensen, who was influenced by Goethe’s color theory, paint was both colored dirt and light, and each could become the other. Often containing numbers and writing, his densely patterned, checkerboard paintings are diagrams full of arcane knowledge and mathematics that the artist gleaned from his long study of Mayan and Egyptian counting systems. Jensen was preoccupied with the relationship between light and matter, both as fact and revelation. It was this preoccupation that propelled him from painting to painting, as well as isolated him from his contemporaries.

Sanna is equally preoccupied with the relationship between light and matter, but the way he configures their relationship and thus their meaning is very different from Jensen’s seemingly more benign understanding. The most telling difference is that Jensen’s cosmology is made up of tactile, prismatic colors and black and white, while Sanna’s is an uninhabited, unfamiliar world made up of unearthly light and shade. Jensen’s cosmology leads to speculating about the nature of infinity, while Sanna’s brings the viewer into close proximity with an alien world that is forming and crumbling, accreting and eroding. Sanna evokes a world that is simultaneously solid and metaphysical, unadorned and immediate. Like Jensen, it is clear that all of Sanna’s decisions arise out of an unwavering belief in a complex, self-contained and self-sustaining cosmology. As it should be, the evidence of his belief is in the work itself.

Sanna’s ambitious project is to both establish and explore the distinguishing particularities of a self-sustaining alternative reality. This reality is constructed from light and shade. It ranges between a mineral black and cold lunar white or it is made of shades that go from gold to light. It evokes crystals (that perfect synthesis of the geometric and the organic), mirrors (their suggestion of infinity), and reflections (perfect, empty copies). It is a barren world where nothing grows (except perhaps the geometric forms themselves), and where there are no signs of life. The light that animates this world is remote and hidden, as well as cold and inhospitable. The colors of the world it illuminates and reflects do not come from nature. The world Sanna makes visible operates according to its own incomprehensible laws. While Boccioni is a very distant ancestor, Sanna’s world is both colder and more disquieting than anything the Futurist dreamed up. For one thing, Sanna makes no reference to culture or its machines.

Because of the thoroughness of Sanna’s formal approach, our relationship to the multi-faceted, asymmetrical planes and deep crevices of his alternative world remains unclear. Are we looking at a mineral world under a high-powered microscope or do these metallic forms dwarf us? Where are these tetrahedronal forms located? Where did they come from? The cropping prevents us from getting a more inclusive view, as well as helps establish a claustrophobic state. In a sense, we cannot step back from this world, cannot get a vantage point to see its topography. Thus, we do not know whether these angular, geometric forms were made by natural forces or by some life force. Yes, there is an element of science fiction that runs through Sanna’s paintings, but never in a way that is overt or theatrical. If anything, the paintings are austere and restrained.

Sanna’s paintings evoke mosaics, those bits of light-sensitive stones. But it’s as if they have become immense fragments of a monolithic presence. Or it’s as if we have penetrated a geode and are now living inside a completely mineral world. And yet, at the same time, one senses that these divided, faceted, asymmetrical spaces are cathedrals, hallowed places ruled by a deep, unforgiving silence. So we are both in a place that we somehow cannot enter, the space being physically too shallow, and we are outside a form whose crevices may open out onto infinity. Neither viewpoint completely suppresses the other. Instead, we are left in a state of disquieting contemplation.

The other feeling Sanna’s faceted forms, and their asymmetrical relationship, convey is a light that is falling, breaking apart, reflecting and mirroring. But above all else, the cold wintry light infuses the paintings with an otherworldliness that is both complete and disturbing. Arriving from an unknown and hidden source, the falling and reflecting light shapes a world that is dark and cold. Becoming blade-like, it sharpens the edges of the forms, and imparts a sense of danger. It also divides and shatters the space into interlocking, reflecting planes. Thus, there is the light coming from within the paintings and the light reflected and absorbed by faceted surfaces. This outside light keeps changing as we move in front of the paintings; it becomes heightened. In Metallica Lunare, 2003, one cannot tell which of the forms is matter and which might be anti-matter. Is the light coming from behind a solid form or is it being pulled toward a black hole? What about the light playing on the painting’s surface? It is a world in which we have lost our ability to distinguish between what is solid and what is immaterial, what is fiction and what is real.

Sanna’s cosmology is not fixed, but is one that is unfolding in time, revealing more of itself to both the artist and to us. At a time when the vastness of the universe becomes more apparent, and scientists now believe that water once flowed across Mars, Sanna’s recognition of otherworldliness becomes increasingly relevant. One senses that these paintings aren’t windows, that the world, and its blade-like edges, are pressing relentlessly forward and are threatening to rupture the picture separating here from there. With each passing day, the world they make apparent grows less distant, though no less disquieting. One day, in what the poet and essayist Christopher Dewdney calls the “post-human era,” the cold light we encounter in these hermetic universes may well have become all too familiar, and their present will become both inclusive and ours.


John Yau

Maryland Institute, College of Art

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