By M Hill
Walter Sutin’s Low Five: The Banality of Contemporary Trauma
Sediment Gallery, Richmond, VA
February 2 – 25, 2018
Low Five is a queered evaluation of the violence and pleasure derived from a fantasized culture that has forsaken postmodernity; revived slain deities; but cannot withdraw from the trauma of contemporaneous society. Walter Sutin’s work is violent, but unnervingly hopeful—highlighting broken institutions and alluding to the euphoric potential of subcultural transgression through dismemberment and death, crippling loneliness, and emotional sacrifice. The artist composes a post-historical document that transcends normative, linear time and space to forge these cathartically chaotic images. In the banality of their excessive violence, the concession and eager complicity of his figures in these performances are, perhaps, reflective of our current trend towards dystopia.
The compositions are pieced together on wide scapes by an amalgam of tiny brightly swirling strokes—suggesting a disassociated reality meant to sew fractures in one’s own comprehension of the work. Endless scenes unfold on top of each other, but the narratives remain distinct. Each requires their own individual evaluation and resists association to any others, begging for closer inspection and not disappointing the viewer who returns multiple times to the same image. Low Five, which appears to function as the collision of a temporal and planar strata, seems to be borne of the same conceptual vernacular as kinetic works like Suzan Pitt’s “Asparagus” (1978), which delineated time and conflated identity, form, and object to compose a hellish interior that reflected modern female sexuality.
The individualized caricatures of Sutton’s work—featured in different stages of distress, subjugation, and ritualized violence—are depicted as apathetic to the chaos around them. By obscuring the faces of his subjects, Sutin interrupts any presuppositions that could be made from expressions of ecstasy or horror. In “Goodbye Horses,” a blonde female nude stripped to a pair of blue thigh highs, assumes the position of Christ amongst a galactic orgy of horses. Her expression however, the most directly rendered in the series, betrays not a shred of emotion. She stares straight out to the audience as though she’s already performed this routine twelve times tonight, the bottle service girl is stealing her tips, she hasn’t had a cigarette in four hours, and she would rather be anywhere else. A hostile boredom—bordering on a dissociative attack—and one that is readily identified by anyone who participates in consumer capitalism.
In “The Red Telephone” two cops in assless chaps bend in opposing downward dog to reveal a murky rainbow between them. A skeleton wearing a yellow hibiscus tucked behind its nonexistent ear; knee-high black boots; and a chained collar, prostrates itself beneath the rainbow—its hands clawing at the ground to reach a key lying in a puddle that has formed underneath. A key which, presumably, unlocks the golden door on a tree that entombs a full-figured female body in the distance. The result is an image that—through the propagandistic nationalism of “blue lives” in the face of the brutal murder of black children; the co-optation of the rainbow as an agent of neoliberalism to elide the acknowledgement of fluid identities; and the desperation to surpass all of this for the sake of prescriptive beauty—stirs nothing, is nothing, means nothing. The realization of which, startles the viewer into an awareness of their own disengagement. This critically astute formulation is repeated throughout the series and is a crucial factor through which Sutin discloses the latency of empathy in a culture that lives and dies by stimulus.
Sutin gleefully illustrates the ways in which we have partaken in the packaging of trauma for consumption, become deaf and mute to travesty, and devoid of reaction. The installation of the work in Richmond, Virginia’s Sediment Gallery pushes these concepts further: featuring Low Five on the battered walls of their exposed brick, interior storefront, over patches of unevenly applied paint in blue, white and yellow. From the quiet downtown street, one might be drawn in by the bright, seemingly cheerful scapes. Though upon entering, the installation reveals itself to be more of a shrine, where an entombed shaman has delivered a stark warning for a population that emits a bored shrug at the reality of trauma and suffering in favour of apathetic disengagement through perceived distance.
M Hill is a contemporary art scholar and critic based in Richmond, VA.