Walking through As You Are, the assembly of 35 recent paintings by John Sproul that make up his latest outing at Salt Lake City’s Current Work, it occasionally feels as though one of Utah’s most skillful and imaginative artists has set out to add “The Painter of Halloween” to his CV. Some of the more loosely rendered pieces, full of spiky energy and low on defined features or boundaries, possess the most uncanny and even eerie qualities, like so many disembodied spirits. They may be on their way to becoming flesh, either in the world or in the art, but if so, what they carry from wherever they’ve been may well cause that oncoming flesh to shrink. Although in his work he is always painting — wielding graphite, ink, and oil stick just like he does the brush — the results as seen in works like “Thrift,” “Thusm,” or “Converge,” with its one white leg and the other green, do not anticipate new creatures, except in the sense that any moment can bring about a new awareness or understanding. Charting such turns is one of the major reasons we have art.
But then, in the midst of such conundrums and excursions, hangs “As You Are,” 30 square-feet of canvas that a brave viewer may feel she could right walk into and resume the conversation pretty much where it left off. On a seemingly limitless grass lawn, each blade of which seems to have posed for its portrait, three figures stand around while two sit on the ground. Sproul is among the more literal “figure” painters, and when his large works speak, they do so with their bodies. (In the closest approach to a preparatory sketch in the exhibit, the monotype “Deux Femmes,” two figures on a beach lean forward the way walking on sand makes necessary, so viewers may be confident the artist’s homework has been done.) The distant couple in the center of “As You Are” lean together, even crossing their legs in the preverbal body language for “keep out,” and tête-à-tête becomes literal as their foreheads nearly meet. In the foreground, a pair of anonymous, column-like black-clad legs halts any movement of the eyes to the right, so they’re drawn back to the seated figure with open mouth who looks to our left, while the interest of the tousle-headed blond man next to him brackets us to our right. Thus the whole scene, rather than anyone in it, takes us in. Evolution and the necessity of survival have given us the ability to not only tell precisely where a distant pair of eyes are looking, but also if they were looking at us just before ours turned their way. So while we viewers perceives this scene, those within it return our notice.
Not every composition permits, or for that matter requires, complete bodies. In “Flowdie,” the woman’s face remains scrupulously neutral as the man mock-indifferently turns his back on her, though he cannot resist the need to reassure himself, with hooded eyes, that she is still with him. It’s just one of many examples in which Sproul observes that the living have only a handful of emotions, a smattering of facial expressions, and a few words to deal with an infinite variety of experiences and reactions to them. So it’s a good thing that any language, whether audible or visible, can use a finite number of such tools and some rules to turn finite parts into an infinite variety of statements and intimations. Here again, the title intrigues without revealing: there was, and may still be, a hip-hop group called Flowdie, and Sproul, who devotes as much free time to the pursuit of edgy music as he does to exotic food, may have connected this image to them.
Over the years, Sproul’s paired figures have found many ways to pose and seemingly to dance together. In “FiveTwo” and “FiveZero” — “52” and “50”? — they may approach a limit to the extraordinary ability of the eye and mind to sort them out. A far simpler, but even more challenging, indeed back-to-back confrontation, occurs in “Flamik,” where they interact in an indeterminate space: one in which a prepared ground, a brush-scrubbed yellow and black cloud, reveals nothing to contextualize or even support them in an apparent battle of wills. On the left, a figure in the white jacket and black pants uniform of a high-end restaurant (the artist travels widely in pursuit of memorable dining experiences) bends double, pulling for all he’s worth on a line that passes over his shoulder and ends in whatever the person of the right sits on: perhaps an air traveler’s carry-on. It’s either a drama of determination versus inertia or two men enjoying a playful moment. While it’s impossible to say if either is winning, it’s whatever is happening that enables us to see and know about them.
(And it may be going too far to point out that the word “Flamik” refers to a Chinese-American animation collaboration, one with characters who look like little bears, but with torus-shaped torsos: donut-like holes through their middles. In one cartoon, they play tug-of-war with the rope run through their centers, thus not having to stand sideways while pulling. Sproul’s version, if a connection does exist, restores a bit of adult, social realism to the exertion.)
Looking so closely, as Sproul does, at mundane moments makes clear that they are anything but trivial. The alliances that form among five friends at the end of the day, as depicted in “There You Are” cannot be as casual as they appear to be. What’s to be made, then, of the figures in “Ashes to Ashes,” the climax of As You Are? Instead of a patented Utah trope like a mountain, river, or forest, a Sproul landscape is likely to feature some architectural prospect. It’s as if, when the walls close in and all the other artists abandon their urban or domestic studios for a hike into nature, he seeks out more revealing structures. But those walls are likely to be in Edinburgh, and the scarcely comparable Scottish highlands are part of the package. And so the church here, which he limns in a non-denominational, essentially generic form, is central to those whose lives, like the airborne figures in the painting, revolve around it. It’s not just another beach or grassy field; the flaming red sky and sensational way the trio soar through the air, their bent knees suggesting they are spinning as well, make this a particularly spectacular instance.
Throughout John Sproul’s “body” of work, the human organism has been shown to be a marvelous resource, the enabler of all things physical. The way he depicts it, with such granular paint textures, recalls that a mineral, calcium, comprises the largest part of those bodies. But it also creates limits: if the artist believes in “the singularity” — the dubious idea that humans will transfer their consciousness into machines and abandon their material forms — there’s no evidence of it in his art.
John Sproul: As You Are, Current Work, Salt Lake City, through Nov. 17. Gallery Stroll reception, Friday, Oct. 20, 6-9 pm