Arguably the greatest American photographer, Walker Evans was visually omnivorous and found unprecedented subjects everywhere he looked as he traversed the United States before and after, but most effectively during the Great Depression. Among the most eloquent of his discoveries were the advertising and information signage he spotted everywhere, and the most evocative of these were crumbling posters, their neglected condition indicative of desperate economic times. As art, they worked on two levels: as content, the commercial images revealed compelling layers of cultural and psychological materials, while technically their decaying condition bespoke history and the erosion brought about by time and the elements. Artist, innovative gallery director, and local businessman John Sproul may not have been consciously thinking of Evans’ photographs while inventing the voluptuous technique seen in Body to Body (though his extensive familiarity with recent art includes them), but one of his accomplishments here is to replace the accidental character of those indelible images with a way of reproducing their effects: one he can control and even direct like a flashlight into certain dark areas that tantalized his awareness when he first began to make art, only to grow gradually more visible to him over long years spent delineating the neglected and overlooked, yet to the discerning, still expressive powers of the human form.
Sproul has selected a dozen of these new paintings for Body to Body, though their numerical titles suggest they represent no more that 20 percent of the candidates. Ten show couples and two feature solo figures. Most are seen in active poses, as if dancing or doing something equally energetic and interactive. Even in the most quiescent, a woman and a man standing side by side—I was reminded of Yoko Ono and John Lennon on the “Two Virgins” record jacket—their joined hands and continuous painterly treatment unify the compound figure. Everywhere, a strong feeling of ambiguity results from their common presentation in silhouette form only, seen against a blank, white background. Yet where they could appear as though a template were allowing viewers to look through an evocatively-shaped portal to an eroded pattern of expressively applied paint lying beneath, under scrutiny they tend to emerge instead as figures composed of cloud-like, shaped patterns of mixed, stressed, and eroded color. So sophisticated have our eyes and minds become that we can hold an imaginary and a real idea in mind and vision at the same time and place.
For Sproul, that image allows him to foreground the distinction between the DNA-replicated young who begin life largely as anonymous, interchangeable units and the individuated, richly patinated persons who encounter each other later in life. These, ideally, should have learned with maturity to perceive and correctly interpret the almost subliminal marks—not so much the literal blemishes, the scars and tattoos, but more likely the posture, the fleeting gesture, the glance or grimace—that reveal history and betray what life has made of each other. In essence then, Sproul’s figures are pairs, not necessarily couples, whose encounters comprise the shared and necessary transactions of daily life.
For the viewer, meanwhile, they offer an additional, inexhaustible pleasure. The first thing to look for in any work of art is not some accessible translation, or a sense impression intended to be exchanged for a verbal equivalent. The cost of such easy access will be rapid exhaustion of whatever drew the eye in the first place. The first thing the eye should seek is the promise, which experienced viewers learn to identify, that there will never be a final discovery—an end to visual ravishment and the metaphorical unraveling that accompanies it. John Sproul’s figures make that promise. Whether the surface of a given pair of figures initially suggest the disintegration of a single membrane, or the bubbling turmoil of seething, multicolored layers, and regardless of what significance is ascribed to them or not ascribed to them in any other cerebral medium they might inhabit, whether they are splotchy or veined like marble, or if they are dripping, oozing, fur-like, or crusted, whether they seem to be airborne like gossamer or standing heavy on the densest plane, they will never surrender their ability to intrigue the senses and bewitch the mind. Surely it is this blend of sense and sensibility that lifts works of exceptional craft to the special place of art.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.
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