Paul Sietsema’s multilayered, multimedia work explores how many bodies of knowledge—about history, culture, and art itself—are far more fluid and mutable than we assume them to be.
He highlights the ambiguities of authorship and the ways aesthetics and understandings are often tied to specific cultures or historical periods, often using virtuosic tromp l’oeil effects and minute variations among repeated motifs. This exhibition is the most comprehensive to date for the artist, who lives and works in Los Angeles. It brings together five films—Figure 3 (2008), Anticultural Positions (2009), Telegraph and Encre chine (both 2012), and the newly completed At the Hour of Tea (2013)—along with drawings, paintings, and other works on paper.
Since the late 1990s, Sietsema has created several in-depth, multimedia investigations, each combining a 16mm film presentation with other artworks. For example, in the film Figure 3, Sietsema took as his subject precolonial ethnographic objects and tools, primarily from the South Pacific. These objects served as inspiration for a series of highly detailed sculptures—incorporating materials such as plaster and printing ink—which Sietsema then captured on 16mm film. In its presentation of the sculptures, the film resembles an ethnographic documentary, highlighting Sietsema’s fascination with methods of cataloguing and classification while blurring the line between different eras of cultural and historical authorship. Anticultural Positions (2009), originally presented as a “lecture” at the New School in New York, intersperses close-ups of the working surfaces in Sietsema’s studio with original and appropriated text, emphasizing the site of production in his practice.
Telegraph and Encre chine were first shown together during Sietsema’s 2012 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Basel in Basel, Switzerland. In Telegraph, Sietsema utilizes different configurations of found wood scraps—from his studio and the street, and from the wreckage left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—to investigate systems of communication stripped to essentials. At the forefront of Encre chine are frames, brushes, a camera, and other artists’ tools covered in black ink, an interference that explores the deterioration of objects through mediation and the intersection of the tools and products of art.
At the Hour of Tea, which is premiering at the Wexner Center, and projects related to it represent the culmination of Sietsema’s work supported by a Wexner Center Artist’s Residency Award in visual arts for 2010–11. This film presents five sequences that explore varied configurations of found objects, each following a structure that concludes with an image of a composed tableau. The objects, many of them subtly altered, range from Roman glassware to $20 coins, a magazine, a camera, and a typewriter. These sequences and objects offer historical analogues for modern processes of consumption, production, and communication: collecting, arranging, and recording. The disjunction of past and present is made most evident through the tracking of contemporary time (including dates when the artist was working on the film) on period calendars and watches. Another thread that connects the sequences is a progressively revealed text that describes a historical painting in modernist terms. Throughout, Sietsema incorporates references to his own processes or environment while juxtaposing images of the act of making with records of objects and images already made.
The exhibition’s curator is Christopher Bedford, former chief curator of exhibitions at the Wexner Center and now Henry and Lois Foster Director of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University. A richly illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition. It features essays by Suzanne Hudson (assistant professor, Department of Art History, University of Southern California) and George Baker (associate professor, Department of Art History, University of California, Los Angeles) and a conversation among Sietsema, Bedford, and Bill Horrigan, curator at large at the Wexner Center.
The exhibition travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, where it will be on view September 7, 2013, through January 5, 2014.
Residency and Wexner Center exhibition made possible with support from the Teiger Foundation, the Nimoy Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.