Project Series 20: Pauline Stella Sanchez
Pauline Stella Sanchez’s new work continues to explore her long-standing interest in systems of art and production and mythologies of the sun. For almost fifteen years, Sanchez, who works in Los Angeles, has methodically created digital drawings and prints, paintings, sculpture, and video that combine a rigorous intellectual framework with a profound curiosity about spatial systems and language. In addition, she focuses on notions of culture—specifically, the world of appearances and images—and is fascinated by the absurdity and irony of much of this cultural archive. Sanchez’s amalgamations of objects, cartoon color, and computer-generated images suggest a mysterious epic blending fact and fiction, the rational and the imaginative. With these odd and extraordinary productions, the artist creates objects that shift our perceptions of reality and heighten our consciousness.
In her past work, Sanchez has variously presented groups of cartoon-yellow surrogate sun paintings meant to be lit by the sun; circular installations of digital and ink drawings capped with quirky cartoon-yellow sculptures; interactive Formica sculptures that mimic architecturally designed furniture; and photographs of herself on the sun. Starting in 1989, Sanchez traveled to architectural, cultural, and landscape sites focused on cultures of the sun, including Versailles, France; the Vatican; Bolivia; Peru; and England. These experiences further solidified her interest in sun mythologies, mirroring as a cinematic tool and as a self-portrait, the society of the spectacle, art history, and the world of images. The work on view here stems from the artist’s earlier explorations into modernist painting, color theory, quantum physics, and furniture design, as well as her connections to artists as diverse as Yves Klein, Piet Mondrian, and Joseph Mallard William Turner. All of these sources and objects are linked by Sanchez in her on-going investigations into art history, art production, and spatial systems.
In this exhibition, Sanchez presents a new video entitled ...self-portrait...with notes and opera light, three new sculptural arrangements entitled Sun helmutbonnethalo prototypes that are to be solitarily made of water with ubu stairs..., and an earlier example of one of her surrogate sun paintings. Both the earlier painting and the video self-portrait bring together her diverse interests and link the past with the present—the “dazzlement” of the sun with the reality of her artistic influences. The video consists of footage from an art history lecture by Sanchez interspersed with flowers, sun imagery, and a photograph of the artist on the sun. Through her own teaching—captured in the video—of film and art history, she weaves connections between theoretical structures, in this case, connecting French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and his essay, “Cezanne’s Doubt” to her sun photograph as well as other filmmakers and artists. Each of the three sculptures includes carefully designed floating podiums; small wooden quasi-Cubist “staircases” that collapse two-dimensional space with three-dimensional space, playing on Sanchez’s earlier interests in spatial systems; and hand-modeled cartoon-color glazed porcelain objects that play absurdly with notions of use for a “helmet,” a “bonnet,” or a “halo.”
Working more like a researcher than an artist, Sanchez has found that sun myths are interwoven in political, social, cultural, and economic histories. Ultimately, through her research and artistic process, she finds that connections can be made and epiphanies can be reached. At the same time, however, she reaches no logical conclusion—there is, in her work, a constant searching for states of comprehension.
Pauline Stella Sanchez’s exhibition is the twentieth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
The sun…is the most elevated conception. It is also the most abstract object, since it is impossible to look at it fixedly at [noon].1
...POP, 1997 Over the past fifteen years the exhibitions of Pauline Stella Sanchez have provided minute, episodic documentation of her excursions to the sun. Sanchez’s work consists of an ongoing series of large, circular floor pieces, sculptural installations, paintings, digital works, video, and photographs all of which are installed in a way determined by the architecture of each environment. These installations transform gallery floors into hotel rooms at the Solar Hilton at check-out time, strewn with souvenirs laid out and ready to be packed away. Engaging these objects, one experiences a despairing and oddly ecstatic stillness. Because there are no shadows on the sun, we have bypassed the world of Platonic shadows to gaze directly upon the objects that cast those shadows. In the cabinets can be found computer-generated imagery spawned by the artist’s journeys, fingered porcelain instantaneously fired mid-trip by immersion in the heat of the sun, often saturated or sprinkled with pure cartoon color in a halting yellow splash. These are the end tables for the end of time. While the cabinets seem to contract to conceal their secrets, the circular pieces expand to provide architectonic contour maps of space/time. It is a world of intimate immensity, and by plunging into this domestic tableau vivant we approach the infinite.
Demonstrating an unbounded becoming, Sanchez unpacks the modernist worldview to display its constituent parts. As an object-maker, she shows us how ideology is invested, and almost “infested,” in objects that carry this significance into the flow of the marketplace like Trojan horses instilled with meanings spread unknowingly and unknown to their handlers. She forces us into a confrontation with this phantom existence or hidden language. Sanchez tells all—informed by a comprehensive enfoldment of histories and schools of thought, theosophy, structuralism, post-structuralism, and particle physics, among others. She systematically seeks the hidden essence of being, a quest that she documents exhaustively.
As a neo-constructivist seeking to capture pure immaterial perception, Sanchez is sufficiently at peace with her tools to refer to the natural world. In the spirit of the modernism that flourished internationally between the First and Second World Wars, Sanchez’s work proceeds with hope for societal comprehension through careful consideration and contemplation. But modernism’s humanistic tyranny of purpose is absent. Instead Sanchez circumambulates her art work as the great shaper, serving up an accumulation of splendid corporeal structures for us to gaze at in wonder. Her work reveals to the eye an ideal in which dystopia is enfolded and where gazing at the sun is both possible and without negative consequences.
Thus we may view our own eye as a creature of the sun on earth, a creature dwelling in and nourished by the sun’s rays, and hence a creature structurally resembling its brothers on the sun…But the sun’s creatures, the higher beings I call angels, are eyes which have become autonomous, eyes of the highest inner development which retain nevertheless, the structure of the ideal eye. Light is their element as ours is air.2
The artist’s travels to the sun are literal, according to the photograph, not metaphoric—tragicomic excursions for expanding our understanding of the oneness of symbols, space, light and matter. Nineteenth-century scientist Gustav Fechner celebrated the eye’s immersion in and nourishment by the sun, but along with his contemporaries Sir David Brewster and Joseph Plateau, his fascination turned pathological. All three men severely damaged their eyes by staring directly at the sun (Plateau went blind permanently). Get too close to the sun and you’ll be burned, unless you go at night—or better still—unless, before the whole question of how to journey to the sun arises, someone gives you a photo that documents that you’ve already been there. Sanchez’s work centers on her story that someone gave her such a photo just outside of Versailles in 1989—a picture that she occasionally includes in exhibitions of her work. It depicts a blurry human figure interacting with a smaller figure that she nicknamed “sun porn” in the late 1980s—she abbreviates pornography because she doesn’t necessarily mean the sexually erotic but, rather, an eroticism of the multiple associations that occur with symbols and signs in this world.
By placing the story of a photograph of herself that she did not take at the center of her work, Sanchez echoes Joseph Beuys’ placement of his crash-landing photograph, the story about the Tartars, their fat and felt at center of his mythology. Whereas questioning who took the photo of Beuys can only lead one to suspect his authenticity, questioning who took the photo of Sanchez on the sun can only lead one to wonder. The problem with Joseph Beuys’ image and the story that went with it is that they were possible but ultimately proven to be untrue. Sanchez’s photo is so completely implausible that it seems certain to reveal truths heretofore unknown.
Sanchez has a latent genetic predisposition to a particular ocular disease that creates the remote possibility of the loss of an eye. If she were to lose an eye, wouldn’t it be fair to say that this eye will have become autonomous? And once it became autonomous, wouldn’t her eye therefore have become one of the sun’s creatures? Might not the ocular “porn” interacting with her in the photograph be her own lost eye? This exchange incorporates a triad of transgressive acts: transsexual, since it finds her in a typically male position of control; trans-species, because the angel/sun porn is clearly not human; and autoerotic since it was once her own eye. In this system of erotic optical exchange, Sanchez is not ravaged by the sun like the Greek maiden Persephone accosted by Zeus in the guise of a shower of gold. She is in the driver’s seat of this Solar Porn—it’s her “money shot” not his. There is a sense of control and whimsical cynicism in the face of the violent, abstract, and sublime sun. Nonetheless this control only occurs because of the possible loss of an eye that the creature represents—a sacrifice that leads to a certain degree of mastery and transformation.
A hostage in Beirut about to be freed by his captors was taken out in the sun blindfolded. After weeks in a darkened cell, the heat of the sun on his face made him believe he was about to be tortured. 3
Turner lived in a cellar. Once a week he had the shutters suddenly flung open, and then what incandescence! What dazzlement! What jewels! 4
Like Sanchez, the 19th-century English painter Joseph Mallard William Turner and the hostage are sun-travelers. …the annunciation… that took place on the other side of the same room where there was the electric chair…diamonds… …electrical language sight gag (see plates 3 and 4) locks the image of the artist on the sun in a dark basement and then throws open the doors of perception. Emerging from dark basements, all experience the sun suddenly, violently, stripping away its habitual, banal presence. Turner’s The Angel Standing in the Sun is probably not too far from the sun by which the Beirut prisoner felt assaulted, right down to the threatening stick the angel holds aloft. The harsh, violent light is so bright it releases darkness.
Through the afterimage [burned into the retina] the sun is made to belong to the body...5
Turner and Sanchez are retinal scribes. The saturation of light on the retina that comes with fixed staring is the ultimate ecstasy of hallucination. The build-up of retinal after-images breaks down the dichotomy of subject/object, and the cones and rods start to glow with an inner light that is also the outer light. The active self that is always looking for things to do is sloughed off, and all that is left are the glowing lines of flame growing in paisley patterns and the deep velvety darkness of sun-spots which results from over-saturation. The two versions of the sun portrait included in this catalogue, the annunciation piece and the beginning and end of the video in the Pomona College Museum of Art exhibition, represent retinal extremes. In the video the sun photograph momentarily burns hot and overexposed like the hot red of closed eyelids flooded by sunlight; in the cellar-like annunciation it is a variety of colors, similar to the array that we see when we suddenly open our sun-drenched eyelids.
It is interesting that Sanchez should be so connected to such a painterly painter as Turner. At the end of his life Turner moved from the traditional landscape rectangle to square and round canvases like Angel Standing that mimicked the eye/sun shape. A floor piece like g wiz… POP (plate 7) shown here pushes Turner’s retinascapes to their natural conclusion—a huge circle splayed out on the floor covered with sunspots, paisley fractals, and after-images with a glass tower in the center topped with bright yellow mushrooms. Sanchez pushes things even further in her yellow POP… painting series that makes use of an enfolded or holographic space, surrogate suns. The two colors in these paintings are eye-mixed on the retina itself and when the sun hits their surface they glow, they dazzle.
From an early age, Sanchez has found the sun to be her contemplation. Much of her work indicates not just an appreciation of its pleasures but also an awareness of the sun’s capacity to inspire corporeal destruction. For instance, her photographs—one folded in half in the corner architecture—portray trees violently uprooted after a great storm at Versailles. Compare the incident these images document to a psychiatric case cited by George Bataille, that of Gaston F, who “stared at the sun, and, receiving from its rays the imperative order to tear off his finger,” did so without hesitation. 6 The logic of meteorology tells us that a storm so powerful that it can uproot trees can only derive such power from the sun, just as a darker, older logic tells us that a mental state so overpowering that it can drive teeth through skin, tendons, and bone could only be inspired by the sun. The same force drove both the psychotic and the Earth itself to acts of self-mutilation. These cases represent more than mere random acts of natural violence. Both situations are ideologically laden. Gaston F was not just crazy—he had read Nietzsche, and his self-mutilation was inspired by Van Gogh. The trees at Versailles are ideologically weighted, and when they fall victim in the marketplace of climactic upheaval it means something. There is a feeling of hubris akin to the boasting of greatness no longer evident in the words of Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias. All traces of former power have crumbled to ruin.
With the crumbling away of medieval orthodoxy, the Reformation created a shimmering tension that was furthered by the writings of the Enlightenment philosophers, and resulted in that high-pitched but well-tempered death-rattle of monarchic resplendence known to the world as the Court of Louis XIV at the Palace of Versailles. Consider Louis XIV as he took his daily walks through the garden at his palace. The problem of supplying water to the myriad fountains at Versailles was never adequately resolved; the pumps couldn’t keep them all running at the same time. But since everything at Versailles revolved around the Sun King’s procession through the gardens, it was only necessary to activate each specific fountain as He approached and then let it die out as He moved on.
In a fairy-tale, a princess believes that in order to cure her illness she needs to be given the moon. Because they know that the moon is enormous and very distant, all the experts despair except for the one who consults her. She tells him that the moon is the size of her thumbnail because she can cover it with the latter and that it is as far away as the tree outside her window that it sometimes gets caught in. He fetches her the moon, she wears it around her neck on a chain, and her condition improves. Neither was her reverie disturbed by the reappearance of the moon in the sky; she explains that like a clipped fingernail it has grown back.
Just as the princess’s faith in the reality of the “moon” around her neck wasn’t shaken by seeing the moon in the sky, it is quite likely that Louis and his court were not troubled by the sight of workers rushing ahead of him to generate the illusion of endless flow. Their faith kept them comfortable in their fantasies of control. Louis was the surrogate Sun whose arrival initiated and required all things to function and in whose absence there was only irrational darkness. He was the Projector, the site of a reified classicism; both the palace and the town of Versailles were just rays radiating outward from the central beacon of his bed. “L’etat c’est moi.”
Sanchez is not an omnipotent aristocrat whose narcissism the world is forced to substantiate, but an omniscient witness to the essence of the real. In the video of her lectures, we freeze-frame, zoom-in and loop the moments when she passes through the projected slide images, especially moments when the light divides her face in half, or mottles it so we can’t tell where her features end and Cézanne's flowers begin. Her image traces trails through the projected light of art history. At the very end of the video her face lurks in the dark projection then suddenly emerges squinting, perplexed, into operatic lights, and then the overexposed sun image ends the video. Sanchez suddenly and succinctly “pulls back the veil of our world to reveal the ideal, and harnesses the terror of perception” without reducing its power.7
Carol Jackson originates from Los Angeles, now resides in Chicago, and is an artist who writes for several art publications including Frieze, where she first wrote about Sanchez’s work in September 2001.
1. George Bataille, Visions of Excess; Selected Writings, 1927-1939, p. 57, trans. Allan Stoekl, 1985, University of Minnesota Press
2. Gustav Fechner, “On the Comparative Anatomy of Angels,” trans. Marilynn Marshall, Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 5, no.1 (1969) pp. 39-58 quoted by Jonathan Crary in Techniques of the Observer; On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, p. 142 An October Book, MIT Press, 1990
3. Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation; The Abduction of Lebanon, p.592, Atheneum, 1990
4. Matisse from Tate gallery Talking Turner web page
5. Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer, p.141
6. H. Claude, A. Borel, and G. Robin, “Une automutilation revelatrice d’un etat schizomaniaque” (Annales medico-psychologiques, 1924, vol. 1, pp.331-39) quoted in Georges Bataille, Visions of Excess, p.61
7. Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy
8. Pauline Stella Sanchez is paraphrased throughout this essay.