Hiding in plain sight

Sean Landers, Navel Gaze, 1995

If a picture paints a thousand words then what happens when the picture is words? Sean Landers uses painting as a way to tell stories but it’s not the picture part of the equation – when there is one, and more often than not there isn’t – that does the talking. It’s all those words.

I saw Landers’s work first in Young Americans at the Saatchi Gallery in, I think*, 1996. I remember being mesmerised by it. I made a very good attempt at reading the paintings but I think I failed. By the time you’re about three or four lines in it’s hard to get from the end of one line to the start of the next without skipping or re-reading so hoolding on to the thread of the narrative becomes troublesome.

Thought Bubble, 1994

This is work that’s stayed pretty clear in my mind though – a minor miracle given how much I seem to forget – and I doubt I’ve ever made it through an academic year without telling a student to go and have a look at the work of Sean Landers. But my memory of the work is much more rooted in how it looks and in the difficulty associated with reading lines that long. Of the words I remember far less.

And for years those conversations with students were frustrating as there seemed to be little about Landers on the web – usually my students’ research resource of choice despite the excellent library they have access to – so enthusiasm on my side was met with blank looks on theirs.

Thank You for Having Me, 2005

In 2006, maybe*, I greeted the news that Sean Landers was showing at, I think*, Greengrassi with some excitement. This was a chance to properly refamiliarise myself with his work.

The text paintings in that exhibition were exactly what I needed to see. That same excessive line-length rendering the text almost impossible to follow. Here the text started a little way from the top of the canvas, meaning that the lines wavered and became even harder to follow. This time there was the added bonus of getting to read – albeit patchily, given the format – about Landers’s own frustrations with his career in the intervening years. I do like a painting that answers questions I’ve been pondering!

And I Never Was, 2005

In this respect, I think the work I enjoyed most was And I Never Was which seemed to talk about the artist’s life and career with real honesty. This is art that tells a very personal story in plain English. But the means of delivery makes the story hard to follow. Landers is hiding in plain sight.

And I never Was (detail)

* Yes, I know Google is my friend but I’m on a train and there’s no signal and I’m pretty sure I’ll forget to check before posting. And a bit of guesswork never hurt anyone. Probably.

2 thoughts on “Hiding in plain sight

  1. Some of the content here reminds me of some of the works by David Wojnarowicz that dealt with his life and childhood (I’m thinking like “One Day this Kid” or “When I Put my Hands…”) . Obvious differences, of course, as Wojnarowicz still relied on imagery to provide some kind of grounding for the text. Having text only engages the viewer on a very different level.

    • There are strong similarities certainly (and Landers uses central images in some works) though I think Wojnarowicz’s text is easier to read. I know his film/performance work better; indeed that’s on a list in my head for possible posts next week, so watch this space… Your comment has made me go and look at his work again, many thanks!

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