Sarah Sutton's monochromatic oil paintings are landscape paintings and psychological terrains. They are stuffed with representational narrative while frequently veering into fields of abstraction. They combine images and collide them. They are exploded views filled with imploded moments. They emit an aura of cacophony while resonating with interior structures and repeating patterns. They present themselves as cohesive, singular, all-encompassing entities which are nonetheless constructed by thousands of the tiniest painterly marks. Their entireties push us back to take it all in while their details pull us forward, resisting any singular resolution of pictorial space. They are maddeningly vexing and undeniably beautiful. They are moments of dread mixed with breathless epiphanies.
In 1986, Morton Paley coined the term the "apocalyptic sublime" to reference British paintings of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that depicted apocalyptic Biblical scenes depicted in the lush painterly style of the era. It's an effective term that collapses horror with beauty, anxiety with rapture. Sutton's paintings frequently veer into this territory as her source material often springboards from the disastrous consequences of late capitalism, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Dhakar garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. Both events represent the extreme consequences of systems that prioritize profit at the expense of workers and the environment.
Sutton is not didactic about these events and does not proselytize overt moral messages. Instead, the visual representations of these horrific events serve as the ground upon which a multitude of additional imagery comes into play to complicate the depictions. In Deep Horizon, amid the wreckage of the exploded oil rig, a long, elegant water slide careens carelessly down the right side of the work, merging theme park imagery into the disaster. In Filter Bubble, Snow White and Mickey Mouse float atop the garment factory wreckage as beatific icons to Western capitalist desire.
Pop culture imagery—bikini models, amusement park rides, cartoon characters—winds its way through Sutton's paintings, merging effortlessly with the ever-transformative scenery, making disaster a kind of black comedy in which we are all participating. The pervading sense of doom is perpetually punctuated by details of superficial import. Cataclysm is made more sickening by the intrusive reminders of the facile culture within which misfortune occurs. That Sutton paints these disasters with such obscurity almost suggests the blind spots that we suffer when our hunger for the exploitation of natural resources proceeds unbound.
The overall visual terrain is never fixed, with smaller scenes swirling within the larger landscape elements, sometimes so small they can be easily missed without virtually pressing against the work. Sutton plays with scale and the viewer's expectations simultaneously, demanding perpetually shifting distances from which to consider the paintings. Not merely because there are larger and smaller paintings, but detail and resolve modulate perennially inside single works. There are strong optical and psychological effects that derive from this painterly manipulation. Things are concealed and revealed simultaneously as our eyes dart about, wondering where to land and what to consider.
Representation and abstraction are among the major elements that collude visually in Sutton's work. It's not readily apparent where one ends and another begins. There is a rapturous quality to her painting style that blends the two in a fluid manner that suggests that these images constructed from disparate and disjunctive elements are somehow configured as they should be, which is her effective resolution of the painterly space. Within this, her mark making is not singular—sometimes lush and languid, sometimes sharp and abrupt—but is always directed toward making the visual cacophony a singular whole.
Her choice to depict these complex scenarios in a grayscale palette smooths over the visual discordance and makes for a more cohesive whole. It also absolves the works of any final philosophical statement, as the vexing issues Sutton's imagery brings up are given to us as shades of gray. In the end, they are complex paintings that do not stop reverberating. their frequently beautiful aspects reside alongside an atmosphere that is never less than unsettling. Their atmosphere and aspect are often sublime while brimming with apocalyptic rumblings.
Written by John Massier, curator, Hallways Contemporary Art Center in Buffalo, NY