Paul Sietsema at The Drawing Room
Review by Rachel Guthrie
For the last fifteen years Paul Sietsema’s practice has been largely devoted to ascertaining what it means to be an artist in the now. This exhibition - a selection of new 2D and 3D works at The Drawing Room off the beaten track in Bermondsey - is his first solo show in the UK, where he continues his concerns around this matter.
The artist appears to revel in the exploration of his own status as a contemporary artist, particularly through his studio-set paintings, ‘State museum painting’, ‘White dollar painting’, ‘Chinese philosophy painting’, ‘Brush painting’ and ‘Painting for assembly’. In these, the artist begins with a remounted canvas, thickly weaved like the texture of hessian, onto which he paints the tools of his trade: a paint brush in ‘Brush painting’ for example, and a hammer, chisel and nails in ‘Painting for assembly’.
For Sietsema, the art is in the making. The appearance is at first one of assemblage (a disused paintbrush stuck onto a canvas), however on closer inspection the audience catches the artist dabbling in trompe l’oeil - these tools are just an illustration of process, not the tools themselves but highly realistic enamel paintings of what they represent.
One way, therefore, that the artist goes about his explorations of what it is to make art and be an artist, is through creativity with contemporary materials and techniques. For example, the first two works (a pair) entitled ‘Blue square 1’ and ‘Blue square 2’ appear as a crumpled blue painting removed from its frame (the former) and a dismounted frame (the latter), however they are digitally created images - not paper itself, or paintings of paper - with tears personally edited on.
As such the contrast between digital and non-digital media is made - between the real and the superficial. The physical character of 16mm (non-digital) film is tangible in ‘Telegraph’; the image shakes and flickers, proving it is not indestructible, and the materiality of the wood slacks that are displayed across the film to spell out ‘Letter to a Young Artist’ is graspable. It’s vulnerable and earthier - it feels more human as well as more concrete.
The artist gave 16mm film’s ‘found quality’ as the reason for beginning to use the medium over 10 years ago. The dual qualities of found and made in his works reveal the artist as both a collector and a creator of images. In collecting images predominately for their desirable aesthetic quality, he acknowledges that he takes visual information and uses it without respect of the authority it had in the original setting.
It is interesting then, that the artist is keen not to be considered as post-modern, even while professing that the past can exist no more than in the future - a slogan that seems to inhabit his work. For example the series ‘Calendar boat [1-4]’ pictures four faded, battered and sun-bleached sepia sailboats in poster size. Riding them are 1960s rich kids, probably off the coast of St Tropez or Sorrento. But, on the sail of each boat is a different year, 2010 to 2013 alluding to the fact that these images are not as old as they may appear. They are calculated counterfeit images, constructed with ink on paper via a method of duplication borrowed from pre-digital photography manuals. They are new images that feel established but have no history, and so it is history that Sietsema gives them the impression of.
The artist plays with ideas around the role of images not just in recording but also in constructing memories. He tells of his house being broken into as a child, and all of his photographs and movies from his childhood up until then being taken by the thief. This provoked the thought that propels much of his work: do I have fewer memories of this time because there is no media to produce them’ An idea that seems significant, like all his explorations, in our contemporary digital age.