The contemporary artist, given a particular education and overall attitude toward what is considered historically important today, may struggle to communicate in terms that challenge them formally while at the same time addressing the need for a creative language. They may find themselves reacting to the scene overall or to specific artists who are lauded as the paradigmatic models for ‘quality’. In this situation, one expects to compete not for a position of mastery, or to produce a new generational legacy, but only to hold onto whatever degree of notoriety is bestowed upon them. Although genius is still a prized quality, it has become a quantifiable commodity, and not the ambiguous measure of idiosyncrasy that it once was. It becomes necessary for the artist of vision to look back upon art history for cues as to how to express oneself. In the case of Daniel Sewell, he chose Cubism as a creative language to reinvigorate a contemporary dialogue on form, esthetics, and the uses of history.
In order to properly investigate his work, it becomes necessary to both unearth the systematic approach Sewell has toward epochal forms of artistic expression that are alienated from contemporary aesthetic ideologies. Sewell investigates Cubism as a model for his own creativity while also providing a template, or parable, for the comprehension of Cubism from the chronological and ideological distance of a century later. In terms of progress, there has been as much change in art, its ideas, and the perception of it since then as there was at that moment. Sewell’s process combines an intentional historicity with re-investigation of the formal terms of depiction in Cubism as simultaneously portentous and playful.
Sewell’s initial attempts to model a style of image-making through the veil of Cubism include ‘Musketeer’ (2004) and ‘Head’ (2006), both simple images of a face in black on a white background. The directness of the image works against its visibility, as the overlapping stencils and the random spray of air sensitive paint create moody halos or shadows, like dirt on a relic, transforming them despite their mutability into instant classics.
Three years later, Sewell arrived at the body of work he initially called “What Would Pablo Picasso Do?” (exhibited under the title “PP Chop’d and Screwed”). These consist of a set of four heads, which are the most human part of any anatomy. They imply scale of the implied figure, a staging of emotional expression, and themes such as pathos or bathos, the sublime or the grotesque, in ways that an oblique figure or an empty landscape would lack. The four heads included here were all completed in one sitting, and the idea was to treat all of Picasso’s forms not as warped caricatures but as structured illustrations with a satirical bent, much as Dante or Bocaccio drew mocking caricatures of people from society into their epic poems.
A perspective on the social role of the images themselves mirrored and complemented by their grotesque departure from the real allowed Sewell to understand how he could use them. Because he was working from a template based on a historically recognized body of work, Sewell could ‘play around with choices that are possible but not made yet. I could play with a possible decision of his, because all the parameters are ready and in-place. The playing is improvised and results in changing an angle, changing a series of profiles, or perspectives, or even reversing positing and negative spaces. But with these four heads I built up the axes of the eyes nose and mouth, and just improvised how those axes could be stacked up.’ Figuring out a system for the gestures and working them into a range of compositions that idiosyncratically juxtapose Picasso’s discipline with Sewell’s own choice of forms is the representative breadth of his accomplishment. Watching a studio visit with the artist in which he presents the basic materials for his spray paint stencils and then sketches out the process by which he conceptually and structurally builds the stencil forms, one is made to feel that we are talking in an entirely different language; that he is somehow incorporating not only physiological but also architectural plans or geometrical diagrams into it. The parts themselves are born in complexity, mechanical yet mute artifacts in a remaking of historical imperatives. The finished product is transformative of their combined use. The scaled, dimensional, and shaded elements of the rendering itself are central to any real appreciation of what Cubism achieved in its time. Sewell reduces them by making the collaged elements into a stencil and then alternating the silhouette of his stencil to give gradients of shadow to his images, which he combines sometimes with a flipping or rotation or doubling of the image to create a funhouse esthetic.
Sewell’s “Two Nudes” (2011), for instance, are mirror reflections of the same form creating a chorus line of grotesque plays on the modernist ideal fracturing the classical ideal of the Nude with all its references to sensuality immersed in systemic thinking about the depiction of beauty; technique overrides passion; here a passion for ugliness imposes itself upon our perception of a nude. We take it on faith that the form is what Sewell says it is, even as his depiction resists the luxury of sensuality.
Likewise, “Double Portrait” depicts what seem like crystalline or origami approximations of a moon-faced geisha girl, a nod to the hushes sensuality of Romantic source material while its start simple black lines upon a golden yellow paper are reminiscent of gift wrapping, so the alien sexiness is both a distancing and a seduction at the same time.
On the other end of the perceptual spectrum are his “Skull” series, in which a cranium shaped stencil depicts the mortality of a face while somehow still implying both the face and the presence of humanity in the most minimal details, along with a skewed perspective in which we view the skull as if down a deep well, or a shallow grave on a foggy night. In one composition we even spy the face of the Minotaur, Picasso’s own myth of the godhead.
In his most recent series, Sewell does away with the spray paint altogether and uses the stencils themselves as shadow puppets, scanning them in close up to depict both the sectional arabesques they are used for and to imply a ghostly anthropomorphism. Both “Nude” and “Reclining Nude” (both 2012) utilize the received wisdom of forms that the artist names and therefore bestows upon them the authority of presence even if only the barest of means are materially present. These few scraps of paper, painted over and over again not for their own sake as decoration, but as the skein through which a language of forms can be delivered, are symbolically pure and loaded at the same time. They bear the markings of their role and are yet imbued with a persona by their unorthodox portrayal.
Daniel Sewell places his talents at the service of art and not the market; but he has transformed himself into an archivist and anthropologist of art historical ideas that he deems necessary to the continued understanding of what role art can possess today. His remodeling of Cubism creates a new dialogue for the understanding of form, an appreciation of the limits and biases that construct beauty, and how history presents us not only with knowledge but with mysteries that it is our role to unravel.