Author: Carol Damian
ArtNexus No. 50 – Sep 2003
The painting titled Keeping Distances (An American Portrait), 2003, sets the stage for these new works by Argentine painter Sebastian Spreng. It also may be considered an introduction to new directions for an artist well known for his solitary swimmers, isolated landscapes, and water imagery. Spreng still works on canvases that are carefully prepared with layers of gesso and pigments that create velvety textures, provocative markings, and ethereal imagery. At the same time he is exploring a more minimalist aesthetic in his works as a means of imbuing them with haunting nostalgia. Keeping Distances refers to the train trip he often took as a child. The memory of the monotonous landscape of the Argentine pampas is revived and captured in repeating frames as Spreng recalls the scenery from the perspective of his new home in the United States and its now familiar and similar landscape: the same landscape rendered by the American Romantic Landscape painters of the nineteenth century.
The Romantic Landscape is daringly empty and devoid of objects and narrative; only the occasional lonely confrontation of a single figure or solitary tree breaks the hypnotic simplicity of the painting’s composition. Sebastian Spreng’s unbroken, tree-lined horizon and infinite expanse of sky inspire the same mood of disquieting silence—a mood that evokes memories. He envisages memories like old photographs that have become almost monochromatic as their shapes diffuse in delicate haze. The composition is as reduced as the subject, and in these latest works this reduction leads to further abstraction and minimalism, perhaps the best method to express the fragile, transcendental aspects of life that such reminiscences evoke.
The paintings in this exhibition have the capacity to translate nature in a manner far more profound than mere description. Their beautiful colors, so carefully applied, evoke mood and mystery. The series begins with his further exploration of the image of the island that has been a primal presence in his work for years. However, after the first painting, Breaking the Waves, 2002, the water disappears and the island and the landscape take on a more translucent quality, almost becoming indistinguishable from their surroundings as if a color field of memory. The island is no longer for the living. It is a floating necropolis surrounded by the harbingers of war and loss. There is a pervasive religiosity in many of the paintings, even if the mood of the message is delivered by nothing more than color. Lava, 2003, is particularly fervent in its intensity of color—brilliant reds and oranges—and the solitary tree is but a design element to anchor the strong horizontals. Is this the one tree that survives eternally? There is a hermetic atmosphere engulfing its distant presence. The tree has become an anecdote to provide perspective and to serve as a point of reference.
In The Mammoth of Memory, 2003, the trees take on an anthropomorphic quality, like memory incarnate. The elephantine forms march solemnly upon the land as clouds hover over them. Curious attributes of human feelings are assigned to non-human subjects for emotions that may only be described in color and primal shapes. The sky glows with hope and peace, like a bridge between the natural and the supernatural that brings the viewer before the infinite expanse of earth, sky, and horizon. Cloud and land fuse into the indivisible glowing energy of light and color.
As Sebastian Spreng searches for the means to create haunting accolades to the memory of time and place, his paintings have become more luminous. On the brink of total abstraction, they are saturated with a pervasive ambience that glows with mystery. His experiments continue in larger canvases; the images contained within the dark paint of self-referential frames summon allusions to faded sepia-toned photographs, especially in contrast to the richness of color that describes his imagery. The depth of color and spontaneity of line that emerge out of the gessoed surfaces also fuel the imagination to venture beyond the ordinary. They allow the viewer moments of introspection and a glimpse into the past.