“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…
get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing
for granted. Everything is phenomenal. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
– Rabbi Joshua Herschel
If you have ever stood before a Paul Sattler painting, no doubt you’ve been sucked into it with a feeling not unlike the marvelous, yet uneasy sense of vertigo you get when standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. There are no guardrails. You step back, but here you are, dizzy and drawn again to the edge and into the abyss. You know there is someplace more sensible to be, safer. You’ve been glued here far too long. Someone will think there’s something wrong. You cannot move. Your senses are heightened. Figures advance, and then, ghostlike, retreat. Perspective keeps shifting on you, swept into the pulsing vortex, as gravity (or is it radical amazement) pulls you with ever more strength.
Sattler’s images are notoriously densely packed. Count upwards of 10 birds in one painting. Often, but not always, there is a central tree, a hole or passage going underground, and a view to a lit blue sky. There is an overall intelligence, an art historical reference you cannot always put your finger on. The artist appears in many of his own works, as does the figure of his wife. But having spelled out this “recipe” for some of the large paintings made by Sattler in the last decade, there is also nothing about them to be expected. In fact, it is this quality of the unexpected that makes them so rich, so exciting. His use of light, space, and color and the way these paintings reveal themselves to the viewer over time make them masterful. Indeed, he has won numerous prestigious awards, including a 2006 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
Most recently, Paul Sattler was named the first inaugural recipient of the Consortium Artist/Scholar Residency from the Studio Art Centers International (SACI) of Florence, Italy. He spent the month of June in Florence, one of the world’s greatest art cities, interacting with faculty and students, joining them on field trips to Pisa, Lucca, San Gimignano, Siena, Fiesole, Arezzo and other important sites in Tuscany… where buses toot their horns around hairpin turns up mountain roads, fit for one lane of traffic only. And where, pulling into dusty dirt driveways of one room churches in the middle of nowhere, one puts coins into a box for lights to come on revealing: O! Giotto Frescos covering all the walls!
Sattler also delivered a visiting artist lecture at the International Centre for the Arts in Monte Castello di Vibio, Italy. But mostly he devoted time during the residency to observational painting in and around Florence and Tuscany. He was, however, thwarted in his second goal, to research and produce preparatory work for a series of paintings inspired by the life and music of the composer Carlo Gesualdo (1560-1613). According to Sattler, “Gesualdo was an extremely innovative late-Renaissance composer of madrigals of tremendous beauty and power. Revered by the likes of Igor Stravinsky, he was also a very controversial figure, riddled with violence, paranoia and personal demons – including a jealousy-fueled murder of his wife and her lover. During my stay, I wanted to make a sojourn to the town of Gesualdo, Campania, to visit the ‘scene of crime,’ his castle and the surrounding landscape. One of the most provocative Gesualdo myths involves him single-handedly chopping down acres of trees surrounding his castle to keep an unobstructed view of potential intruders.” Understandably called ‘The Prince of Darkness‘ by some, alas, the Gesualdo castle was undergoing renovations and was closed to visitors.
So what does an artist in love with light and art history do instead? He goes to Paris of course! And the Grand Art Tour continued. Paris was the perfect choice for Sattler. He had never been there. And to many of his admirers, Sattler’s drawings are not unlike Daumier’s: as revealed in the freedom and repetition of his marks, brush strokes in lights and darks measured masterfully to direct the viewer’s attention, and in washes laid with purpose, yet with seeming abandon. So Paris it was. And the fruitful sketches and plein air paintings begun in Italy continued.
Of his remarkable journey, Sattler himself writes: While I have always worked with a will to look into rather then at life, I am always confronted, when traveling away from my studio, with the challenge of being drawn into the fabulous world and stories told by the master painters of the past and being intoxicated by the radiant beauty of the foreign settings, architecture and light. These two experiences are so overwhelming that there really does not seem to be any room left for my own personal narratives and imagination. Thus I dedicate myself to empirical, observational works (in situ landscapes, self-portraits, etc.) to take advantage of my eyes wide open while my mind meditates on the day’s sights, paintings seen and places visited.
More than anything, this mode of observational painting promotes close attention. The experience stresses asking myself ‘how’ as a meaningful exercise in being present and mindful during the creation of the artwork. Of course, my inquisitive, controlling, ego-driven mind still wants to ask ‘why’ but, as someone once said, “The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.”
The ‘how’ and ‘why’ merge for me while experiencing the great works that can only be seen in Italy and France. This trip delivered a memorable experience in front of Simone Martini’s Annunciation (Uffizi). I sunk into a passage of decorative togetherness that included Mary’s knee, cloak, hand, fingers, bookmarker and various decorative patterns, and the way that they all lead up through her sinuous figure. And yet the painting is not overwhelmed by a decorative visual mode. For, the artist was so aware of a pacing and spacing needed to convincingly tell the story, beautifully and profoundly. I was, thus, noticing, similar modes of ornamentation in service of narrative communication in France – in front of masterworks by Bonnard, Braque and, especially, Cezanne.
In my own humble way, I hoped to at least be aware of such balance of forces while working on my little landscapes from my apartment window. Bonnard said, “One always talks of surrendering to nature, but there is also such a thing as surrendering to the picture.” While I admit that my empirical mission was paramount, I, when finishing them back home, became aware of where the pictures wanted to go. Hopefully, such exercises will also have lasting impact on my predominant home-base modes of painting my imaginative worlds as well as a new respectful place of painting the natural world.
—Mary Kathryn Jablonski
Paul Sattler is a Solomon R. Guggenheim Fellow in Painting and Drawing. He has had solo exhibitions at Alpha Gallery in Boston and Gerald Peters Gallery in New York and many other one-person and group exhibitions around the country including the National Academy of Art and Design where he was awarded the Wallace Truman Prize. His work is represented in public and private collections including the Albany Institute of History and Art, The Arkansas Art Center, and Wellington Management, among others, and has been written about and reviewed in the ArtNews, Hyperallergic, the Boston Globe, The New York Times, Art New England, and The Art Collector. Sattler is currently Director of the Schick Art Gallery and Associate Professor of Art at Skidmore College. He received his MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington, and BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He lives and works in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Mary Kathryn Jablonski is a gallerist in Saratoga Springs, a visual artist and a poet, author of the chapbook To the Husband I Have Not Yet Met (APD Press, 2008). Her poems have appeared in numerous literary journals includingSalmagundi, Slipstream, Beloit Poetry Journal, and Blueline. Her artwork has been widely exhibited throughout the Northeast and is held in private and public collections.