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Daniel Sewell at Agora: Reconfiguring Cubism

Daniel Sewell

Figurative, cubist, improvised, process-oriented” is how Daniel Sewell, an American artist presently living in Shanghai, China, sums up his compositions in spray paint. However, an underlying conceptual complexity and allusive resonance that defies such succinct description comes across in the works by Sewell on view at Agora Gallery, 530 West 25th Street, from September 8 through 29. (Reception: Thursday, September 10, from 6 to 8 PM.)

For a contemporary artist to “appropriate,” if one may employ a loaded term, the formal vocabulary of cubism is, at this point in art history, an act of daring. After all, cubism broke with an artistic tradition close to 500 years old and simultaneously revitalized it by presenting a new way of looking at the world. Thus the artist who endeavors to adopt its methods must, in turn, present us with a new way of looking at cubism. And, happily, Sewell does just this.

For while the forms that he favors are unabashedly derived from the planar fractures with which his cubist predecessors endeavored to represent three-dimensional objects on a flat surface without resorting to the illusion of perspective, his technique of spraying paint through overlapping stencils is indeed spontaneous and process-oriented, enabling him to bring an eclectic postmodern sensibility innovatively into play, even while paying tribute to the formal foundation of modernism. For one thing, his use of spray paint suggests the hit and run tactics of urban graffiti artists, albeit employed with cooler formal precision; for another, like Paul Klee and William de Kooning in their different manners –– and for that matter, Picasso in “Guernica” –– he extends the vocabulary of cubism for expressive purposes.

In the series entitled “PP Chop’d & Screwed,” for example, Sewell puts a new spin on analytical cubism’s multiple angles of view with images of overlapping faces with features so variously rearranged as to suggest complex psychological states such as multiple personality disorder, rather than mere formal permutations. Similarly, in some nudes in the same series, he imaginatively reconfigures the female figure, creating often startling anatomical anomalies that fulfill his stated goal of finding “solutions to what seem to be limits in the representation of nature.”

But perhaps Sewell’s most striking innovation is the compositional device of presenting his clusters of cubistic forms as discrete entities isolated within expanses of “empty” space. For coupled with the generally monochromatic bias of his palette, which usually consists of a single color sprayed onto a white or tinted ground, this suggests an intriguing confluence of Western iconography and Asian space, possibly inspired either by his residence in China or the affinity for Asian culture in general that occasioned his stay there, as well as in other regions of the East.

However, he stated in an interview that his collaborations with other artists, as well as with scientists have given him “an appreciation for process, as well as for setting down guidelines and rules before beginning a piece or series.” And it would appear that his deliberate, conceptual approach, combined with the split-second decisions he must make in the act of employing stencils and spray paint to layer his forms in the manner of collage (that most radical invention of cubism) is what invests his work with its unique combination of formal rigor and spontaneity.

–– Byron Coleman

Image Credits: PP Chop'd & Screwed (4), Spraypaint, 30" x 20"

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