Echoes of Familiarity: Derek Sullivan

Derek Sullivan’s Amnesia, his version of Brancusi’s Endless Column, embodies in its name the Toronto-based artist’s relationship to contemporary art history. It is not about forgetting but about a nuanced procedure of distancing. “Work gets added to it with each exhibition,” he says. “So it’s possible if someone were to see the sculptures in multiple shows over time, they might not recognize them anymore. There’s this echo of familiarity, but new material has been added over portions of it, so it is the sculpture they have seen before but the surface has changed. Also, in a lot of referentialist art, the references are so overt. With Amnesia I was trying to pull them back into things that have more tertiary references.”

Were there such a group, Sullivan could be a charter member of the Citationalist International. He references the work of other artists in various degrees of directness, whether he combines Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Strip with Martin Kippenberger’s Psycho Buildings to make his own artist’s book, Persistent Huts, or when he puts into a floor sculpture a copy of a Gerrit Rietveld chair and a stack of his own snapshots of Schwitters Merzbau taken at the National Gallery in Ottawa.

He is interested in those moments, primarily in recent art history, when artists made claim to vernacular forms as signature material for their art making: when Daniel Buren runs off with the stripe, when Sigmar Polke goes gingham and when Donald Judd masters Cadmium red. When Sullivan advances on any of these forms, he keeps things at a distance. “The idea of a new form strikes me as almost absurd.” His engagement with gingham in Amnesia is filtered not only through post-war German painting but also through the slightly sinister contours on the Bump dresses Rei Kawakubo did for Commes des Garcons in the late ’90s. So in Amnesia, Sullivan echoes high Modernism with haute couture in the form of an eccentric poster board. His art is the register of a subtle recombinant practice. If it had a touch, it would be a feather; if it had a scent, it would be rosewater.

At the same time that he references other artists, he is effecting variations on his own production. Each time he exhibits his work (as he did recently in “Waiting Game” at Jessica Bradley Art + Projects, Toronto), it is different. He describes* Manuscript for Wattle and Daub*, the elegant sculpture in the exhibition, “as an accumulation of sculptural attempts” that in his studio began to take on the appearance of “a stack of pages, a manuscript.” But in his mind, its presentation has no fixed form. “In Jessica’s gallery I wanted the sculptural book to become an obstacle that you had to trip over. Then maybe you would negotiate how the sculpture could be projected into a book, and back and forth. But that isn’t to say it wouldn’t take on another arrangement the next time it is presented.” As Derek Sullivan so deftly puts it, “I’m interested in changing my mind.”

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