Paul Sietsema’s Anticultural Positions (2009) is a silent, 30-minute black-and-white film featuring the text of a lecture that the artist originally presented last year at New York’s New School. White sentences on a black background alternate with images of tabletop surfaces encrusted with paint and resin from years of work in Sietsema’s Los Angeles studio. “All my works of these past years are closely linked to the specific behavior of the material used,” the text announces. Describing such materials—“mixed Zinc Oxide with lean but viscous varnish”—it might be captioning the images that follow. Elsewhere, it diverges into philosophical abstraction and purple prose, proposing an art that imagines “a world of phantasmagorical irreality,” and photographed close up, the spattered surfaces do resemble sublime, Turneresque skyscapes. In this way, the text suggests ways of interpreting the images without either illustrating the other. The give and take might be a clue to materiality—in Sietsema’s practice—always being qualified by the illusion that creates it and that it serves to create. Seen within the wider context of his work, there is no reason to assume the tabletop splashes of paint and plaster are what they seem and not artificial reconstructions of those materials and their “behavior,” using other materials.
In an adjoining room, 10 vases and plates were arranged on a low platform, their surfaces eroded, cracked and stained. Were they original sculptures or found objects? No titles or dates were given. They could have been ancient relics from an archeological dig, but something betrayed their newness. Like the film, they were pitched to subvert our assumptions as to what is real and artificial, what is authentic and fake.
With Sietsema, nothing is quite as it seems. The text in Anticultural Positions is neither a transcription nor a script: this “lecture” was also originally presented as text, with Sietsema absent. It blends original and borrowed material, although, ostensibly, it is an artist’s first-person description of his working process. Passages from a 1951 lecture by Jean Dubuffet, in which he discussed his still-life paintings, have been integrated with Sietsema’s own words. This act of appropriating existing material is a familiar trope from Sietsema’s earlier films, in which objects both natural (flowers, insects) and cultural (architectural interiors, coins and ceramics) are reconstructed using other materials in order to be filmed.
Anticultural Positions meditates on the contrasts between telling (text) and showing (image) in order to arrive at a synthesis. Similarly, the lecture ranges conceptually and geographically between “the deserts of White Africa” and “the Andes” before circling back to “the miserable vista on which the window of one’s room opens daily” and an artist who “succeeded in presenting an impression of life using nothing but formless terrain.” The surfaces, dappled and smeared with paint, become the “formless terrain” of the text. Geographical contrasts are rendered insignificant to an art that is “no longer descriptive of external sites but of the immaterial world which dwells in the mind,” as though all of life could be found on a tabletop if one were to look hard enough.
Photo: Paul Sietsema: Anticultural Positions, 2009, film, 30 minutes; at Schinkel Pavilion.