Return to Articles


April 14 - June 23, 2007 at Otis College, Ben Maltz Gallery, West Side
May 17 - June 16, 2007 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by Marlena Donohue

Red Mountain/Green Mountain," 1985-88.

"Decode Key," 1972.

"Progress in Birdland," 1994/95.

In addition to John Baldessari’s--perhaps more so because of his courageous rejection of any safe signature style to handle his dense and consistent story line--Don Suggs’ body of work reads like a compendium statement of the complex relationship we have to meaning and its explosion, to seeing patterns and disjuncture alternatively.

Let’s face it, cognitive habits, perceptual expectations, recurring gestalts at the bodily and conceptual level--i.e. meaning-making--have been around for a long while. All were naturally selected for as an efficient way to manage the sea of survival data in a struggle to be first when the Darwinian dust settled. It makes perfect sense that if Neanderthals could have retained that “a” plus “b” equals pleasure vs. danger, gets me a good roll in the cave vs. my hand chewed off, this thinker would be more likely to have survived than that poor bloke who was re-learning these patterns and consequences anew each day. This capacity to engage in that leap of abstraction which permits the random to accrue portentous meaning is at the core of experiences as basic as the hunt, and as sophisticated as language and indeed art.  

Post Modernism has certainly engaged in incisively peeling back the ex machina apparatus behind this thing we call "categorical meaning.” Whatever media Suggs is dazzling us with, he’s also tapping (never directly or literally) the deep seated, tenacious human reflex for making perceptual and psychic gestalts as it rubs against our anxious Post Modern recognition that today, in the age of Spectacle (perhaps always) any gestalt--poetry and metaphor, even those rule-driven a priori ones like speech and science--are at best fluid, even arbitrary.

The wonderful and overdue retrospective at Otis College’s Ben Maltz Gallery shows Suggs’ subtle and open ended way of dealing with this nuanced subject at both its most visceral/phenomenological as well as its philosophical levels. Also in his most current work, at L.A. Louver Gallery, we find Suggs' unremitting semiotic exploration take the form of figurative work, decorative abstraction, concept painting, conceptual photography, collage and poetry collaborations--all of which unwrap, expose, explore, and lay bare primordial to post capitalist meaning habits that call and hold us: nature, the beautiful, the body, art, even time/space unity. These ideas are alternatively reified and split apart with such sophistication, such a heuristic sense of play and technical beauty that you are taken to the anxiety of the unknowable smiling all the way.

At Otis we see early paintings that both count on and then explode our expectations of what that odd type of production, a painting on canvas, means. Their "no-particular-style" beauty signifies “painting." But they refuse to do what “painting” means to most of us: they are not replicas of the world, not enactments of the cult of authorial personality, not universal symbols of human endeavor that have been rendered questionable in light of Foucault's injunction (in a world of varied subjectivities) against the indignity/futility of speaking for others.

"Fleurs du Mall #7”, 2005.

"Black Cross, New Mexico
(Matrimony Series)," 2006,
oil on canvas, diameter: 60".

His switch to composite photographs sometime in mid-career produced seamless pastiches configured from cut up photos of people engaged an activity at the same site over time--a still camera shoots as multiple people pass the same wall, multiple people shoot hoops, multiple people look at the same Yosemite falls. The resulting work is an odd averaging of the senses. These works have been likened to cubism or Hockney’s photo collages, and have nothing to do with either. Those styles refashioned the old saw of perspective and systems of seeing a fixed world; Suggs’ works seem to do the exact opposite by saying that not just our words but our very perceptions, our notion of the bodily and spatial are fluid composites, seen and made though filters like “art,” language, desire, memory, etc. What is constant in these is the backdrop of the land. Now, how he gets us from Post Modern ambiguity to a non-sappy and subtle consideration of things bigger than ourselves (a sentiment that may well hide in every jaded urban heart) I do not know, but Suggs accomplishes this.

Suggs has tracked this complex telling and un-telling in installments of one excellent show after another.  The Otis restrospective amounts to a brilliant arc that allows us to connect the dots. The newest works, seen at L.A. Louver, are totally abstract concentric target forms that remind us of Jasper Johns--who may have been the first visual semiotician. Besides being perceptually insistent by virtue of their beauty, the deadpan circles get titles that pull in an avalanche of strong and competing meaning habits, visual and linguistic--e.g. two colorful orbs of concentric color are called “Double Frieda.” The tussle between the lure of perception (they just plain look good), what a thing on a wall has come to signify in culture, and the non-sequiturs added on by language (the titles) is just the latest fantastic version of what we love about Suggs.