The exhibition of David Sandlin’s prints, paintings, drawings, and artists’ books starts today at Booklyn. Focusing on Sandlin’s most recently completed volume of 76 Manifestations of American Destiny: Mythic Heroes, Mythic Villains, the exhibition includes ancillary artworks associated with the series. For two months, at the Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Booklyn will display selections from the artist’s extensive output of silkscreened artists’ books, Risograph’ zines, and offset publications created over the past thirty-five years.
Each volume is housed inside of a hardcover case, and while each print can function as a stand-alone artwork, when bound together into an accordion-folded book, they create a compositional narrative stretching 27 feet long.
By using an expansive book form, the artist intends to mirror the far-reaching American landscape. While leafing through these books, readers may feel they’re taking a road trip through American landscapes, history, and myths. Not only do Sandlin’s illustrations show this nation’s swamplands, cumulus skies, and exurban vistas, but they also explore aspects of American history and legends that still haunt the present, including buried or moribund ideologies, which have been recently resuscitated by nativists, nationalists, and the like, such as manifest destiny and American exceptionalism.
The series is inspired by the woodblock prints of the great nineteenth-century Japanese artist Taiso Yoshitoshi and his masterwork One Hundred Aspects of the Moon. In his work, Yoshitoshi featured famed Samurai warriors, tragic lovers, and notorious scoundrels. Sandlin’s counterpart are U.S. political and military leaders, environmental disasters, and tabloid sex scandals. Also, just as the Japanese artist alluded to classic poems, Sandlin draws images from American country songs like Long Black Veil and In the Pines.
To approach cultural and political commentary with vibrant colors, humor, wit, and intelligence, Sandlin’s graphic style draws from masters of satire—including Goya, Gilray, and Dix—as well as elements of nineteenth-century visionary art and twentieth-century comics—such as William Blake and Jack Kirby.
Sandlin’s work offers a visual, often nonlinear narrative. In the third volume of the series, for instance, readers may face several ghosts looming in the American collective consciousness. Under a faceless Abraham Lincoln’s head-shape, which represents “constantly disappearing and eternally reappearing heroes,” we see a mix of “everlasting truths, hopes, and dreams” squeezed between “undying lies” and “ever present racism.”
Each spread introduces readers into a microcosm, where details of everyday life stand on the background of high ethical and political themes, and individuals’ lives and their meanings intertwine with broader ideological landscapes. These pages look like maps: readers explore, take in the information savoring each element, and keep moving from one detail to the whole picture and back.
Italian philosopher Adriana Cavarero states that drawing and history always come after events, both come from a posthumous perspective. Therefore, “the figurative unity of a drawing and the organic meaning of a narrative, can only be presented as a question. Or, maybe, as a desire” (Cavarero, 8).
Sandlin’s imagery portrays the artist’s desire to represent contemporary political exploitation of archetypal American iconography. But it also manifests the shock provoked by the destruction of forests, mountain top removal for coal mining, marine pollution, air pollution, disasters caused by natural energy extraction, melting glaciers, oil spills, fires, and accidents caused by war and greed. Rather than presenting a unified narrative, which would impose an order to reality’s contradictions, his “mock epic” represents thought fragments that raise questions, which, in turn, constitute the unrest of these living paradoxes.
Scattered throughout the book are lines of text taken from a variety of sources: from country songs to historical addresses to sacred texts. In a fashion similar to what he did to other forms of linear representation, Sandlin also fragments language conceived as a tool imposing order and hierarchy to life. And in so doing, he encapsulates the historical tension between a society and its time within the peculiar gesture of a marginal note.
By looking at the swirl of images and words and their eclectic web of references, I enjoyed overlooking the artist’s mushrooming desire to keep exploring social, environmental, and political issues by mixing past and present, literature and music, comics and paintings. But above all, I admired his ability to play with reality’s unpredictability. Swimming through clouds and vapors, words like “disappearing,” “reappearing,” and “ever present” myths play with the illusion of history as a monolithic narrative and make us look at it as a chain shaken by those myths.
Completing the exhibition are supplemental screen-printed artists’ books, risograph zines, and offset publications showing the artist’s wide-ranging printing and binding techniques. The inclusion of these publications illustrates how themes relating to American culture, politics, history, and Sandlin’s personal biography are interwoven throughout the artist’s oeuvre and across media. “As a maker of prints and books—the perfect media of democratic subversion for being cheap, reproducible, and transportable—I want to do my part,” states Sandlin.
All images in this post are courtesy of Booklyn. This post’s contents, including its images, are published under a CC BY-NC license.
David Sandlin is a painter, printmaker, and comics artist born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and living in New York City. He has exhibited his paintings and prints extensively in the U.S. and internationally, and his comics and illustrations have appeared in The Best American Comics, The New Yorker, Raw, and other publications. He has received fellowships and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the New York Foundation of the Arts, the Swann Foundation for Caricature and Cartoon, and other institutions. He teaches printmaking, book arts, and illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
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Cavarero, Adriana. Tu che mi guardi, tu che mi racconti. Filosofia della narrazione. Milano: Feltrinelli, 1997.