Having a library without any real books

This installation view is from Sean Landers’ recent exhibition titled “North American Mammals” at Petzel Gallery in NYC. What might appear at first glance to be a series of built-in book shelves covered with books is in fact a series of paintings. It’s like being in a library that doesn’t have any real books. But it’s the titles of these “books” that creates the story. Scroll down for more on the show …

exhibition of paintings by Sean Landers at Petzel Gallery

As you can see in the detail below, each book’s “title” is in fact a word or group of words, which, when read from left to right along the shelf, creates philosophical questions. For example, below we have: “If your thoughts go unheard, do you exist at all?” And: “If a bear lives in the woods and no one was there to see him, did he exist?” Below this is the depiction of a bear in a snow globe-like container, or rather, as the gallery press release describes: “In each painting the symbol appears twice – once as the title of the book and later as visions of the animal in their natural habitat as seen through a crystal ball poised upon a shelf below.”

Sean Landers paintings at Petzel Gallery

The gallery show had three main rooms with different groups of paintings, and I was more-intrigued by the paintings in the following two rooms, which portrayed the North American Mammals (of the exhibition’s title) with unnatural “coats” of fur or skin covered in a variety of Scottish tartan designs.

paintings by Sean Landers North American Mammals

The artist writes, “I have cloaked them in tartan fur to help protect them from indifference on their journey through time.” All of this gets a little too esoteric for my tastes, but they’re beautiful paintings no matter what message they’re supposed to express. Below are a few more installation views from the exhibition … the Moby Dick painting was especially impressive as it depicts a 28 foot-long tartan sperm whale. The gallery’s press release had some interesting insight on this painting:

Moby Dick (Merrilees) references the famed novel by Herman Melville, published in 1851, recounting Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal search for the elusive white whale. Landers, long fascinated by this epic novel, strongly identifies with Captain Ahab’s single-minded pursuit—arguably a metaphor for the pursuit of greatness and immortality, or, in the case of a visual artist, a place in the art-historical canon. The harpoons and trailing ropes that scar the red-and-blue whale’s body are symbols of Landers’s attempt to make a lasting work of art. The tattered whale eludes the determined artist, emphasizing the immensity of the struggle by violently diving just below the murky water’s surface.

In this case, I have no doubt that Landers has made a lasting work of art … to stand in front of this massive canvas makes a strong impression (now if only I had a wall in my home large enough to hang it!). It’s quite a stunning and beautiful painting that threatens to swallow you up both physically and metaphorically.

painting of Moby Dick by Sean Landers

whale detail in painting by Sean Landers

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