Illustrator Russell Crotty came to UC Santa Cruz last Tuesday to host a stargazing event at the Great Meadow. Before the event, he stopped at the Sesnon Gallery to view “Black is a Color,” a solo exhibition featuring the work of Bay Area artist Raymond Saunders. Inside the gallery, Crotty gravitated around one particular selection in the gallery’s back room — a multimedia piece set against a solid black canvas backdrop.
At first glance, the piece read like a bad dream envisioned on a back alley wall.
It looked like an accumulation of neglect and vandalism, with chalk scribbles, Chinese calendar pages affixed with wheat paste, and on each side, violent splashes of black and white watercolor ink.
Crotty, who discovered Saunders in his early years, had nothing but praise for the artist.
“When I first saw his work in the ‘70s in San Francisco, I loved it, because at the time I was trying to be a painter. It takes a lot of cojones to do this,” Crotty said, while gesturing to the piece in front of him, about Saunders’ bold experimental style, which fuses elements of painting, collage and assemblage to create a thematically challenging aesthetic.
“It takes years of knowing where to place something and letting go … It takes a master to know how to balance these things,” Crotty said.
There’s no doubt Saunders understands balance and composition, but he knows nothing about letting go. The visionary artist, who refuses to date or title his pieces, has been known to visit galleries and collections and alter his pieces at will — much to his curators’ dismay. A few years ago, Saunders took his rendition of early 20th-century black boxer Jack Johnson out of its frame and glued it to another one of his pieces, a seven-foot-tall door painted solid black. This is one of the first visible pieces within the Sesnon, and without any context regarding Saunders’s artistic character, it looks like a mistake possibly made during transport.
Saunders cannot be contained by a single medium or time period; he studied as a painter but uses discarded objects like chalkboards, old wallpaper and even old furniture and fixtures. The “support” for one of his pieces (a word used by painters to describe material painted on) is an old Arco station sign. Throughout his storied career, he has become a cataloguer, a librarian of remnants that get trampled underfoot or forgotten about altogether.
“He calls himself a ‘streetwalker’ [because] he collects objects and artifacts from the sidewalks,” said Sesnon curator Shelby Graham. “You go to his house, and he has piles of this and that … but he actually does use things that he finds.”
Graham started curating the Sesnon in 1999, 17 years after Saunders held his first solo exhibition there. It was during this time she found posters, with his portrait of Johnson, from the 1982 show. Nothing came of this discovery until 2011, the year of the gallery’s 40th anniversary.
“I was going to the Stephen Wirtz Gallery in San Francisco and I was riding up the elevator, and there was Raymond Saunders,” Graham said. “I had seen him before, so I knew who he was, and I said, ‘Oh, you’re Raymond Saunders! We have some posters left over from your show in 1982.’ He said, ‘I want those posters!’ He loves to use old posters.”
Graham said this was fortuitous, as she wanted to use Saunders’s portrait of Johnson for the gallery’s anniversary celebration, so she invited him to come back to UCSC. He has been a frequenter of the Sesnon ever since.
Saunders’s ongoing solo exhibition at the gallery, “Black is a Color,” is named after a pamphlet he published in 1967 about the struggles he and other black artists working in America faced. In the pamphlet, he details why he believes black artists in America should reject the category of “black” art.
Though he concedes “the American black artist is in a unique position to express certain aspects of the current American scene, both negative and positive,” he worries about the artist “becoming a mere cypher, a walking protest, a politically described stereotype, negating his own mystery…”
Saunders has succeeded in preserving his own mystery, never divulging the intended meaning of his extensive portfolio — his works do not communicate a linear or measured message, but rather an improvised monologue in a nonverbal language.
Last Friday, Saunders hosted a workshop with 15 intermediate and advanced art students in conjunction with his exhibition. He was adamant about giving the students full control over the agenda, repeatedly emphasizing his lack of authority within the space. He and the students spent the whole afternoon talking about their works in progress, experiences in academia and traveling overseas.
Fourth-year Thomas Fallis was inspired by Saunders’s creative process, primarily the artist’s tendency to sit with his work for an extended period of time.
“Raymond puts a lot of works in rooms throughout his house, and he’ll have them there for years and start working on them again intermittently,” Fallis said. “That interests me because I abandon stuff from time to time and have ideas that come and go. I’m curious if he carries on the same idea as when he started or if it’s a continually transforming thing.”
Whether it is the former or the latter, Saunders’s transformative spirit is undoubtedly subversive. In a gallery culture that views art as fixed and easily classifiable, an artist who works in this style — repeatedly altering and refusing to classify his work— stands in contrast to the status quo. Shelby Graham believes, however, that ignoring these gradual changes would mean to ignore the multifaceted artistic process that Saunders’s work embodies.
“Sometimes you don’t know what a piece of work is about for 10 years … You need the perspective of time to see that,” Graham said. “But now that [Saunders] is older, he can really see from a distance that his work has a thread, and he can keep working on things and … bring some work from his past to his future and go beyond that.”