Shadow of a doubt

Just off the windy highway that connects Comfort to Fredricksburg in the Hill Country north of San Antonio, Sky Patterson sits in a small studio painting. He slowly builds up layers of paint, starting with purely gestural abstractions as a ground before bringing in his eternal subject: the human figure. A completed painting may only retain slight traces of the violent splatters beneath its surface; Patterson often paints the figures in a neutral, groundless space, as if they are floating. Often the faces, too, fall out as he focuses on the physical gestures of the subjects. In other works the faces bleed through, carrying with them the ambiguity of an incomprehensible struggle. The artist, buried in his studio, resolving a delicate tension between hand and eye, draws a connection between the painter and the whole of humanity.

At the age of 30, Patterson has received a number of accolades for his work. He was recently named the San Antonio Art League’s Artist of the Year; this year he will be included in the national juried show New American Talent 23; he is currently represented by Space Gallery (in Denver) and AnArte (in San Antonio). In addition, Patterson has shown work locally at Joan Grona Gallery and Parchman Stremmel Gallery. In 2003, he was the youngest artist ever to be accepted into the Robert MacNamara Residency in Maine.

One of Patterson’s well-worn subjects is the competitive swimmer, always depicted out of the water. Whether standing on the edge of the pool or in mid-dive, this subject is rife with symbolism: a solitary figure, focused but apprehensive, anticipating the moment of submersion. The groundlessness of the paintings evokes the subjects’ concentration on the race. Nothing exists for the swimmer in this moment but body and water, just as for the artist nothing exists but body and paint. Every bit of attention must be given to the motion of the body as it pushes against the shifting terrain of its struggle. Patterson mentions, almost as a footnote, that for years he was a competitive swimmer; in the same breath he emphasizes that his art is not about himself, it is about humanity. In his paintings he tries to draw out the universal tension between heroism and fear, identity and transcendence.

The almost inhuman figures, the physical tension, and the neutral space Patterson’s subjects inhabit echo Francis Bacon’s paintings. Missing from these paintings, though, is the disfigurement and the overt anguish of Bacon. Instead of twisted, demented faces, Patterson gives us uncertainty, and we are left to interpret physical gestures that could denote fear as much as strength. (Although a gaping mouth in “Angst” recalls the haunting screams of Bacon’s Popes.)

Another point of reference in Patterson’s work is the “representational abstraction” of Richard Diebenkorn. Diebenkorn’s move from abstract painting to landscape and figurative works in the 1950s allowed him to present these traditional subjects in a way that played them against the principles of abstract expressionism. In Patterson’s “Leap of Faith” this reference is especially strong, as three figures dive into a background that looks as if it came straight out of Diebenkorn’s “Ocean Park” series. When Patterson doesn’t give us clear emotional markers, his figures can resemble the blank inhabitants of Diebenkorn’s figural work as well.

Patterson’s artistic goals fall in line with modernist sensibilities. He works and lives in the isolated terrain of the Texas Hill Country, but he strives to depict universal human quandaries. Although he is a figurative painter, he moves as far as possible from the personal, aiming for transcendence. He keeps a bottle of homemade absinthe in the mini-fridge in his studio, and relishes the company he keeps with fellow lovers of the drink, including Picasso, Hemingway, and Poe. Patterson’s newest series deals with the politically charged topic of terrorism, but he insists that the works aren’t political — they merely raise questions about the nature of war, love, utopia, and the human struggle. Unlike his swimmers, these paintings include direct references to violence, religion, and sexuality. However, this series, which depicts women in burkas, keeps with his themes of faceless, ambiguous human forms. Although the paintings are primarily of women, Patterson points out how androgynous many of the figures are. He is painting fellow humans, he says, more than Muslim women.

These recent paintings will be included in a group show at AnArte Gallery in November alongside work by Steven DaLuz, Lewis Smith, and Andy Tschoepe, all dealing with similar themes. Expect the approaches to this subject matter to be divergent, with more overtly political paintings hanging next to Patterson’s contemplative art.

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