Beauty without illusion
Underlying Sean Sexton’s pastoral paintings of his Florida ranchland is the fragility of its existence, vulnerable to development’s ax or nature’s fury.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published June 12, 2005
Sean Sexton, Spring Light (Through the Pines), 2004-2005, oil on canvas.
Sean Sexton, Natural Numbers, 2004, oil on canvas.
LARGO – Arcadia has been a subject of artists and writers for centuries, extolled as the ideal of rustic beauty and simplicity. In the 17th century, Arcadia was given a blast of cold water, most famously by the painter Nicolas Poussin, who associated the mythologized Greek landscape with mortality.
His Et in Arcadia Ego has shepherds examining a tomb in a bucolic countryside inscribed with that Latin phrase, which means “I am also (or “even’) in Arcadia,” an ironic reference to death’s presence even in an idyll.
Still life painters working in that same century also took up the theme of memento mori (“remember you must die”) in works called vanitas, filled with lush fruits, flowers and other symbols of wealth, always accompanied by a human skull. And who can forget Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor in Green Acres, the 20th century take on pastoral bliss?
Sean Sexton has his own versions of those humanist morality and mortality tales on view at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. His is a particular landscape, the 600-acre cattle ranch near Vero Beach that his family has owned for three generations, where he roams, works, and sketches or paints every day.
Unlike many painters of scenic vistas, Sexton loves his land without illusions, presenting its beauty without fudging or embellishing the details. What gives the paintings Arcadian associations is our knowledge that such a way of life is fragile here in Florida, eminently vulnerable to parceling into subdivisions and suburban malls (as it was in parts of upper New York state in the 19th century, when the Hudson River painters glamorized their territory).
Spring Light (Through the Pines) puts the observer on the edge of a stand of pine trees, casting shadows over a field of scrub grass and palmettos. In Pastorale, the cattle are standing like statues – cue the opening bars of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (though there’s no corn in Sexton’s painting) – on a vast plain punctuated by palms that ends on the horizon line with a mass of forest. You would like those blue skies to go on forever.
The still lifes, which Sexton calls allegories (another classical allusion referencing Arcadia), evoke an even greater sense of passage. Elaborately clothed tables are strewn with the land’s bounty – melons, citrus fruits and squashes, for example – mixed in with the human tools of intervention making that bounty possible. A cache of cattle skulls often lurks beneath the table, which is sometimes also laid with fresh eggs and a jar of pickled ones, images reinforcing the life/death tug that begins the moment a thing is created.
These are lovely and very conventional works. I get the feeling that Sexton, who is largely self-taught and obviously possessed of innate talent, would rather break new ground for a fence post than in his paintings.
Not as pretty, but more interesting, are the etchings, finely worked in the Old Master tradition.
Compare two works with the same title, Landscape With Dragonflies. The first, an oil painting from 1994, is good enough. The print, completed in 2001, is ravishing. The insects converge like a fleet of airplanes in the foreground, launching into a field that stretches far into the distance, a wonderful trick of perspective and inverse proportion. In Young Bulls I, cattle line up in two straight rows, standing in shadow, their humped backs silvered by a line of sunlight. A single bull stands alone at the head, maybe ready to break into the herd, his back curved into a sinuous arch.
Several dozen of Sexton’s sketchbooks, among a total of at least 100, the wall text reports, are displayed and will make you wish you could dash off a line drawing. They are the personal snapshots, accumulated over 30 years, of his intimate knowledge of his turf. Calves are born, trees are felled, meetings are held with fellow ranchers. It’s all recorded. So are studies for his paintings. He draws a bull’s skeleton, working out its arrangement, for a large still life. He copies Chardin’s White Tablecloth to get the drapes and fold of his own painted cloths better.
He uses the books as journals, too. For several days in late summer 2003, for example, he drew little but wrote much about Hurricane Frances, bearing down on his part of the Atlantic Coast. He first expresses optimism (“I think we’re going to be alright”), then dread (“Every cow we own must be dead. The wind was just so intense”) and finally resignation (“The frog voices as I walked this morning and what do they say? Perhaps too much, too much is what they say.”) After the storm has passed, he draws a cat sitting peacefully on the same page he notes phone numbers such as one for the Department of Financial Services, estimates of repair work and lists of things to be done: “debris removal, water control structures and systems, fences.”
An Arcadia, for artists like Sexton who find the mortal world enough.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at 727 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org
“Sean Sexton: A Pastoral Life” is at the Gulf Coast Museum of Art, 12211 Walsingham Road, Largo, through June 26. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is adults $5, seniors $4, students $3 and children 10 and younger free. Free for all visitors from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday. 727 518-6833 or www.gulfcoastmuseum.org
[Last modified June 9, 2005, 11:33:04]