Behold fishing boats, gondolas, the mascareta and sandolo with fresh eyes, as you have not seen them before. Reassembled from scores of nuanced shifts in the camera position, these meticulously staged perspectives are successive combinations – bracketed exposures along a linear hand held aerial reach. Johnny Sutton has called upon his skill as a painter, juxtaposing, layering and augmenting with reflective watery abstractions, a tapestry of files from a sundry collection of images, to establish what at first seem like snap-shots, yet these are anything but.
Surfaced play abounds, and the massive scale affords us the opportunity to study in detail the built image from hidden clues that divulge the artist’s digital panache. The compositions feel like paintings; everything within the frame is under Sutton’s control. He is not collecting boats, and he is less concerned with the object, the camera or himself, and more concerned with the surface manipulation of aged tarps, floating debris, geometric pallets, marbled watery patterns, accouterments of the shipping trade, and reflective objects that have been displaced, repositioned, borrowed and modeled in the same way that painters create new forms on the canvas.
His exploration into the subject began with fishing boats that had been pulled out of the water, looking as if they were washed ashore, stripped of valuable parts and left to rot on the beaches of Sicily, Ireland, Greece and Italy. Susceptible to political changes or a final catastrophe, their derelict remains arouse our fears for what may have awaited the crew. Then his subject shifted to the canals, pleasure craft, work boats and water.
Having personally owned a number of runabout boats, a mahogany cabin cruiser, and a fiberglass cruiser, the artist understands the uncertainties that plague those who set sail for open waters. On numerous occasions he has boarded ship for a week at a time and faced gale force winds and fifteen foot waves on well maintained nineteenth century schooners. For Sutton, boats symbolize self-reliance and an escape from society. “It’s a self-contained existence. You’re on your own out there, to deal with the unpredictable.” As one undertakes a trek in the jungle or summits a mountain, boats offer a subliminal correlate, “…where mistaking the real from the imagined can be humbling…” and a highly focused predilection toward survival is essential.
Among his images, luxuriously carpeted vessels mask underlying risks, and it is in the supportive watery surfaces that Sutton works in surreal abandon. For instance, “… a canvas covered vessel may be front and center, but the real picture is about the surrounding elements” with their innate colors, textures and forms. As a silvery mylar mirror, the undulating liquid distorts the reflected buildings and sky in murky green, milky white, earthy brown or pure as blue paint. The backgrounds are otherwise broken up in squares of carpeted patterns or solid shapes. An influence of abstract expressionism to photo-realism spans the series, inviting the viewer to see the subject with an unedited eye, free of personal histories or preconceived expectations.
Sutton asks, “Are intangible reflections less valid than wood and steel? What is manifest? Sharp details suggest that the boats exist as presented. It is a misdirection. When all things visual are given equal weight, subjects can dematerialize. An artist may reassemble as he chooses. He is not obligated by what he sees in front of him.”
To better clarify his manipulations, note that the shadowed bookstore holds many augmented stacks in corrected perspective; and with an invented view of the canal, the doorway expands to twice its actual width where the artist allows us only a peek of the familiar ornamental raised prow of a gondola to reveal our location for most of this series, unmistakably Venice. For it is not Sutton’s intent to document specific boats or a location; rather, he takes from them chosen features to reconstruct scenes that now exist only in these passages.
– courtesy of Steve Murillo, based on conversations with the artist, Johnny Sutton
Johnny Sutton was born in 1951 and moved to Wichita when a teenager. He went to Derby High School and then attended Wichita State University 1969 through 1973 where he studied sculpture and painting. He exhibited paintings regionally through the 1970s and 80s, focusing on fantasy landscapes that often incorporated figures from various ancient cultures.
He started exhibiting photography in 2000 and has centered on that medium since. However, he says that he has maintained his “painter’s eye” in his approach to photography and rather than documenting objects, he tends to use subjects as source material to create images of a more personal nature, often detaching himself from the original subject matter.
The past four years, his home has been in Wichita and Bassano del Grappa, Italy – a small, picturesque town near Venice – spending half his time in each place. During this period, he took time off to write a novel: a political exposé set in southern Italy. With the collapse of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s government in November 2011, and with the book completed, he returned to artwork. The Boat Series, currently on display at City Arts in Wichita, is his first exhibit of new work in five years.