Editor's note: The following article and brochure text were published in Resource Library on March 4, 2008 with the permission of the Georgia Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the texts, please contact the please contact the Georgia Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
A Sinner's Progress: The Artist's Books of David Sandlin
February 2, 2008 - March 23, 2008
From February 2 through March 23, 2008, A Sinner's Progress: The Artist's Books of David Sandlin will be on view at the Georgia Museum of Art. This exhibition brings together Sandlin's epic series of illustrated books, which follow their protagonist, Bill Grimm, through a contemporary suburban landscape filled with manifestations of lust, greed, sloth and the rest of the seven deadly sins.
Sandlin's rich use of visual imagery, inventive language and convoluted plots brings to mind a host of artistic precedents, many of whom he pays homage to. The books' cartoonish drawing style echoes that found in H.C. Westermann's art and the entire cycle channels the spirit of Francisco de Goya's Los Caprichos, a suite of etchings that comments on social, political and religious hypocrisy. Thematically, the cycle sometimes resembles John Bunyan's 17th-century Christian allegory "The Pilgrim's Progress."
"If you can envision the wordplay of James Joyce, as interpreted by George Jones, and lovingly satirized in graphic form on the pages of Mad magazine, then you will have some indication of the bizarre mélange that is Sandlin's art," said Dennis Harper, curator of exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art.
David Sandlin's paintings, prints, books and installations have been exhibited extensively in New York and elsewhere across the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia. His comic art and illustrations have appeared in The Ganzfield, New York Times, Spin and other publications. He is a recipient of many grants and is the 2007-2008 Lamar Dodd Professorial Chair at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia.
Brochure essay by Dennis Harper
So began John Bunyan in The Author's Apology for His Book, The Pilgrim's Progress, "delivered," according to its subtitle, "under the similitude of a dream." A monument of Puritanism, Bunyan's 17th-century, evangelical parable chronicles the journey of an Everyman character, named Christian, who seeks salvation on his pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to Celestial City, a journey fraught with obstacles and temptation.
A Sinner's Progress, David Sandlin's epic series of illustrated books created some 300 years later, casts the Northern Irish-born artist into the role of a modern-day, but subverted, Bunyan. Sandlin's interlaced graphic tales explore the shady terrain between ostensive sin and armchair salvation, situated at the crossroads of high art and low brow humor. His allegorical Everyman, Bill Grimm, journeys through a contemporary suburban landscape animated by manifestations of lust, sloth, wrath and the rest of the seven cardinal sins. Produced as hand-silkscreened and limited-edition offset publications, the sardonic narrative cycle reflects anxieties that erupt in an Irish-American stew of evangelical fervor, laissez-faire capitalism and institutionalized intolerance, as Sandlin's citizen Grimm seeks his own "gate of glory."
David Sandlin was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1956. Reared in a blended Protestant/Catholic adoptive family headed by an expatriate American army veteran from rural Alabama, and residing in a loyalist neighborhood targeted by Irish republican paramilitary bombers, Sandlin found his life shaped from the beginning by wildly disparate influences and experiences. In 1972, at the height of civil unrest in Ulster, Sandlin immigrated to America with his family, landing first in the foothills of Appalachia in northern Alabama. His parents and two sisters soon resettled in Canada, but the young Sandlin, after earning early graduation from high school in Hanceville, Alabama, elected to remain behind. He set out on an independent path at age sixteen, and shortly made his way to Birmingham.
Though Sandlin's interest in the graphic arts arose in Belfast as he pored over the now-classic comic book art of Jack Kirby and Will Elder, his expertise in printmaking developed in Birmingham, where Sandlin completed a bachelor's degree in fine arts at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, in 1979. He moved to New York a year later and found employment printing artists' lithographs at Styria Studio before taking a teaching position at the School of Visual Arts. While Sandlin exhibited paintings, prints, and multimedia works in New York galleries during that time, his acquaintance with another instructor at SVA, Art Spiegelman, facilitated his push into bookmaking. An influential figure in the underground comics movement of the 1960s and -70s, with an illustration portfolio ranging from Topps Garbage Pail Kids to New Yorker covers, Spiegelman encouraged Sandlin to press on with his serialized art. Sandlin's earliest titles include Land of 1,000 Beers (self-published: 1988), Burning Ring of Fire (Nexus Press: 1993), and Rapture of the Depths of Desire (self-published: 1994). In 1995 he began his current series of books, A Sinner's Progress.
If John Bunyan's pilgrim provides the superficial model for Sandlin's protagonist, Bill Grimm's wayward exploits draw more directly from William Hogarth's series of satirical paintings and prints, The Rake's Progress (1734). In Hogarth's cycle, the "rake" Tom Rakewell, an incorrigible consumer, squanders his fortunes on gambling, drinking to excess, and free-market sex. Sandlin's Grimm is an analogous, though updated, type who favors see-through shirts emblazoned with midriff flame decorations. The first book of the series, The Beast Years of My Life, introduces Grimm, mired in an American slough of puritanism and political correctness. Sandlin takes aim at the censorious impulses of both the cultural right and the left, where "sin" is an amorphous concept relative to the accusers' certitudes. Grimm is not a bad person at heart, but obviously something of a libertine and easily molded by his environment. Crafted in a non-linear fashion, The Beast Years of My Life lays out Grimm's multiple digressions and offers three alternate "dream" endings, suggesting that there are no clear-cut answers to life's questions.
In Wrathland, the series' second volume, Sandlin again experiments with a non-traditional, non-linear structure. He assembled the book with an accordion binding that allows a page-by-page reading of the book, but unfolds from the center to reveal itself as a singularly long and continuous image, spanning over 10 feet. Wrathland's Grimm now appears as a suburbanite working stiff, no longer the roving playboy of the first book. Slightly less ambivalent in his convictions, he finds himself chiefly swayed by rancor from the right. This second book limns a darker story with few glimpses of the promised salvation, as Grimm succumbs to the sins of wrath and pride.
The third book, Road to Nowhere...Road to Pair o' Dice, amplifies the sense of uncertainty Sandlin established in the first two volumes. The necessity of making a choice is literally designed into the book's format and substantiates its content. Road to Nowhere...Road to Pair o'Dice is a two-sided construct. Read from one end, it follows the story of Bill Grimm, the lustful trucker. When the book is inverted, a parallel story unfolds of his alter-ego, born-again salesman Brother Grimm. Their two tales meet at the book's centerfold in a virtual Möbius strip of a board game featuring "Sin or Sellavation." While the reader must choose at the outset which road to take and which protagonist to accompany, the dual journeys yield no clear distinctions. Who is the more ignoble character: the truck driver who stops for a quickie at the Luv Motel and tries to salvage his soul by purchasing "sin credits," or the hawker of such evangelical snake oils who profits from the sinner's shame?
Volume IV, The Avengelist of Hymm-Power, adopts a more conventional narrative format to advance Grimm's story. Of course, "normal" for Sandlin still incorporates a few kinks. The Avengelist's science fiction storyline includes the cliché of an alternate universe, maintaining Sandlin's motif of a coin-toss duality. Bill Grimm has apparently risen in rank to become owner of Pur-Ton-o-Fun, a "puritanical novelties company," but in his supposed success, he succumbs to delusions of grandeur. He inhabits, or hallucinates, a caste-based realm of entitlement and suppression. The tale this time offers an enlightening ray of hope for the hapless protagonist when, at story's end, Grimm discovers a monstrous truth behind the cabal of elites he had previously revered. In contrast with the three earlier books, handcrafted and published in small editions, Sandlin commercially produced The Avengelist in offset-lithography on newsprint, in support of the volume's pulp comic book theme.
The latest releases to date, Swamp Preacher and An Alphabetical Ballad of Carnality, feature the most polished book production in the series. Published by Fantagraphics Books, in Seattle, Washington, a leading proponent of comics as art and literature, these two volumes propel Sandlin's Grimm into a broader milieu, beyond the more insular domain of the "artist's book." Exploiting the larger edition runs and mass-market pricing for the books, Sandlin makes clever conceptual use of their commercial nature. Both books blur the line between Sandlin's fictional world and the actual world of his readers. Volume V, Swamp Preacher, completely embraces the standard softbound and stapled comic book format to tell a propagandizing back-story of Carl Bob de Ville, founder of Pur-Ton-o-Fun Co. Across the book's two-tone panels, the protagonist, a wholly untrustworthy narrator and self-portrait projection of Sandlin, relates his outlandish personal history to Bill Grimm and his wife Beatrice, with smarmy, Mephistophelian intent. Amid the tale's lurid pages, Carl Bob is shown clasping a primer that was integral to his moral education: the Alphabetical Ballad of Carnality. In a wry mirroring of his stories' parallel universes, Sandlin plucked the fictional element of a book out of its graphic space to insert it "incarnate" into this realm, creating Volume VI. An adults-only abecedary, the book catalogues in rhyming verse the perverted pleasures of de Ville's misspent youth, culminating in a double-page spread that lays bare his present, duplicitous Zealotry. Drawing the series to a close, Sandlin is currently working on the seventh book, Oh, My Son, All This Is Yours, together with a final volume tentatively titled Slumburbia.
Sandlin's richly layered visual imagery, epigrammatic use of language, and convoluted plots bring to mind a host of artistic precedents -- many of whom Sandlin pays homage to in A Sinner's Progress. His love of inventive language, especially puns, finds full expression in the books, tracing a lineage to both traditions for which he claims a congenital affinity: Irish literature and American country music. Bill Grimm's dream-state activities owe an obvious debt to Winsor McKay's seminal comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland (1905-1913). The books' cartoonish drawing style echoes the deceptive whimsy found in H. C. Westermann's art, including his illustrated letters, which Sandlin particularly admires. And the entire cycle seems to channel the spirit of Francisco Goya's Los Caprichos, a suite of etchings that comment mercilessly on the social, political, and religious hypocrisy of Goya's day. The best known plate from that series offers a direct key to interpreting Sandlin's perplexing Progress, the image inscribed "The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters." Referencing the present day as well, Sandlin playfully inserts visual allusions to the art some of his favorite contemporaries, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, Gary Panter, and Matt Groening, each of whom is known for poking a figurative finger in the collective eye of an indolent society.
Slumburbia will be a fitting end to the series. Representing both the earthbound theme park in development by Carl Bob de Ville and a paradaisical Land of Cockaigne after which the park is styled, Slumburbia denotes a slothful state where the struggles of life do not exist, nor, unfortunately, do life's lessons. Ultimately, it is that tendency toward mental indolence that Sandlin attacks as the worst of the cardinal sins. "Wake up and think for yourself" is perhaps the strongest message that Sandlin wishes to impart, nudging the modern pilgrim off the Road to Nowhere onto a meaningful "journey and way to glory."
David Sandlin's paintings, prints, books, and installations have been exhibited extensively in New York and elsewhere across the United States, Europe, Japan, and Australia. His comic art and illustrations have appeared in Blab!, The Ganzfeld, Harper's, MTV publications, The New York Times, New Yorker, Raw, Spin, Strappazin, Zero Zero, and many other graphic venues. He is a recipient of grants from the Pollock Krasner Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Penny McCall Foundation, among others. An instructor at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Sandlin is the 2007-2008 Lamar Dodd Professorial Chair at the University of Georgia.
About the Author
Dennis Harper is curator of exhibitions at the Georgia Museum of Art. Please click here to view his biography at the Georgia Museum of Art web site.
(above: A Sinner's Progress, Volume IV, The Avengelist of Hymn-Power, 2004, Offset lithography on newsprint. Cover: silkscreen on chipboard, Edition: 500. Sinland Press, New York, NY, 16 x 12 inches)
(above: A Sinner's Progress, Volume V, Swamp Preacher, 2006, Offset lithography. Fantagraphics Books, Seattle, WA, 10 1/4 x 7 5/8 inches)
(above: A Sinner's Progress, Volume II, Wrathland, 1996, Silkscreen on paper and book cloth, accordion-bound, Edition: 40. Sinland Press, New York, NY, 20 1/2 x 14 inches, Open: 20 1/2 x 28 inches, Fully extended: 20 1/2 x 130 inches)
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Jenny Collard Williams, Georgia Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above brochure text.
RL readers may also enjoy:
Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Georgia Museum of Art in Resource Library.
Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.
Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.