DENVER — Isolated words like “Them,” “NASA,” and “Apathy” are written with chalk on a black wall. The words float between small, scattered paintings of pyramids, unfamiliar planets, and the repeated image of a single eye. Brightly colored strings connect and intersect words and symbols. This installation, “The Database” (2016), gains order as it spreads across the wall, creating a grid from 901 oil-on-wood paintings, each about two inches square in size. Each of the small artworks is contained in the type of individual acrylic specimen box often used for mineral collections, and mounted on the wall. The cumulative effect of the painted symbols is something akin to a language or code. Do I see something? What does it mean? There must be someone with an answer. Understanding the unknown is the foundation of artist Jonathan Saiz’s new exhibition, The Deep End, at Leon Gallery.
The Deep End is a departure from Saiz’s previous work, which included large oil paintings that placed figural representations within angular frameworks. This shift in form adds to the layered conversations this exhibition sparks. For example, “The Database” is one large installation, but Saiz encourages visitors to buy individual paintings from the 901 by pricing them at $20 each. With every purchase, the artwork is disassembled, losing context, monetary value, and legacy. When I spoke to him, Saiz mocked the notion of legacy. How do we know what we need at the end of our lives, he asked, or in the apocalypse, or in the afterlife? When faced with one’s mortality, how much importance does one place on one’s legacy?
Elsewhere in the show, paintings inside small acrylic boxes are assembled like a puzzle to make up one larger composition, “We remember when the sky was blue” (2016). A foggy white paint unites the surface and partially obscures the contents of the specimen boxes. The work takes on the overall quality of seeing the quilt-like patterns of farmland from above. In the center of the image is a small airplane rising through the white haze with a contrail chasing it. (Contrails are the line-shaped clouds coming from planes, a product of water vapor and exhaust.) Saiz offered some alternative ideas about the increasing cloud grids in our skies. “Have you heard of chemtrails,” he asked, “or the organic farmers in Hawaii who found aluminum in their soil? Did you see Monsanto just developed an aluminum resistant seed? They are spraying us.”
In Saiz’s show, every observation supports the next, like playing the game Clue in purgatory. The who, where, and weapon are ever elusive, leaving the player shuffling from the conservatory to the lounge on a loop; always suspicious and busy, but never solving the crime. Hawaiian farmers always had aluminum in their soil, according to the University of Hawaii, most farmland does. When the balance of acidity to aluminum changes, usually for naturally occurring reasons, the aluminum begins to interact with the crops. Plants protect themselves by not fully developing roots, therefore stunting crop yield, but not poisoning your meal. In the context of a conspiracy, that explanation can be discarded because everyone is in on it, right? The truth is cloudy to everyone but the theorist.
The vast assemblage “It’s only working ‘til it isn’t” (2016) has a topography that rises and falls. Stacked paintings in boxes accumulate, producing a surface that grows toward the viewer and ravines that reveal the layers of boxed paintings beneath. The bright conspiracy strings of “The Database” return here, but bind the body of the work instead of connecting points, suggesting a fragile physicality. Moving left to right, the work’s color shifts from bright yellows and greens to reds and blacks. On the left, individual paintings of clouds, stars, and bubbles give way to images of single eyes, masks, and Xs. Planets and comet symbols emerge from the right. Saiz described the progression as starting with creation, continuing through the formation of the ego, and on to destruction and the possibility of rebirth. It is a grand narrative for essentially an abstract work of art. Saiz’s unique, abstract, yet semiotically charged art reveals the relations we conceive between symbols and the world, converting signs into meaning.
Throughout the show, Saiz uses the image of the eye, sometimes with geometric qualities and other times seemingly plucked from the Sistine Chapel. Nearly buried in the pictorial and textual fragments of “The Database” is the text “4:7 REVELATIONS.” Looking up this passage of Revelations, it details a vision of the heavenly court in worship of God enthroned. Heaven is a solid vault, entered by way of actual doors. The description avoids describing God but pictures 24 elders in regal attire and God’s throne made of precious gems and symbols to express the deity’s power. In front of the throne is a sea of crystal. Creation is represented by four creatures resembling a lion, calf, human, and eagle. These four figures are unusual, covered with eyes. In Revelations, the eye suggests God’s knowledge, awareness, and concern. In The Deep End, the symbol also encourages looking as an active choice. Looking is hunting and searching for meaning or for answers. Saiz makes our terrors tangible in his artwork. By acknowledging fears in the periphery of our daily lives or the dark corners of our minds, the mechanisms of control — whether god or government — are disrupted. The gaze is powerful.