“Within any one person there are crowds of people, different characters that show themselves at different times.” – Gay Talese
In Vonn Sumner’s new painting Crowd—a kind of group self-portrait—eighteen hooded figures jostle for a place in the lineup. Some, with their eyes hidden, seem to be lost in private reveries, some seem aware of the presence of others, and a few stare out at the viewer, alert and even a bit hostile. One pair of figures seems to attempt a conversation while others look away, beyond the borders of the canvas. Others just sulk.
The individuality of each figure is deflected by his similarity to his moody clones, making any and every variation in posture and facial expression especially telling. The overall effect is decidedly weird, as Sumner seems to be teasing his audience, summoning up their voyeuristic interest while also deflecting it. “I’m willing to tell you some things about myself,” the painting seems to say, “but I’m still wrestling with myself to figure out just what those things might be.”
Crowd somehow manages to be both an image of self-absorption and a set of partial confessions at the same time. It’s about being yourself while finding yourself, and about giving just enough of yourself to others. Sumner has clearly been thinking about his place in the world, but he also knows that over-thinking is a danger: if you don’t put yourself and your ideas out there to face judgment your life may become an eternal funk.
The sock hats that appear in Sumner’s recent paintings are an inexpensive “found object;” they are sold in hardware stores for use during spray painting and wall texturing. The hats remind Sumner of a wide variety of types of headgear including the turbans and other head-coverings he glimpsed in the works of the 15th century Siennese artist il Sassetta, as well as Muslim hijabs and the hoodies of urban teenagers. The artist is content to let all of these references and implications run wild, so that his viewers have to make their own assumptions about whether to be perplexed, threatened or amused by his imagery.
“People tend to be right on,” Sumner muses, “and I honestly don’t care that the characters are all me: its not a goal for them to be me.” In his leanings towards idiosyncratic means—and a hint of comic funk—Sumner bears the influence of U.C. Davis, where his mentors, including Wayne Thiebaud, reminded students that without humor there is a loss of perspective. In regards to the duality of “funny or not” Sumner doesn’t have a preference: “It doesn’t have to be one or the other. As in the works of Philip Guston, I think that imagery can be both tragic and comically absurd at the same time.”
Pink Pop is a portrait of Sumner’s father Richard, whose Palo Alto frame store provided early exposure to art and to the bohemian intellectuals who spilled out the edges of the nearby campus of Stanford University. “He was a magnet for interesting people,” Sumner recalls, “and I certainly benefited from having a front seat in that little theater. I miss it.” The same paradoxes that apply to Sumner’s images of himself apply to those of his father: he is both utterly familiar and somewhat hidden. It’s a reminder that you can love someone while still respecting their mysteries.
Perhaps the greatest strength of Vonn Sumner’s work is that he respects the power of mystery but also understands its limits. Knowing how much to say and how much to withhold is a vital skill for diplomats and painters. Saying too much veers towards gossip and saying too little risks rendering a work of art forgettable, which Sumner’s art most definitely isn’t.
Vonn Sumner: To Be Seen
July 30 – August 27th, 2016
170 S. La Brea
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Artist’s Talk and Walkthrough with Vonn Sumner and John Seed
Saturday, August 20th at 2:30