Visual Art 6-13-2006

When Sculptors Paint: Joe Sandor at Pizza Luce in Duluth

Julia Durst writes on Joe Sandor's show of paintings at Duluth's Pizza Luce. Pizza Luce is located at the intersection of the two main streets, Superior Street and Lake Avenue; their music and art presentations are important to the downtown community.

Lady Walking Dog
Guy and Lady
big blue head

When I think of Joe Sandor, I think of “Big Blue Head.” The azure monstrosity– a mixed-media sculpture with fishbowl eyes and a birdcage brain– was one of Sandor’s first sculptures. It won him a place in the Duluth Art Institute’s 55th Biennial Exhibition.

Sculpture is Sandor’s preferred medium, though he also paints in oils and does some photography. His paintings have the same raw, honest appeal as his 3-D work but lack that work’s presence.

Sandor’s recent May-to-June show at Pizza Lucé in Duluth was confined to his paintings. The varied body of work included some gestural and abstract figurative work that was on display at Beaner’s Coffeehouse a year ago. But there were newer pieces– larger and sporting a different style– which were a refreshing departure from his previous work.

The face/figure images (the older paintings) are funky and fun, usually executed in bright or bold (let’s say blunt) colors. Hushed subtlety in either palette or theme is almost wholly absent in Sandor’s early paintings. This is work that viewers respond to visually, or viscerally, more than conceptually.

Sandor’s new paintings give us more to look at than the older ones, and more to think about. His work surface has grown to a larger horizontal plane (maybe 20″ x 30″) and he’s filling it with richer, more detailed content. The artist statement says the theme of these paintings is war, but Sandor’s quick with the caveats. He claims he’s not being political or didactic, but drawing on pop culture and familiar iconography and mushing together wars of the past. He confides that one was inspired by the ‘80s classic movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Sandor is the anti-esoteric artist, if ever there was one.

The war paintings steal the show (Sandor has no images of these newer works, so I can’t reproduce them here—the images accompanying this article are older ones). The visual cacophony of figures and symbols and icons enveloped in swirls of line is cartoonish at times but sophisticated as a whole. Each of the four pieces has a different monochromatic scheme– a less literal, more nuanced use of color.

Big ideas aren’t a bad thing, though it sounds like Sandor wants to pitch his art to the masses. He doesn’t care for the postmodern gestures—resulting in an art of words or ideas, detached from objects– that sometimes constitute art at high-brow institutions.

Which leads one to wonder– is it that cherished democratization of art which has led Sandor to tag his work at bargain basement prices? (His war paintings go for a mere $65 each. A series of funky figure paintings are each $35. Not to mention the $1 paintings and the much-talked-about freebie…)

The artist says he considered the venue (pizza joint versus gallery) and the point he’s at in his career. His explanation is simple: “Making money off my paintings right now isn’t a priority. People having my paintings is.”

Sandor’s disinterest in bullshitting about his art and sincere interest in challenging some of the conventions of the system make him an unusual figure, an artist to watch. His outsider attitude could be a result of his untraditional path into the arts: Sandor grew up in Superior, where in high school he was active in football and theatre. He went to Madison for college where he studied political science and French at the University of Wisconsin. He took two sculpture classes at UW– a miraculous feat given that he lacked the necessary prerequisites and was not an art major.

After graduation Sandor lived in Minneapolis where he worked as a box breaker for Fed Ex and started painting. Since then his work has developed, influenced by travel (he and his wife taught English in Poland for a year) and mastering basic skills (he says he just recently learned about composition and positive/negative space).

Sandor lives in Superior these days and works for Fed Ex and Twin Ports Brewery. He still favors sculpture over painting and recently finished a commissioned garden sculpture of St. Francis–-life-sized, covered in coffee beans.

Come fall, Sandor departs for Chicago, where he’ll enroll in the post-baccalaureate program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s a bold step for a guy who didn’t pursue art as an undergrad because he “wanted to do something that would seem worthwhile.” He admits his expectations of the work world and adulthood (40 hours a week and full benefits) have all but dissolved. “It was a scam in a way,” he says, that his generation was conditioned to expect that.

Will instruction change him? Most likely. Will schooling ruin him? I hope not. I doubt it. He’s practically self-taught, knee-deep in the romantic trappings of being an intuitive outsider artist. He says all the things the rest of us artists take for granted– foundation concepts from 2-D design courses, basic art history knowledge– he lacks.

If the strength of his paintings at Pizza Lucé last month is any indication, Sandor could be on the brink of a whole new phase in his work: still playful, but more contemplative and fully realized.

“Big Blue Head” might be a thinking man after all.

(Full disclosure: I am a social acquaintance of the artist. I also wrote on his behalf recommending his admittance into Chicago’s program.)