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Open to Interpretation:Raymond Suanders Just Paints

September 28, 2007

Open to Interpretation:Raymond Suanders Just Paints
By Kwan Booth (March 29,

Ask painter Raymond Saunders anything about his life and he’ll give you rambling answers brimming with asides and anecdotes. He’ll talk freely about his childhood in Pittsburgh or attending the famed Carnegie Institute. He’ll gladly divulge details of his travels through Paris, Tokyo and Berlin, or his relationship to painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. But when the conversation turns to the meat and potatoes: the meaning of his work and the ideas behind them, there’s only a smile and some vague musing before the declaration: “I just paint.”

Saunders creates the type of art that begs viewers to look for deep meanings. Hailed as a modern day master for his use of color and interpretations of urban environments, the artist has been dodging questions about his paintings for almost 50 years. His latest show, “All Colors”, on display through this weekend at the Joyce Gordon Gallery, is a celebration of all things Oakland. But that’s about all the help you’re getting.

The artist encourages viewers to bring their own experiences to bear on the doors and wooden boards he uses as canvases. Some elements, like the Chinese Calligraphy, Mexican folk drawings, and silhouettes of African women, tie into the city’s cultural diversity, while others like the curtains, wooden ducks, and stenciled doilies suggest domestic influence. The newspaper clippings, chalk drawn numbers, and scribbled phrases appear to be the work of an inveterate tinkerer, someone forever adding just one more image to the canvas.

Saunders prides himself on his open-ended process. Each canvas is a work in progress as long as it’s in his studio, and sometimes long after. He’s notorious for altering paintings after they’ve been hung or sold and says he’s been banned from friends’ homes because of his constant modifications to their pieces – an extra flower here, another brush stroke there.

Even the way “All Colors” is hung suggests its impermanence. Doors and wooden planks are leaned casually against walls, stacked on top of each other and placed in a maze on the hard wood floor. More than one patron has come to see the show and left soon after, thinking the exhibit was still being installed. Saunders was once so determined to change a piece that he offered to buy it back from the gallery, but was shocked by the sticker price.

The high prices should come as no surprise. While he’s made his home in the East Bay since the 60’s, Saunders has won international acclaim, earning recognition and prizes around the world including several NEA grants, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Prix de Rome. His artwork hangs in major museums around the country including the Whitney, the Metropolitan, and the SF and New York Museums of Modern Art. He’s mentioned in conversations alongside Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was so heavily influenced by Saunders that he adapted several of the artist’s motifs into his own paintings.

Some of these, like his dedications to famous jazz musicians and a king’s crown drawn in white chalk, appear prominently in the new work. Taken as a whole, the exhibits’ swirls of color over full black grounds resemble galaxies and suggest movement, perhaps influenced by his years of traveling and working abroad. But maybe not. He says writers often get the wrong idea when discussing his work. “I look at some of these reviews (of past exhibits) and say, “That’s not me at all.'” Figures, just like a painter.


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