5 February - 12 March 2022

February 12
1:00 - 5:00

Pollock Gallery

Mon, Wed, Fri
1:00 - 5:00 

6116 N. Central Expressway
Dallas, Texas 75206

Digital Exhibition Catalog
James Sullivan | Thinking Sculpture

February 5 - March 12 

Opening Reception: February 12, 1-5 p.m.

Exhibition Images

Elizabeth Mead
Immateriality: Requiem for a Material Wrapper
Matthew Whiteneck Filters, Functions
Marius Lehene A Slight Looking Away


James Sullivan Biography


Filters, Functions

Matthew Whitenack

I am looking at an image, an installation view from 2014, of James Sullivan’s What Remains (fig. 1)The piece is an artist-made steel table covered with 50 or so small sculptural objects. The objects are made of a wide ranging, seemingly exhaustive, variety of materials and constructed with a similarly wide ranging number of processes.  The grouping is firstly heterogeneous, but secondly of a type: hewn by a particular hand, a particular mind, and possessing some shared quality or style.  I am looking at this image of What Remainsand I am thinking about other sets, other groups of things distilled by, or selected for by the function of certain types of activity, certain priorities or values, and certain types of thinking.


There is the chef’s mise en place and there is the contents of a trekker’s backpack.  The mise en place is set out in bow ls and plastic containers across tabletops (fig. 2). Each bowl contains an essential ingredient.  This set of particular elements has been selected by the chef, filtered through her taste, her experience, her memory.  The careful combination of this set (the cooking) will result in a dish which will add to experience and memory.  The trekker’s backpack contains a stringently paired down set of items (fig. 3).  This set is filtered by the activity of walking in the mountains.  Each thing in the pack is an essential, irreplaceable object, vitally important for the trip.  These tools and clothing items are evidence of a leisure activity; not a practical one, but one which may be spiritual or useful for understanding some things.

Archaeological sites contain sets of objects that evidence the behaviors and or priorities of groups of people.  At Gobekli Tepe, in southeastern Turkey, there are the worlds oldest known megaliths, a group of monumental stone pillars highly decorated with carved images and each up to 16 feet tall.  The pillars were probably made by hunter-gatherers for religious or complex ideological reasons (fig. 4).   At Tsankawi, in northern New Mexico, there are cliff dwellings, pathways, and deep steps carved into the landscape’s soft rock (fig. 5,6).  Archaeologists think that a large community of people lived at the site during the 15th and 16th centuries.  The evidence that remains, or what you will find when you visit today, is not a set of objects, but rather, a set of volumes, holes, trenches, and divots.  These empty spaces indicate where people walked, stepped, where they lived, where bodies sat and bodies laid down.  This set of empty forms was selected by the goings on of daily life.  Stepping into one of these old footpaths today creates a visceral link between the past and the present.  There is the sensation of a collapsing timeline as experience is being repeated and the span of human history is relegated to its’ little blip on the geological scale.

Like all humans, the artist leaves behind evidence, groups of objects, or a particular set of materials and forms that have been selected by his priorities, his certain type of being. These objects and materials, in turn, act as filters.  They are filters for thinking, filters for addressing the nature of the world, and the nature of ourselves. When these objects are engaged by a viewer they filter the viewer’s intellectual and physical response. There is a sort of loop of functions that occurs.  Material is modulated by the thinking of the artist which results in the art object- the thinking of the viewer is modulated by the thinking of the art object- the viewer modulates the world with his new kind of thinking.  

Encountering Bodies / Encountering Volumes

One doesn’t need to be armed with much to encounter James Sullivan’s work.   No special knowledge or story is required.  A body is helpful, a head and a heart and a mind and perhaps limbs.  But the pertinent information is readily offered by the sculptures themselves.

I first encountered the work when I was very young.  I bring this up because I think the content of naive observation can point directly at some undeniable and or essential qualities of things .  The first sculpture of Sullivan’s that I remember well was one of his life-sized human figures made of straw, plaster, wood, and wire, standing on a steel base (fig. 7).  It was in the living room of our apartment for a number of years when I was a kid (maybe age 5 to 10 or so).  I lived with and observed this figure in passing and probably never ‘looked at it’ with much intention.  Nevertheless, there are a number of things that I think I understood about the artwork. I knew that the figure was not meant to be a particular individual.  There were too few identifying characteristics, and so, it clearly represented an everyman, an archetypal human.  This sculpture’s reference to the human form was as simple, universal, and open-ended as a stick figure’s.   I knew that the object was substantial and also fragile.  It was an indelible presence, tall (imposing) and heavy (immovable) , but occasionally shed pieces of straw and plaster, and could be broken (if I ran into it).   I remember sensing that the manner of the work was somehow serious; some important or mysterious ideas were probably involved in its’ construction.  It’s hard to put a finger on this.  At the time I may simply have recognized that the thing was not frivolously made.  Its’ appearance was stark and its’ tone was reverent. 

Memory of childhood observations involving such slippery and subjective notions is admittedly unreliable. But this plainly evident seriousness and seeming involvement with important or mysterious ideas is an enduring and, I think, compelling aspect of the work: it sets the tone for the viewer. It’s an aspect that is itself a bit mysterious.  It can’t be explained by the material characteristics of the work alone.  It’s an elusive quality.  I might compare it to listening to a Leonard Cohen song for the first time or walking up to certain Anselm Kiefer paintings (fig. 9); you can’t help but get the feeling that what you are experiencing is tapped into a vein that runs deep into the nature of things. I think vulnerable sincerity is at play here. I suspect that a feeling of intimacy and a heightened awareness of one’s own physicality is involved.    I also think the works’ poetic rather than explicit expression is important: it proposes some things but prescribes nothing; it doesn’t attempt to define the undefinable.  

When I view one of the large straw and plaster figures today, I am struck again by the simultaneously evident characteristics of permanence and ephemerality.  I believe it is the straw in particular that leads me to see the work in this way.  Straw is light and brittle, conceptually delicate.  It also appears as so many thin lines which give the work an overall sketchiness.  It is rare to encounter a sculpture that reads so much like a drawing (fig. 10). The surfaces of these figures are impossibly complex, blurry, suggestive rather than definitive.  It’s unclear exactly where the edges are, hard to pinpoint where the figure begins and ends.  I am tempted to wonder how much material (how many limbs or features) could be removed from this or that figure before it would cease to be recognizable as a body? Or what is the range of tolerance for signifying the human form using these materials? Sullivan tests this boundary with sculptures of bodiless heads and limbless torsos (fig. 11,12).  The referent human form is always evident in this body of work, but it is roughly outlined, or so minimally and non-specifically described that it seems to me to be only precariously there or flimsily vacant. There is the feeling that if no one is there to inhabit these forms,  encounter them, think them - thereby activating them – the human element might vanish or flicker off.   It’s a, ‘If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a noise?’ type of situation.  This work explicitly invites activation.  These sculptures seem to need to be inhabited, encountered, engaged, to turn on, fire up, function.  This fleeting encounter, the moment of engagement or activation, is for me the ephemeral aspect of the work, and only half of the equation.  The material objects themselves are, of course, very solidly there even when no one is present to look at them.  The material exists on a different timeline from our own, a longer timeline. This is the seemingly permanent aspect of the work, the part that stands alongside and contrasts the ephemerality of thought, transcends the often featherweight nature of our experience. 

In the first few pages of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera describes our predicament of being irreconcilably stuck between lightness and weight: having to choose between the burden of significance and the freedom of insignificance.  He illustrates this situation by referencing Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return: that “every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times.” And so, “In the world of eternal return the weight of unbearable responsibility lies heavy on every move we make.”  Alternatively, “the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing.” He concludes that, “The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment.  The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.  Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.  What then shall we choose?  Weight or lightness?”  

This conception of being places us on shaky ground.  It describes a radically uncertain and paradoxical condition and begs the question: how should we decide to think and act in the face of this uncertainty? Should we pick a side, simplify things, hide behind some truths, or should we confront the paradox?  In Impossible Exchange, Jean Baudrillard writes, “Now we have at the very least to escape truth.  And to escape truth, you must not, whatever you do, trust the subject. You have to leave matters to the object and its strange attraction, the world and its definitive uncertainty.” The art object is an entry point- a seductive invitation or baited hook - a hyperlink to a particular territory of ideas or kind of thinking.  I think that embracing, or facing head on, the complex, uncertain, and paradoxical nature of things, not hiding behind truth or pretending to really know or be able to describe the world, is the type of thinking that is evidenced in James Sullivan’s work.  There is also the evident choice to seriously investigate the mystery of experience, to engage the weight of the world and also engage the lightness of being.  The work mirrors the nature of things, but it is not a stand-in for the world.  It is a microcosm: a set of objects that poke at what we may understand but cannot describe.