The end is near for artist Jonathan Saiz
There’s a scene at the end of the doomsday movie “Deep Impact” when the world is coming to an end. A collision-course comet has rocked the planet and a thousand-foot tidal wave is about to wash away the beach where actress Téa Leoni has just reunited with her estranged father, played Maximilian Schell.
But instead of fleeing inland like the scrambling masses around them, the pair simply hug tight and turn to face the ocean, resigned that Earth is sunk and calmed that they have found their place in a cycle of life and death they have no control over.
That’s how I felt, like Téa and Max in that moment, as I walked through artist Jonathan Saiz’s exhibit at Leon Gallery. The work is all about widespread calamity, and things like conspiracy theories, cults, crimes, cover-ups and mass destruction. But not in a panicked way.
The tone is more like: Big and bad stuff happens, and it mostly happens to you and, well, you just need to accept your fate and be happy.
A lot of people might see his sprawling and labor-intensive art works as a metaphor for the trials and tribulations of everyday life. I’m not sure Saiz means it that way. He is, it seems, a true believer; at 33 years old a product of the weird, wired world his generation grew up in, where the Internet conflates half-truths into catastrophes and interprets astrological events as alien abductions, where mass murderers have fan pages and charismatic characters recruit vulnerable followers to their whacko armies and where, most importantly, religion and pop culture combine to make the apocalypse ap-
The exhibit, “The Deep End,” distributes his brilliant and confused mind across the walls of Leon and it is as entertaining and immersive as any Hollywood blockbuster, though without the big-budget. There’s an unpolished, D.I.Y. aura to the effort that makes it personal, sincere and, almost, convincing.
Saiz ties it all together, literally, by writing a series of words and phrases on the gallery’s entry wall that evoke darkness, mystery, spirituality and self-conflict — things like “purification,” “apathy,” “denial,” “sex” and “Satan” — then he uses push pins and rainbow-colored string to connect the dots, in the same way the Greeks linked stars to make constellations. Is there some vast, government conspiracy that connects “tarot” to “Revelations” to “encryption? ” The wall tells all.
The piece morphs into a series of tiny, plastic boxes — maybe two-inches square and placed across the wall in a grid — that become the motif for the remaining exhibit. Inside each box is an even tinier painting, abstract but meant to represent some facet of Saiz’ inner world, things like pyramids or ancient tribal markings or celestial phenomena. They unfold as individual pieces (and, in fact, they are for sale that way at a mere $20 apiece) but link together into a whole that suggests there’s are a lot of interlocking, and suspicious, things going on that we know little about.
From there, the boxes, and there are 9,000 total, are put together into wall-mounted pieces of various shapes and depth. Some are placed in oversized frames to bring attention to specific ideas. Others are combined together into larger squares and obscured by cloudy facades or dripped-on paint. One piece, the show’s only collaboration and done with artist Lewis Neef, is covered with sugar crystals. Often, these little boxes are obscured with a hand-painted “X,” or layered on top of each other, two, three or four deep, so you can’t even seen what’s in them. They evoke a sense that some things are murky, hidden and unknowable.
It all leads up to the exhibit’s masterpiece, “It’s Only Working ’til It Isn’t,” a massive wall sculpture, made of 6,000 of the boxes glued together, that chronicles a planet or a civilization as it is born, matures, destroyed by its own ignorant means and then, finally, reborn. Within it, is a thousand individual asides about the mechanisms of modern existence and ultimate chaos.
Saiz, who clearly embraces the unexplained, let’s us interpret his works however we want, but he does lead us to his way of thinking via the show’s final piece, a 738-page, soft-cover book he has self-published. He’s placed 105 copies on an acrylic shelf that is set in the center of the gallery.
The title is “Wake Up, Do Some S—, Sleep: A Memoir” and the text is simple. It reads: “Wake Up, Do Some S—, Sleep” and repeats that 32,485 times, enough to chronicle 89 years worth of days, his suggested ideal length of a human life if, unlike Téa Leoni in “Deep Impact,” they make it that far.
There are a lot ways to look at Saiz’s work and it depends, more than most exhibits, on what you bring to the table. Some people, in the era of fake news and slickly produced web propaganda, believe in all this dark stuff. Others have zero patience for it. The show will seem self-indulgent and more than a little crazy to the agnostic crowd.
There’s a certain TMI factor to it, as well, too much information, as the saying goes, about Saiz’ own quirkiness, a common characteristic of things produced by an age group willing to confess everything even remotely personal, with pride, over social media channels, and send out naked selfies to strangers without a second thought. It all adds up.
But it’s hard not to be taken in by Saiz’s charm and good attitude about it all. Worlds come and go, generations live, die and get replaced. No real reason to get upset about all that in the meantime. It’s not optimistic exactly, but it is calming. Like a shot of bourbon on a bumpy airplane flight or good anti-depressant, it removes both the highs and lows of experience and suggests you just be.
In that way, it succeeds well. With “The Deep End,” Saiz proves himself to be a confident, talented and evolving artist and it shows Leon Gallery is willing to take chances. Leon is a commercial space and this show is not an easy sell (except perhaps for the book, which goes for $17.95 a copy, making it perhaps the weirdest, best holiday present out there for 2016).
See the exhibit soon. Before it’s over. Or before everything is over.
Jonathan Saiz’s exhibit, “The Deep End,” connects tiny boxed artworks with string and words to explore a world of widespread calamity, and things like conspiracy theories, cults, crimes, cover-ups and mass destruction. Photo by Amanda Tipton, provided by leon Gallery
A detail from “The Deep End” by Jonathan Saiz.
Jonathan Saiz’ exhibit, “The Deep End,” uses 9,000 tiny plastic boxes, each filled with an individual artwork.
Jonathan Saiz working on “The Deep End.”Courtesy Jonathan Saiz