Genre-bending paintings from Santa Clara artist
The Santa Clara
October 18, 2018
When you think about Jesuit art, images of gloomy, multi-colored dogs do not readily come to mind. Sweeping landscapes and forceful angels certainly seem more fitting. But Gerald Sullivan, S.J., combines all of these elements—surreal and realistic— in his art to form an uncanny body of work now on display for Santa Clara’s enjoyment.
Sullivan’s collection, entitled “A Master’s Perspective: The Art and Life of Gerald Sullivan S.J.,” showcases the full spectrum of Sullivan’s storied artistic efforts, ranging from his bold acrylic paintings to the more-intimate sketches from his notebooks.
Sullivan initially taught in the university’s religious studies department in the late 60s before leaving to study at the exclusive Art Students League of New York.
In 1971, he returned to Santa Clara to work in the art and art history department, infusing the campus with his art over the course of his lengthy tenure. He died in 2010.
The collection expands Sullivan’s presence in the community.
Situated in the Learning Commons of the third floor gallery, his art offers students a soothing respite from the stress of daily life—a surprising feat given the striking and often-disjointed nature of the art.
Immediately upon entering the gallery, images of pale dogs tumbling amongst brightly colored balls confront visitors, drawing them in and leading them to the captivating “Tierra-Tribute to Columbus—The Good the Bad and the Ugly.”
In this acrylic on canvas, a horde of dogs (sporting a kaleidoscope of colored furs) bite at each other and stare drearily at the outskirts of the painting while Columbus’ ships sail in the background.
Tactfully curated by professor Kelly Detweiler (with the help of her students Stina Arstorp ‘21 and Laura Diggs ‘21), these early, attention-grabbing images introduce the uninitiated to Sullivan’s playful and surreal style, preparing captivated visitors for the jubilant chaos of the rest of the collection.
Detweiler arranges these peripheral pieces to lead visitors toward “StarWars,” the acrylic on canvas centerpiece that dominates the gallery.
Depicting a tumultuous scene of halo-enshrined figures surrounded by flying angels and cherubs, Sullivan juggles the conflicting styles of the flat, medieval-inspired humans with the fuller, Renaissance renderings of the portly cherubs.
Consequentially, the arresting juxtapositions of this centerpiece exemplify the superficial incohesiveness of the collection.
Sullivan’s acrylics, oils and watercolors fight for attention with the penciled sketches and typed notes. The rough, sometimes cartoonish shapes of Sullivan’s figures (especially in the mud-covered faces of the children in “They’re Here”) add to the incohesion created by the multitude of mediums and subjects. It can feel a bit overwhelming.
However, despite the apparent chaos of the imaginative array, a series of Sullivan’s sketches trace his experimentations with his wild, intuitive approach.
The sketches contain numerous iterations of smudgy faces similar to the ones from “They’re Here,” revealing the intentionality of an artist muddling faces into the precise result he wants to achieve. The chaos is the point.
Ultimately, Sullivan’s incohesion unites the collection, presenting life as a hybrid of beautiful and conflicting elements. Perhaps no visual encapsulates this sentiment better than the recurring image of the three nude mermaids (prominently featured in the watercolors of “Orpheus”).
The creatures’ realistically aged upper halves fuse with fantastically aquatic tails to convey a joyful acceptance of life’s inexplicable realities.
Sullivan’s enigmatic images complement the unfathomable nature of life, and if you want to share his bafflement, pay a quick visit to the gallery and surround yourself with his puzzling pieces.
At the very least, you’ll get to see a flummoxed dragon pulling a carriage through a field.
Contact Brandon Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.