Cole Sternberg, I was here for just a moment, at David B. Smith Gallery, Denver
Exhibition Essay by Leanne Haase Goebel
U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, a Republican from Illinois, wanted to head the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce. In March 2009, while speaking before a subcommittee hearing on the environment, he quoted chapter 8, verses 21-22, from the book of Genesis, and further stated: “Man will not destroy this earth, this earth will not be destroyed by a flood.” In other words, global warming cannot destroy the planet because God promised Noah “as long as the earth endures … never again will I destroy all living things.” Shimkus went on to add that instead of having too much carbon, Earth is a carbon-starved planet, and we should pump more of it into the atmosphere. He didnʼt get the job; it instead went to Rep. Fred Upton from Michigan, who also questions the science of man-made global warming, and has called for congressional hearings to investigate climate scientists.
Shimkus and Upton belong with the 45 percent of Americans who believe that global warming is a hoax, and that Creationism is science. They seem to ignore the biblical line “as long as the earth endures,” which, according to scientists, may not be much longer. Whether itʼs global warming, earthquakes, tsunamis, or the inevitable giant asteroid, scientists agree that the earth will not endure forever.
“Iʼm pretty frustrated, embarrassed, and scared by the American war on science,” Cole Sternberg said. The artist, who, like Matisse and Kandinsky, used to have a day job as a lawyer, is drawn to text and politics. “A lot of my work is motivated by my frustration or happiness or anger with different sociopolitical ideas.” In this exhibit, that idea is the conflict between science and religion.
Sternberg has always been an artist, but he trained to become a lawyer and practiced law for two years with the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. He had his first art exhibit at a bar in Washington, D.C. during law school at American University. Things progressed to where he could no longer both practice law and make art. “Sitting and doing the hard-core legal work, the laborious process of contractual work, is not up my alley,” he said. “People who like the intellectual process that law school provides want to keep adapting and, ironically, lawyering can be repetitive.”
But he doesnʼt seem to mind the laborious and repetitive nature of his art making. Sternberg recently completed a large installation at a house in the Hollywood Hills where he converted the ownersʼ former yoga space into a layering of text and paint, and installed an alter of gold televisions called The Content is Bleeding Through. The 120,000 words of text painstakingly written across the walls and floors are quotes from gossip magazines and websites, while the ceiling mural is filled with the names of Nobel Prize winners. For Sternberg, this represents the blurring of content in our brains and subconscious. The merging of technology and media into blips of information that people follow religiously.
“The media is defining the bible for people. Everything is interwoven into one quilt that doesnʼt make any sense. It can jump from global warming as a hoax on Fox News to Lindsay Lohan to Libya in 30 seconds. They donʼt really report on any of those things, and at least two of those things are complete bullshit. The third one, they spin in their own way for their own agendas,” Sternberg told Whitewall Magazine.
For I was here for just a moment, Sternberg has created several large pieces that represent
broken-down landscapes. While much of his previous work was created on found, recycled wood or
traditional canvas, the pieces in this exhibit are on Belgian Linen. The first layer is the linen, which
might be primed lightly or left unprimed, upon which Sternberg torturously handwrites a piece of text
using Copic ink pens from Japan. It might be charter 08, a manifesto signed by over 350 Chinese
intellectuals, which helped Liu Xiaobo win the Nobel Peace Prize. The ink is water-based, and the
layering process will pull some of the pigment from the text; thatʼs intentional because an overarching
theme of Sternbergʼs work is censorship. The canvas is then layered with paint, spray paint, and
“The more involved part is the layers,” Sternberg said. “The text is obviously laborious, but the layers take a long time, too. Forming it in my head and then transferring onto the linen in the manner and the depth that I want can be an arduous process.” Sometimes months.
Many of the works in this exhibition are inspired by what is found in the media. Thank god for the additional topic suggestions is the result of a search by Sternberg on the Fox News website for additional articles on global warming. Other topics suggested by the website included Ozzy Osborne and Lindsay Lohan, with no clear link to the original topic. Additional inspirations are radio and television pundits. The radio voiceʼs view is about Rush Limbaughʼs take on global warming. Limbaugh has basically stated that people who drive hybrids and use those “spaghetti lightbulbs” are stupid because we had the coldest winter on record, so obviously there is no global warming. The one work that remains mostly text is called twitter ravings arenʼt news and is made up of Glenn Beckʼs posts. Words and thoughts so completely abstract in their content, the subtle washing of the canvas is enough.
Other topics emerge as well. The blood-red and white painting is titled neocolonialism and “addresses the concept of wealthier, more powerful countries using other countriesʼ land for their own purposes, like the Saudis buying desert land to dump garbage or China dumping nuclear waste in Tibet,” Sternberg said. Living in Los Angeles, where car culture reigns, also inspires Sternberg. A sad man in a sad car is about people being so focused on their own small world as to not see whatʼs going on around them. Not only those driving on highways, but those who are more aware of Lindsay Lohan than they are of Chinaʼs dumping of nuclear waste in Tibet. Much of this Sternberg attributes to the people listed in 13 who may enjoy it, a multi-layered work where the names Rupert Murdoch and Charles and David Koch are clearly evident in fuschia ink.
Sternbergʼs art doesnʼt fit into any one category. Itʼs not street art, not abstract expressionism, itʼs not lowbrow, and itʼs not just political activism — itʼs all of it. And itʼs equally inspired by Monet and Cy Twombly as it is by text artists Ed Ruscha, Glenn Ligon, and Jasper Johns, and the sociopolitical works by Barbara Kruger and Marc Bradford.
But for Sternberg, the art making is a way of dealing with his own frustrations and his own emotions about sociopolitical issues. He went to law school to be an international human rights or international trade lawyer, and he felt as though he were beating his head against the wall in those fields. “I think it must be my own way of saying things. People donʼt expect me to be a very jovial person. I am pretty happy. The paintings keep me sane. They came out of me as a way to at least try and do something, to least add to a critical societal dialogue.” The viewer doesnʼt need to understand the artistʼs opinion, or the message he is trying to convey through each work. It is often impossible without an in-depth explanation of the text and layers. Sternberg does hope that if we begin to read more instead of less, if we value education instead of labeling it as some kind of elitism, if we being to think about the issues, and figure out if our actions are truly helping or not, then we would find ourselves in a more enlightened time. Perhaps the most moving work in the exhibit is adjustments, a rich, Yves Klein blue that the artist stopped after dyeing the linen. The resulting image that appeared reminded Sternberg of what the worldʼs topography might look like post-environmental apocalypse, like the satellite images of Japan that are emerging since the earthquake and tsunami.
“If the issues addressed in these paintings are political issues, then we need to redefine political,” Sternberg said. ”I havenʼt come across anyone who has a valid argument of anything else. We all agree on a certain list of humanitarian ideals.”
The question these works of art pose is: How do our actions help or hurt?
I was here for just a moment
March 18 – April 9, 2011
David B. Smith Gallery
1543 A Wazee Street
Denver, CO 80202