As ever, Billy Sullivan displays genuine affection for his subjects
Billy Sullivan, who has been showing his work since the ‘70s, has a show of new paintings at Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. He also has a three-projector slide show and several paintings in the current Whitney Biennial, “Day for Night.” He is proof of the saying that art is something one becomes better at the longer one does it.
Sullivan works from his own photographs and for years has been documenting the under-side of New York cultural society. He began doing this when the term counter-culture was in common parlance. From the glam hippy days of Max’s Kansas City to the current scenes of cutting edge fashion models and elegant young cads, Sullivan’s gaze has been consistent and amounts to somewhat of a love affair. In relationship to the art world this has always been a little on the outside.
With the comings and goings of the likes of Nan Goldin, with regard to photography, and Elizabeth Peyton, with regard to painting, Sullivan has continued to do what he does. The comparison to these artists is, I suppose, inevitable, but there are major differences in the nature of the gaze. Sullivan’s examining has become increasingly less arbitrary and reflects, at this point, a genuine affection for his chosen subjects as well as a degree of acknowledgement of the temporality of their condition, generally being one of youth, beauty, insouciance, ennui, and/or somehow availability
This current show is all of a more or less modest scale and a kind of pinkish clean light. The subjects are going about their lives with an unflappable sense of assurance or youthful entitlement. Just under the surface is a certain sadness. This is very different from the self-conscious even tragic affectations of Peyton’s subjects which always remind me of British “between the wars” literary preciousness.
Sullivan is in love with physical qualities, regardless of who has them, whereas Peyton bends the look of her subjects to fit a rock-fan based notion of decadence. All this maY seem a moot point but there is a difference in the feeling conveyed by the work. Sullivan’s current show has a fresh feeling and the look of love he casts on is subjects is exhilarating.
One last very un-art-world observation and a kick in the head for the theory-wonks—nobody paints eyelashes and hair-dos the way Sullivan does.