Donald Saaf: Contemporary Folk Tales

March 14 - June 21, 2015

The first thing one might notice about Donald Saaf’s recent mixed media paintings is the distorted scale and proportion of many of the figures, buildings, and landscapes in relation to one another. The second thing might be how much Saaf’s colors and patterns are reminiscent of quilts and stained glass windows. Both these devices give otherwise ordinary characters and scenes a fantastical, dreamlike look.

Saaf’s narratives integrate vignettes of everyday life with larger, universal themes. A man walks a dog, or a bicyclist travels a country road. But inhabiting the same universe, a disproportionately tall man holding the moon in his hand and two people sitting on a hillside with fish and a black hole in the sky above them hint at more complexity below the surface. The shapes wreathing the heads and bodies of people and animals create an effect of mystery and otherworldliness.

The process of making these works intertwines with their meaning. Beginning with a simple compositional idea, Saaf allows the painting to grow organically. As a work evolves, he paints and repaints as he seeks “to solve the picture in a way that is surprising to me.” Applying pieces of vintage cloth to the surface, he dresses his characters in simply patterned textiles such as polka dots, plaids, or stripes. “In one sense,” he notes, “there is a story being told on the canvas, but if you look closer, it’s made of colorful pieces of fabric with histories of their own; fabrics which are in turn made of individual colored threads.”

Leaving remnants from all stages in his process, Saaf recognizes that these “ghost images” may represent spirits of the figures, or “the life energy that is too big to be… contained,” or the passage of time. “I’m interested in… the memory of place and experience… of walking down a street imagining the view from a bird’s eye view, while simultaneously seeing a house in the distance, noticing small objects on the ground, and briefly experiencing other people’s lives as they pass by.” This multiplicity of views is part of what makes Saaf’s paintings seem alive, almost glittering with motion — the moments they depict also contain their own past and future.

Saaf explains, “I have been thinking of relationships. Families are made of separate people, people are made of spirit and matter, atoms made of electrons, etc. In an attempt to transplant this concept into a 21st century ‘folk’ painting, I am moving away from the singular personal story line to one that focuses more on the community, and the great ocean of souls from which we all emerge.”

— Susan Calabria, Curator


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