Joel Sheesley – 2000

Joel Sheesley Paradise LostTHE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
JOEL SHEESLEY | Paradise Lost, Paradise Sublimated: The Suburban Paintings of Joel Sheesley | September, 2000 – February, 2001

The exhibition for which this essay was written is a participating venue in The Sacred Arts Series—a journey through time showcasing religious art and the discourse surrounding it, sponsored by the Basilica of Saint Mary and twelve regional Minnesota Colleges.

It may seem strange, at first glance, to include Chicago artist, Joel Sheesley’s paintings about the American suburbs in a celebration of sacred arts. Yet what Sheesley explores in these works belongs deeply, albeit at a slant, to this context. When we think of “sacred arts,” we almost inevitably think of work from cultures that still have or that once had a sacred tradition integral to their social fabric. Living as we do in a more materialist, consumerist-based society that is significantly desacralized, this usually means turning to cultures other than our own. Folk art, the art of non-western cultures, or religious art from earlier periods of western culture all offer enormously rich possibilities. Through the art of such cultures, we vicariously encounter the sacred through others, appropriating something of their sensibility to ourselves by way of aesthetics, while circumventing the problems of religious belief.

In contrast, what interests Joel Sheesley is the question of whether the sacred traditions of Western Culture are still latent in the contexts where we actually live. He investigates the stories of Jewish and Christian faith, asking if they still shape our psyches or lodge in the patterns of our subconscious. It is not that Sheesley depicts updated versions of biblical stories. Rather, he discovers their lingering presence like a fortifying memory or a troubling dream as something thoroughly fused by sublimation into the lives of suburbanites. Indeed, without his provocative titles, there is no reason to connect his beautifully painted naturalistic scenes of suburban life with the powerful mythic themes of the Bible. But the relationship of title to image so seemingly discontinuous is precisely analogous to the relationship of these ancient stories to American suburban culture. By giving such titles to such images, Sheesley sets into motion an uneasy intersection of ancient heavy weights tested through the crucibles of their faith experience with lighter weight Americans whose notion of the sacred and suffering is quite different. For Sheesley, the suburbs become a kind of sublimated sequel to the Bible’s founding stories. Those stories, which in so many ways underwrite American culture and its psyche, even when there is unbelief, are now domesticated. But they are also quietly ominous. In Expelled from the Garden, we find a latter day Adam and Eve standing beside a soccer field. Cleary the semi-utopian urge of the suburbs can be seen as our American attempt to regain the Garden, both in its lush comfort and its security. Yet this man and woman stand in postures as ill at ease as they are casual. Beyond them runs a sun-bleached game field, bordered on the far side by a fence. Just beyond the fence begins a winding path that meanders back into the lush foliage of a park that is inaccessible to them.

This sense of simultaneously belonging and being dislocated permeates Sheesley’s paintings. In the gap between belonging and dislocation exists the possibility of

encountering the sacred. It is evident in, Quiet A.M. in Nineveh, where an unsuspecting woman leans over her swimming pool towards a giant inflatable whale floating benignly as the title evokes the prophetic cry of Jonah for Nineveh to repent its vanity. It is evident in Lot’s Distress, where a woman stands suspended in bright light, while a male figure turns his back on her. More obliquely, the gap between belonging and dislocation is evident in Signal, where Sheesley’s ironic vernacular poetry irrationally juxtaposes a father watching his kid’s ball game with a flagman carrying a stop sign bearing a serpent. It was Moses who raised the brazen serpent in order to bring healing to those lost in the wilderness. Here, Sheesley suggests a more contemporary sign for those lost in a wilderness of bland comfort.

Perhaps most haunting is the way that the sacred subliminally troubles the mundane assumptions of middle class life in Abraham’s Puzzle. This relaxed father sits comfortably in control, watching his son playing in a jungle gym. He may even think of his wealth and success as signs of God’s blessings and promise for his children. Securely centered in this world, Abraham sits balanced upon the unstable sphere of a soccer ball. The geometry of its pattern echoes the geometry of the geodesic sphere in which Isaac climbs. From inside the painting, Abraham’s confident, adult understanding of the world and of God’s promises, suggest he is in control of the world’s patterns upon which he rests. It is Isaac, the child, who is still subject to the patterns inside which he plays. Yet ironically, what Abraham does not comprehend, but what we see from the viewer’s outside perspective, is that Abraham’s figure is also still defined against those same patterns. This, even though from his perspective he seems outside of them. What the painting’s figure-ground relationship reveals in a moment of odd visual slippage, is a sublimated version of Abraham’s terrible dilemma that it may be God’s will to sacrifice this beloved child. This is every parent’s terror.

Therein lies the force of Sheesley’s explorations. To sublimate means to divert the expressions of instinctual desire from primitive form to one that is more socially or culturally acceptable. Here, the dark primitive instincts of blood sacrifice to atone for sin; or the raw instincts that God demands loyalty even at the cost of destroying one’s stable social forms; or the stark possibility of allowing ultimate religious questions to seize control over one’s successful, well-ordered life: none of these could be further from what is socially acceptable in suburbia. Yet any of these may be required in an encounter with the sacred. It is a tired clichè for artists and intellectuals to criticize the suburbs, as if superior to them. Sheesley avoids intellectual self-righteousness. Instead he takes a humble position, because these people are his neighbors. Of this, he says with humor, “I am complicit in suburban life. My patron saint of suburbia is Lot. He didn’t want to get out of Sodom. But he knew something wasn’t quite right.”

Wayne L. Roosa, Ph.D.
Art Historian, Bethel College