John Sargent's life of reinvention on the road to wonder

Joel Oliphint
"Relevant" by John Sargent

As a kid, John A. Sargent III would go to battle for the window seat on an airplane, where he’d stare outside at the awe-inspiring expanses of blue sky. Huge, cotton-white clouds seemed to erupt like volcanoes. Others formed horizons that looked endless. It all felt out of control and dangerous and beautiful. That seat next to the window became his sacred place.

But it took the Cleveland-area artist decades to represent the sky and other aspects of nature in a way that authentically conveyed his sense of wonder. In his younger days as an artist, at Connecticut’s Trinity College in the early 1980s, a professor asked him a philosophical question that sent him down a particular path: “Who are you?”

"That’s a great question for an artist,” Sargent said recently by phone. “I carried that around in my pocket for a while, contemplating it when I was doing work: ‘Who am I? What is this for?’”

In the late ’80s, while in graduate school at Ohio State, a visiting artist posed an entirely different question: “Why don’t you stop making sense?”

“I was being very practical and sensible, because in college my parents wanted me to be a professional — maybe a lawyer, or I'd go into business,” Sargent said. “That fella introduced me to the idea that you could just go deep, wherever it goes. Don’t be sensible and reasonable.”

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After that realization, Sargent had a blast, viewing his art as a giant sandbox in which to play. But then a recession hit in the early ’90s, and he was struggling — cue the third transformative question. “I was being whiny and complaining. I thought I was important and significant,” said Sargent, who one day aired his grievances to his father. “It was a Sunday morning. He put his paper down and put his glasses down and said, ‘Listen, Sarge. You got to paint something people can understand.’ And he was right. And I was pissed, because I thought art was supposed to be this wild, deep adventure.”

After getting over his frustration, Sargent shifted from conceptual paintings to more definable, approachable pieces, selling more than 600 works over the next two decades. He bought a house, started a college fund. In the process, Sargent learned to shift the focus away from himself, instead inclining his ear to others. “I was learning to listen, as opposed to just talking my mouth off,” he said.

Still, amid all the success, he missed that open-ended playfulness, and in 2008, Sargent’s then-4-year-old son helped him figure out how to combine the spontaneity of his earlier paintings with the precision and knowability of his later work. Sargent was working on a commissioned piece, trying desperately to make it perfect, and left his studio for a break. When he came back, he found his son reaching toward the bottom of the canvas, paintbrushes in hand.

“He said, ‘Hey, Dad! I'm painting!’ I said, ‘Yeah, you sure are, pal.’ … He was having so much fun, just helping Dad,” Sargent said. “There are so many different sides to what it is to be a creative soul. There's the discipline of a professional craftsman, and then there’s the child’s play, wonder, joy — all that stuff. ... I’ve spent the last 12 years trying to figure out how to merge the wonder and the discipline, the sober and the Looney Tunes.”

That intersection is on full display in “Allusions to Other,” Sargent’s new exhibition at Sean Christopher Gallery, on view through Jan. 30. Billowing clouds and ocean waves are embellished with various flecks and splotches, or sometimes overlayed with dark geometric shapes. “After rendering [the image] and being precise, I put the canvas on the floor and pick up a bunch of arbitrary objects that I can put paint on. And then I just start throwing paint at the canvas,” Sargent said. “Sometimes I'll let it sit there for a week and come back and revisit it. … Sometimes it takes months to arrive at something that looks like it was always there.”

Sargent still paints more traditional beach scenes for a gallery in Florida, and in those pieces, everything is known; nothing is dangerous. On the flip side, he’s also embracing the earlier, more outre, conceptual side of his art in “Allusions to Other.” In one sculptural piece, “Requiem,” a nest sits on a black shelf, and scattered about the gallery are a dozen corresponding paintings of eggs, raising ideas about birth and possibility.

But it’s the melding of those two worlds that makes up the bulk of the celestial, nature-inspired paintings in “Allusions to Other.” And in order to best represent those essential aspects of himself, Sargent has had to learn how to get out of his own way. “Humans have big brains, but that's about it. We don't know what we're doing,” he said. “I'm not trying to arrive at the thing I know. I'm trying to arrive at the wonder and the crazy.”

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