Longtime Sag Harbor painter and recent Springs transplant David Slater might just be the East End art world’s most unrecognized genius. Sure, locals know and love his colorful mixed-media works, but at 79 years old it’s almost a crime he’s never blown up on the national stage. At no time has this been more evident than with his new solo show at MM Fine Art in Southampton. The exhibition is billed through November 17, and anyone who appreciates visionary artwork should go see it before it closes.
Slater’s intricate paintings are a kaleidoscopic stew mixing personal memoir, local history, myth and dreams, each imbued with layers of symbols and meaning. A conversation with the artist quickly reveals that every collaged scrap, word, number or robustly rendered figure represents a deeply considered choice. Nothing in his compositions is window dressing or placed by happenstance.
Take, for example, “Jackson and Lee in Paradise,” a new 4 x 6-foot masterwork that acts as a centerpiece for this exhibition. Appearing like a devotional painting from the Middle Ages or a traditional Mexican votive, the canvas puts legendary abstract expressionists Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner in the role of saints surrounded by icons from their storied lives and careers. Images of paint cans and other relics excavated from Pollock’s Springs studio stand on a table between him and Krasner, while a skull—which Slater recalled from Arnold Newman’s famous photograph of Pollock—floats above his head. The artist’s pet crow Caw Caw features prominently, shown both standing and in flight.
Slater says the flying crow represents Pollock’s final moments in 1956, when he was launched from his Model A Ford during a crash near his home on Springs Fireplace Road. “He actually flew at the end of his life,” he says, describing the painting as his vision of Pollock as a shaman, with an altar displaying “his tools of alchemy.” The painting took Slater two years to complete and, as gallery visitor Rosemary Simon gushed, “This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen—your finest hour.”
“I think this is the best show of my work I’ve ever seen,” Slater agrees. He acknowledges the prominence of Sag Harbor in these particular paintings, but the artist says he’s lived in Springs for two years, and the new surroundings are beginning to creep into his next body of work—as demonstrated by the appearance of Pollock. “It took a psychological transformation to paint in Springs,” Slater says. “It took a while.”
“Jackson and Lee in Paradise” is just one of 15 pieces Slater has on view at MM Fine Art. Most were painted during the past five years, though some go back even farther, and traces of Sag Harbor can be seen in nearly all. Folks who know the village will notice local places and names, as well as multi-sailed tall ships and nautical imagery harkening back to the whaling era.
Sag Harbor’s Municipal Building is central to Slater’s 5 x 6-foot “Circus Extreme.” In addition to the beautifully lit and instantly recognizable architecture, which Slater saw from his roof, the painting features a striking red hummingbird, black cat, rainbow and clown in its rich tableau of experience, thought and memory. The artist points to a trio of female gang members in hoodies and yellow “war paint” in the lower right corner. He remembers them trying to intimidate him and a friend on the streets of Buffalo many years ago. “We actually stood our ground,” Slater says, adding of that time, “Buffalo was really dangerous.”
Slater draws upon eight decades of moments like this to deliver his compelling body of work, much of it emblazoned with common colors and motifs, such as stars, flames and butterflies. One doesn’t need to know the stories to fall in love with the paintings they inspired—Slater’s authenticity emerges through his deliberate brushstrokes and collaged scraps. Nothing about these paintings feels artificial or pretentious, and their shared iconography creates a prevalent thread that gives the show greater context.
Only the artist can tell us exactly what it all means, but the wealth of aesthetic and intellectual morsels makes attempting to decode his work a joyful endeavor.
MM Fine Art is located at 4 North Main Street in Southampton. Call 631-259-2274 or visit mmfineart.com for hours and info.