Throughout his long and varied career, Don Suggs constantly interrogated received ideas of artmaking, pushing boundaries between styles and media while building a personal iconographic language that surfaces across the broad range of his practice. A key element of that visual language is the tondo, its circular form showing up in paintings, prints, photography, and sculpture. As employed by Suggs, the tondo is both obscuring and revealing, abstract and painstakingly concrete. Through the tondo, Suggs introduces formalism to landscapes, reinterprets famous paintings of the past, and adds Pop-inflected playfulness to compositions.
The Raft of the Medusa, 1818-19
Raft of the Medusa, 2007
oil on canvas
Diameter: 108 in. (274.3 cm)
Suggs’ series of paintings Patrimony/Matrimony reinterprets iconic works of art using a conceptual framework based on palette, composition and psychological force. The artist draws on historian/writer James Elkins’ conceit that art history has brought forth “monster paintings,” which he defines as those paintings about which it would be impossible to read all that has been written. Included in the series is Théodore Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa (1819), which Suggs has meticulously studied and recreated with this tondo painting using the exact proportions of each color used. The mind’s eye travels around Géricault’s canvas as the tondo progresses from center to edge, conjuring narrative from abstraction.
“My central studio practice alternates between painting and photography, the governing concept being an ongoing argument with received ideas about the landscape."
- Don Suggs
Delft at Descanso merges painting and photography, featuring a full color archival digital print on canvas with a circular abstraction painted in oils. The vibrant image was taken at the Descanso Gardens northeast of Los Angeles; the vibrant blue of the sky bringing to mind the rich blues of Delft pottery alluded to in the title. The abstract element suggests a feeling of the place rather than a sense of its physicality; luminous and bright.
“The thing that blocks our view is an opening in the picture to further meaning.”
- Don Suggs
In his Paradise Prints series, Suggs begins with photography from national parks, canyons, coastlines, and various American wild places. As the photographs are translated into black and white, their color is reconstituted as abstract tondo elements on top of the images. In this way, the viewer receives all of the visual information about the image, but is invited to reimagine the full-color scene based on the given tondo.
The tondo returned in simplified form in Suggs' very last body of work, its crisp circular outlines lassoing his own past works and herding them into the 21st century. The never-before-shown series Out of Body consists of early-career paintings that have been unearthed and reassessed through new applications of paint and form. In the present work, expressionist abstractions in muted tones, created in 1981, are enlivened by crisp, boldly colored geometric forms, added in 2018. This layering speaks to a moment of self-reflection and discovery, sadly cut short by the artist's passing in 2019. The Out of Body series will be the subject of an exhibition at L.A. Louver in the fall of 2021.