See “Freak Flags Flown and Not Flown” in Vonn Sumner’s New L.A. Show
During his tenure at University of California, Davis, the American painter Wayne Thiebaud (1920–2010) mentored numerous young artists. He particularly admired the work of one student, whose paintings he called “equivocal visual wonders” and “painted worlds that reflect a bright clarity interrupted by mysterious bewilderments.”
That student was Vonn Sumner, a California-based painter who worked closely with Thiebaud during his university years, first as his student, then as his teaching assistant. Those “mysterious bewilderments” mentioned by Thiebaud are readily apparent in his recent works.
“To Be Seen,” Sumner’s new show at KP Projects in Los Angeles, features a collection of oil paintings and works on paper. Like many of Sumner’s previous works, the new paintings portray a cast of oddly costumed characters—“The Confraternity of the Sock,” he calls them. Many of his subjects wear a “sock-hat,” which the artist created by repurposing a fabric head covering, the kind usually worn by industrial painters.
Is the Confraternity a secret society, as Sumner says, or the cast of a low-budget sci-fi film? Their identities are ambiguous. “These are paintings about conformity and non-conformity, freak flags flown and not flown,” the artist has said.
In most cases, a sock covers the figure’s head and face, revealing only a nose, mouth, and cheeks. The results are mysterious and mildly disturbing. Some of the subjects look like fashionable citizens of a post-apocalyptic world, as in Byzantine (Mocked) (2016), while others are darker, like the devilish By The Shore (2009), or even vaguely comical, like Lid Head (2015).
In a 2006 essay, the L.A.-based artist and curator Shane Guffogg said, “Vonn’s paintings are from a film that plays in his mind (and ultimately ours) that beckons us to ask who we are, what are we doing, and how did we get here?”
Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but according to Sumner, the medium is key to asking. “Photography can’t unsettle me in the same way as a painting can,” Sumner has said, “and it has to do specifically with a certain kind of space and stillness….There’s something very strange about the space, time, and tone that a painting can have.”
“Vonn Sumner: To Be Seen” is on view at KP Projects, Los Angeles, Jul. 30–Aug. 27, 2016.