COLE STERNBERG | the blue water was only a heavier and darker air

Peter Blake Gallery
Apr 13, 2019 9:29PM

Installation View (From Left): Cole Sternberg, the foliage would brush their rigging at times, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 78 x 76 inches; monumental moving barriers, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 110 x 76 inches; i moved about like an infant learning to walk, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 46 x 34 inches; the wake in an upheaval of gems, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 110 x 76 inches; we would enter a hut, and then always found we were welcome, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 40 x 34 inches; and at a certain depth the light came from below and the darkness from the above, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 78 x 76 inches, Peter Blake Gallery


For the last several years, Cole Sternberg has been using painting to explore the intersection of the elements. With a rich body of work that covers the expanse of not only painting, but also installation, video, photography, and text, the Los Angeles-based artist is no stranger to multimedia endeavors. His intricately textured paintings, however, enlists a peculiar process worthy of special attention.



Sternberg begins his painting process by layering ink, acrylic, and other traditional painting materials on raw, unprimed linen. He then submerges the linen in a natural body of water, allowing the water to both weather away pigment and form its own marks on the surface. With this series, the paintings were dragged behind fishing boats and sailboats in freshwater lakes. Elsewhere, Sternberg fulfilled a lifelong dream of completing a naval voyage across the Pacific Ocean and created a number of works in the seawater. It would be misleading, however, to reduce the artist’s process to this simplified, formulaic approach. The compositions are not necessarily planned and this process of layering and submerging can repeat any number of times. Even the interim drying process between layering and submerging is subject to its own idiosyncrasies. The linen may be laid out flat, folded, or hung to dry, such that wind and gravity can influ- ence the way pigmented materials shift as they dry on the wet linen. Whether this drying process takes place on deck, in grass, or in dirt can further influence the formation of marks on the linen.


Installation View (From Left): Cole Sternberg, the foliage would brush their rigging at times, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 78 x 76 inches; monumental moving barriers, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 110 x 76 inches; and as i could not see the coal in great bulk, i cloud not admire it, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 68 x 47 inches, Peter Blake Gallery

Up until the works are shipped back to the artist’s studio and stretched into their final shape, the linen is consistently subjected to the somewhat random processes of nature and transport. With this revolving cycle of layering, submerging, dragging, weathering, hanging, bundling, and so forth, it is not entirely possible to distinguish the elemental marks from the artistic ones. The indistinguishable quality of the markings parallels the uncanny appearance of patterns in nature. Although the true state of nature is chaotic and disordered, the textures of nature can appear patterned and evoke a rhythmic quality. Still, no matter the harmonious appearance of a pasture or a lakebed, every blade of grass and every ripple of water is radi- cally singular. In both the place that was nowhere, and that now time was not for us (2018) and at a certain depth the light came from below and the darkness from above (2018) Sternberg’s canvases immerse the viewer in this impossible balance of order and disorder.


Despite the absence of representational imagery, Sternberg’s environmental paintings are very much a part of a broader history of landscape and seascape painting, especially in the coastal California context. Indeed, their very lack of iconography as well as their affinity for bodies of water warrants reference to celebrated California painter Joe Goode. In particular, Goode’s Ocean Blue series (1988)—a series of ap- proximately three-dozen deep-blue paintings featuring Goode’s singularly evocative brushstrokes—offers a productive lens for considerations of Sternberg’s paintings. In her discussion of the Ocean Blue series, Kristine McKenna explains Goode’s intention was “to depict the sea from the point of view of someone completely submerged in water.”1 The unrelenting density of Goode’s paintings as a result of his tight brushstrokes and intense pigment simulates a deep-sea perspective.

Installation View (From Left): Cole Sternberg, the concrete floor of the cabin nearly became a wall, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 78 x 76 inches; as i could not see the coal in great bulk, i could not admire it, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 68 x 48 inches; rotational moments guided by a sand bar, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 70 x 50 inches; and the blue water was only a heavier and darker air, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 78 x 144 inches, Peter Blake Gallery


Sternberg’s paintings engage with the broader history of landscape and seascape painting by integrating painting practices with environmental art practices. In doing so, his paintings travel beyond representing or staging natural processes in a visual format. Rather than simulating nature, Sternberg creates his work with nature itself. The result is a total reconfiguration of perspective. Though Sternberg’s paintings have all been literally submerged in water, they resist a comparably static situation. The works’ situation in the interstitial spaces between land and sea or ocean and air, sometimes lifts into the clouds and beyond. In upon occasion the dreams fought through (2018), we seem to be looking from within the throes of the clouds. Delicate patches of blue coexist with pink, gray, and the murky brown of the raw linen—the colors of sky, fog, flora, and earth. From within the clouds, we are given equal glimpses of the sky and the land.



In the largest gathering of his environmental paintings to date, a seeming exception to Sternberg’s typical palette of stormy grays, ocean blues, earthy greens, and floral hues emerges. the blue water was only a heavier and darker air (2018), from which the exhibition takes its title, appears to leave the terrestrial plane altogether. The painting features surprising washes of fuchsia, blue and purple. Perhaps these are cosmic forces, gaseous elements born from an eruption of celestial bodies. Sternberg points to “a heavier and darker air,” but the ever-present ripples of white from the weathering of the linen offsets both the weight and the darkness, while the striking fuchsia contributes a brightness that enlivens the weighty darkness of the surrounding areas of the painting.


Installation View (From Left): Cole Sternberg, with our hands in the air, in confusion of frustration or a sense of calm, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 61 x 74 inches; and collective efforts, 2018, Mixed Media on Linen, 46 x 26 inches, Peter Blake Gallery


Where are we when we look at these paintings? water or air? Earth or cosmos? Sternberg points us to the water and the air, but the air above all—the inaccessible plane that holds the forces of life as we know it, from the nourishing power of the sunlight that sustains us to the centralizing power of gravity that keeps us in orbit.


— Golzar Yousefi, April 2019


1. Kristine McKenna, Joe Goode: Paintings 1960–2016 (Los Angeles: Kohn Gallery, 2017), 134.

Cole Sternberg's solo exhibition is on view at Peter Blake Gallery, Laguna Beach, California, from March 11th to May 5th, 2019.

Peter Blake Gallery