Bob Seng Was in the Navy

"Exit Strategy II". Long Island University, Humanities Gallery, Jan 22-March 20, 2020

“Nexit 9” (2019)

I was quite unexpectedly moved by Nexit 9. I had anticipated enjoying Seng’s game of re-ordered exit signs, but not that I would be idly staring at Nexit 9 when it became a barge and slowly and quietly slid into the sea, unnoticed by the busy night-time city above.
And possibly referring to climate change—or my own hopes and dreams.

The advantage of EXIT signs as a medium (if I can call it that) is that they have a built-in attraction to our eyes, even if a mostly semi-conscious one. They signal danger but also a way out. And then depending on how many other people might be exiting at the same moment, well…

Though he continues to use his favored medium, there’s really no exit in his use of the signs at this point, and I don’t mean that in a Sartrian sense. It’s just that after going through all of the variation, reversals and permutations, Seng seems to have been forced into figurative imagery. The only non-art-related comment in the press release was that Seng was an electrician in the navy, which I found odd until I began to realize that the POV in these “marine landscapes” seems to be from a ship or small boat.

“Exit 949.Ra” (2018)

For example, Exit 949.Ra, which seemed at first contrived, an upside down cityscape—so what? then became an upside down world, oh dear, and—no, I am looking at a reflection in the water and I was back out in what always seems to be a night-time sea or river.
Then the rest of the works became ships and bridges, aircraft carriers, helicopters, planes, and the surface of the sea.

“Exit 964R” (2018)

There are only three colors, red and black and white. (What’s the old riddle? What is black and white and red all over? The newspaper.)

About the same era as that joke, in a summer school art class, I sat next to a kid who was colorblind. I was cutting up magazine pictures to make a rooster and he was drawing, always in pencil, action scenes with battleships, planes, tanks, dotted lines to denote gunfire, etc. which was not unusual for boys and not usually interesting to me, but in his case it was. I come from a family that took no interest in the visual arts; I never had a good teacher in my youth but I learned things here and there and he was one of my teachers.  Color is a thing and ostensible subject matter is not always a determining factor in art—his work was about space and motion.

Was that you, Bob?

“Nexit 16” ( 2019)

Something missing in contemporary art or at least in contemporary art criticism is an acknowledgement that a viewer might judge a work of art by directly comparing it to their own physical and emotional experience. Somehow the proletariat will always be reactionary, always say, “My kid could paint that,” always have the most prosaic idea of reality. But aren’t visual artists, at their best, observers, and can’t we connect sometimes to other observers, people who have been in the navy, for example, and have a jolt of visceral recognition, a memory of the helicopter beating the air, or a feeling of being in a small boat with inexorable forces circling around you.

Yes, I have been in a very small boat—and aren’t we all?


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