The ancient Greeks have a saying: “To meet a friend again after a long absence is a god.”
My wife Andrée and I have known John Sideli for more than 60 years. After a long absence, we met again in Bristol, Rhode Island, where, close by in Warren, Andrée and I enjoyed a brief vacation. As the word “vacation” suggests, times spent in this way together are best savored without all the modern inconveniences: no computers, no phones, and, in my case, no newspapers -- seven days, a full week, of serendipity, and a welcomed respite from the drudgery of column writing.
Andrée has always said that political writing is a bit like scrawling a message with your finger on a strand of tide-hardened beach before the tide rushes in to erase it.
On day three, she smiled mischievously and said, “I’ve arranged a surprise for you. I’m sure you will be pleased. I can’t tell you what the surprise is, because then it will be no surprise.” There were no flaws in this logical construction.
The surprise was John Sideli, changed somewhat from the Sideli I knew six decades earlier. But the point of the Greek saying is that memories, sleeping in the brain for years, are always youthful. They stir and come to life when, after a long absence, we meet an old friend again.
|Sideli in his Maine studio|
Sideli’s first love was antiques, and he had a jeweler’s eye for beauty, always an enticing mistress. He was a purveyor of cluttered antique shops, junk yards, and astonishing roadside finds. The eye that pierces through facades and strikes at the bone and muscle of things, destructs and constructs anew. And if it is an artist’s eye, the new construction carries within it the essence of things. All art is a reconstruction of buried narratives brought to life again by the work of the artist.
There is in Sideli’s works a living drama, the result of separate pieces of time cunningly brought together in a frame. Quite like characters in a play, these essences, alive and jostling each other, produce in a viewer pity, sorrow, laughter, tears, all the ragtailed radiations of a drama. They tell, they speak to the viewer. And what the viewer carries away from the encounters depends, ultimately, on what he or she brings to them.
In 1968, Sidelli found himself caretaking for two years at the Roxbury, Connecticut estate of the very much in demand and famous sculptor Alexander Calder, noted for his stabiles and mobiles. The experience was transformative. In some of his pieces, Calder had been collecting and putting together – deliberatively and artfully, not randomly – certain found objects that had appealed to his aesthetic sensibilities. Calder at play, it turned out, had a very well developed sense of humor present in many of his pieces. During a visit to the estate, I remember in particular a playful tabletop carousel, art and humor shaking hands and greeting each other as old friends.,
At the same time, Sideli had been collecting various bits and pieces that had appealed to him. “I realized,” Sideli noted in a Hirschi & Adler showing in New York in 2013, “why I had been collecting these fragments, bits and oddities. I was amazed by the way they would take on a new meaning when juxtaposed in different contexts. They would acquire a kind of narrative aspect and even evoke a sacred mood in a very short time. I became a champion of the art of everyday objects.”
We were seated in Sideli’s modest living room, surrounded and captivated by his enticing “mixed media constructions.” That verbal construction belongs to Riviére, Robert Young Antiques of Battersea Bridge Road, London, an antique dealer that featured Sideli some years ago.
He was showing me some photos, some of which he had sold at mouthwatering prices to all and sundry -- millionaires, workmen, professionals of every stripe, including butchers, bakers and, for all I know, candlestick makers.
Two people had come into his shop in Wiscasset, Maine, looked around a bit, and the female almost immediately pointed to a humorous rendition and said, “That’s it. That’s the one I want.”
Such decisions are easily made because it is impossible not to have a conversation with the Sideli piece you love, and many purchases are the result of love at first sight. Recently, Sideli asked his daughter – trying his best to be uncomplicated -- which of the pieces she would like after he had gone the way of all flesh.
Answer: “All of them.”
“The color in this one, “I said, “is farm tractor red.”
“That is because the metal plate [featured in the piece] came from a tractor, or part of a roof, painted tractor red, that housed the tractor in an out of the way place in Costa Rica.”
Naturally, a narrative attached to the art work.
The farmer from whom Sideli had procured the plate was irascible, with a short temper, not unusual in intensely practical farmers everywhere. Farmers want to be about their business. Intrusions not business related tend to be costly. The man was cocking a poisonous eye at Sideli, who had, very politely, asked the farmer whether he might be willing to carve out a piece of his farm equipment for an art project. The price was right, the thing was done, and I was now staring at the final product.
Most of Sideliworks are tinted with humor, as are most of the conversations I’ve had with Sideli. That is because humor is always the result of a joyful asymmetry, an incongruous mixing of tragedy and comedy, a disproportion that strikes the fancy immediately, the way a hammer strikes the gong.
“That’s the one I want.”
Years after Sideli returned to America from Costa Rica, where he had been living for a few joyous years, he returned to the farm, surprised to see the old farmer was still among the living.
“I doubt you remember me,” Sideli said to the farmer.
Some people, and some circumstances, are unforgettable.
“Oh, I remember you alright.”
Strolling the streets of Costa Rica, Sideli was struck by the various colors of metal street plates, all of them softened by years of sun and rough weather but, like distant stars, still shining brightly.
“I went in search of some cast off plates and found a shop that replaced them.”
He said to the owner of the shop, “I’d like to buy those used plates.”
Big smile! Here was an American with money.
“I have some new plates right over here.”
“No, no. I don’t want the new plates. I want these old plates, no others. How much?”
The two arrived at a price, and Sideli carried off the used plates as if they had been venerable religious objects.
|Blue Square, Red Triangle|
French philosopher Albert Camus lived his life – much too brief, as it turned out -- with his eyes wide opened. We tend to forget that all art is a transcendent product of time and space. “To create today,” Camus tells us, “is to create dangerously… The question, for all those who cannot live without art and what it signifies, is merely to find out how, among the police forces of so many ideologies… the strange liberty of creation is possible.”
The construction of “Protect the Innocent” began with a news account of a horrific rape in South America, Shortly after the account appeared, Sideli noticed two white, truncated mannequins lying in mud, discarded on the roadside. He washed them carefully and brought them home. The viewer will notice the saw-toothed metal rim of the frame. The mannequins, draped in tassels, are immaculate but vulnerable and white as a communion wafer.
|Protect The Innocent|
In an artist’s note Sideli writes, “I assemble and arrange objects in the same way that a poet chooses words. I try to carefully combine them in a way that allows them to transcend their original form or purpose and evoke a feeling or tell a story. And as with poetry, there is a certain rightness to a particular combination or arrangement that will express with directness and simplicity what I want to say.
“I believe that there is spirit in matter, which, if tapped, can have a powerful resonance when objects are carefully tuned, coaxed, combined and juxtaposed.”
The sensuous penetration of all art depends ultimately upon the presence of the artist in the work and the attention viewers or auditors bring to it.
Those lucky enough to own a Sideli art work will find they need never be alone. Sideliworks, like the remembered poem, stay with you, a faithful companion, when everyone else has left the room.