Walter Sutin's Bad Things Happen in Hot Tubs
1925 30th Street, San Diego
Walter Sutin grew up in Pennsylvania and studied at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore before moving to San Diego in 2008 and, three years later, enrolling in the master’s program at UCSD. He graduated last spring, showing his thesis series, Ruin, at Disclosed unLocation in South Park. Much of the series is a cut-up collage of notes taken while Sutin visited Israel on birthright in 2010, just as diplomatic relations between Turkey and Israel dissolved following the Gaza Freedom Flotilla raid in which nine activists were killed.
Ruin is a sequence of acrylic and gouache snapshots drawn with quill pen from both fantasy and real life events during Sutin’s travels in Israel and Istanbul. Free Gaza, for example, takes a make-believe flotilla and gives it a crew of mostly nude figures linking hands in a circle and gazing out over the railing, turning the raid into a contemplation on spirituality and hyper-militarized culture.
“It’s my first work based on current events, but it’s also somewhat imaginary and abstract,” Sutin says in his Logan Heights bedroom that doubles as a studio. “By colliding fantasy and reality, a conversation enters in about possible alternatives and militaristic insanity.”
Amid nonstop political seminars and religious tours in Israel, Sutin slipped away to visit the protest camp in Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv. Notes from the side-trip played a role in Sutin’s piece titled Scapegoat Ritual Occupation, which depicts an underwater tent being washed in the blood of a lamb, paralleling the sacrifice of a sheep to the sacrifice of those involved in the tent city.
“I had constant realizations about the origins of religion and Zionism, and it just exploded in my head into these paintings,” says Sutin, who supports his work with substitute teaching and commissioned pet portraits. “I was searching for a confluence in these different cultures, because I am a pantheist, so the work is ruptured by this concern for the natural world.”
Pulling inspiration from a coffee table book on Near East mythology and the works of director Dušan Makavejev, painter Roberto Matta, Philip Guston’s blurring of abstraction and representation, William Blake’s ecstatic states, and Hermann Haindls tarot deck, Sutin creates a self-referential lexicon of imagery that give the dissociative series a sense of continuity. Badges, trophies, waves, appropriated religious symbols, parasitic powdered wigs, and nude figures are staples of Ruin.
The Divine Court Objects to the Smiting of the Waves carries commentary on the celestial sanction of slaughter while Bad Things Happen in Hot Tubs invokes Sumerian lore to imagine an infernal Jacuzzi of predetermined damnation. It may sound outlandish, but Sutin’s description of the piece is equally fitting for the entire series: “It’s basically baiting people with what they don’t understand.”