Geographers in Afric maps
With savage pictures fill their gaps
and over inhabitable downs
place elephants for wants of towns ...
– Jonathan Swift

Like many a seafaring surveyor adorned in fantastic ornament and splendour, Adam Saks is a great pictorial conveyor. With swelling enthusiasm, he allows himself to drift through travel narratives, exotic oddity museums, compendiums of heraldry and emblemata, cheap comics or tattoo magazines – in fact, he has even amassed a notable collection of nautical and military devotional objects. Just as uncharted and, more often than not, unreachable distances once launched strange and wistful floating blossoms of yearning through the imagination[1], the often enigmatically occlusive souvenirs that have been brought back, and the left behind accoutrements of the departed adventurer – medallions and other belongings – still manage to strike sparks. With all that humankind claims to know about the world, these things have retained the alluringly unmapped remains of mysteriousness, which might include anything at all.

Saks's paintings and works on paper are borne upon exactly this form of possibility; they are remote and filled with familiarly foreign stretches of land and well-trusted untrodden coastlines in beautiful abandon; coarse, seafaring romanticism; wild animals and grotesque chimeras; small ships, serpentine blazonry and shredded script. With all of these appurtenances, however, Saks nonetheless navigates away from any nostalgic vedute. The supposed faraway places of yearning are actually pure pictorial places, nearly psychedelically unfolding kaleidoscopes full of shuddering and horror. What is more, the resulting topographical bewilderment is approached by a disparately larger source of dislocation, in that the relationship between picture and world has become deeply dubious; a gaping fissure has erupted between the two. What appears to be the case is not the case at all.

Saks allows his pictures to escape a distinctively progressive narrative. He maims and dissects his motifs in favour of a discontinuous and eccentrically orbital pictorial occurrence, the erratic interim of an exuberant 'either and or', in which everything and everybody coalesces with everything and every one, or at least could do so. Hand painted and reflecting a striking intuition for the richness of the pigment, his pictures also possess the widest possible range of stroke velocities. In the harshly recounted and roughly painted-up areas, they eliminate and thrust; in the tenderly painted-in and calmer areas, they quietly repose. In this counter-bracing collision of congestion and propulsion; subsidence and debasement; paused suspense and quiet outbreak, the pictures consist first and foremost of motifal scraps, which are brutally stroked into and against one another in painterly collage.

In order to counter an all too persistent literalness, Saks generates a devastating ''logical conflict' [...] by dissipating [its] sense under a multiplicity of associations'.[2] With ornamental obsession, he beflecks and bespots the motifs, along with their significance, slogans and figures, letting them drift asunder in loud pictorial tumult and tumble about; or he stretches them out into tattered bands that have now begun to devour even themselves in fizzing turbulence. If his pictures are not actually carnivores, they are, at least, 'motifores'.

It is in pure hesitation – one foot in sea and one on shore – that pictures such as skinned – stranded and sans pitié stolidly hold their ground. Steadily tossed to and fro, they chance adventure, deliver themselves to lurking danger and appear nonetheless to retreat from all that they depict. Framed by jutting rocks, they disclose jagged fjords or rugged straits, carved into the pigment as though into a woodcutting, upon which drawn-in ships are dashed to bits or, atop a cliff-lined rise, the blue and white striped little body of a young sailor donning a saucy cap has been crucified upon an oversized cross. Quaint exoticisms have no place on these shores; the pictures rear with an inhospitable and hostile bearing.

Astonished and confounded, one is forced to ascertain, on the basis of discrepancies in the proportions and elusive sense of orientation, that Saks has abandoned the pictorial whole to a 'faltering of the form'. Together with the motifal plunder, the gaze is tossed about by the raw pictorial elements like flotsam, now stranding here, now somewhere other. Mercilessly, naive audacity is bonded to jaded humility[3]; even the promising lighthouses and the bluff-crowned and towering cross pervert themselves into symbols of horror, inviting anything but salvation. As Kant wrote with amused dread, 'the land of truth (an exceedingly charming name) [is] surrounded by a broad and stormy oceania, the actual seat of semblance, where many a foggy bank and many a forthwith melted block of ice belie the existence of new lands by endlessly deceiving discovery driven seamen with empty promises, entwining them in adventures from which they will never be released and yet will never persevere in bringing to an end.'[4] 

Nature, embodied by something resembling a proud and threatening eagle, has turned itself away from all humankind. Full of danger, the world and its image no longer obey, and even those who have managed to retain a certain level of cultivation are no more capable of finding a place within the world they once knew. Hovering above all of this, eyes scratched into paint and presented in harsh contrast – divinely abstract 'all-seeing eyes', at times simply resembling scraps of font left over from an interspersion of 'Rockeyes' or, now and again, recalling Alberti's 'flying eye'[5] – gaze imperturbably down upon the occurrences below, coolly observing the inescapable fatality, and at the same time revealing the pictorial fatalism, allowed by Saks to enfold to such a great extent, in all of its childish and extravagant simplicity.

Saks unveils not only 'oceania' as the 'seat of semblance', however, but also the desert with its glistening mirages in entré comme un mouton, sorti comme un lion. The artist places a piece of landscape smack into the middle of a bleak nothingness. Like a sun-baked backdrop, this waste land unfolds along the boundaries of a rugged and weathered fortress wall that, like a barricading bulwark, spares both the picture and the gaze from gaping any further and thus plunging into still farther and unknown depths. Its weighty portal is crowned by two bull-footed towers that provide the resplendent slogan, 'to enter as a sheep and exit as a lion' inscribed in scribbled speech bubbles with palpable vehemence, underlining the proverbial crossroad-situation with all the more weight.

With all of its massive presence, the picture holds its ground within a constant now and against. Remote from any source of orientation, it hovers like the two demon cats who have been invoked into existence, most likely distant relatives of Lewis Carroll's permanently grinning Cheshire cat, upon the threshold of this painterly initiation. Each and every subject or object appears as a pair. This doubling, however, slightly shifted or warped, brings no mirrored symmetrical security. It is an asymmetrical balance that Saks uses to hinder the formation of any decisive associations but at the same time to encourage every kind of dissociation in the face of streaking white branches, or confrontations: as with the concordant discord achieved between the sombrero-clad Mexican and snake, fused together into an emblematic coat of arms through their entirely unique brand of psychedelia with the sharply spiking rock arrangement behind them.

Saks exposes his pictures – and with them the beholder – with great delight and brutality to neverending transitional phenomena, in which all paths could lead anywhere at all but nevertheless regress back into themselves. Though rf is not spared from undergoing the very same exorcism in this pictorial 'rite of passage', the whole scene still retains something sinister. One senses the furtive danger but remains unsure of whether a crossing-over would deliver protection or perhaps reveal something vastly more horrid that is lurking behind this pictorial initiation. Meanwhile, the picture closes into itself. Though the suggestion of a gateway that is somehow implied by the obelisk and Foreign Legion shields or barriers remains open to the eye, this passage, disguised by motifal plunder, remains nevertheless impassable. Even the cat-heads close ranks to bar the way, like two fetishes with still more emphatically radiating grins. The picture closes itself in order to avoid appearing garrulous or frivolous at all costs.  

The rocks in sans pitié tower and loom with a similar wry remoteness, jutting out at the same moment in amorph organic extrusions upon two lions suspended in a wild leap and an elephant, whereby it is no longer possible to discern between crag and creature. With protruding force, the uninhibited colour-material tears open the picture plane and shoves its way threateningly close to the most outer borders of the picture. To some extent, Saks actually inverts the more customary direction of the gaze. That is to say, through allowing the picture to approach the beholder in such an aggressive manner, the beholder involuntarily draws back from it. Reassurance is offered, however, by the presence of – though devoid of long-necked giraffes and failing to simulate the Tierra del Fuego – a certain 'Heia Safari' in the form of a mental-projection niche on the lower right, where, drawn onto the surface with highly skilled maladroitness, a hunter perched atop a tamed elephant, framed by cutely fluffed out palm trees, is busy slaying a defenceless lion, violently rebuking nature with a visually sounding 'puff' of the muzzle flash. Captured in trepidation and among the grotesque, the question remains as to whether nature is the true bearer of horror, or whether the pitifully conceited and miserably overestimated self-assertion of humankind is dare say the more destructive force at work.

It is a decisional delirium, which Saks unleashes in still more staggering bluntness in his works on paper such as stranded – skinned or kleine blume schmückt. Wrecked and shattered, the motifal ruins float like raw flecks upon a porous ground, entwined in ornamental banners, frivolous garlands and crudely twisted remnants of text. The words – now large, now small; at times loud, at times tranquil; now in eloquent parlando, now in stuttering repetition – slide, falter or leap about like the colour and cascading contours. On a pictorial level, Saks causes the immense sheets to shiver. He kindles a nervous abeyance, from which even the gaze is usurped. In the same way that childishness is chained in constant clinging to morbidity, the aggression displayed is also of a double nature[6]. Not only does it turn upon everything motifal, meaningful and narrative, but also – with torn and beaten; scratching and burrowing brush strokes – against formal painterliness, so that, bewildered in the midst of the whole upheaval, one is thrilled at the sight of each and every white hole, and by a fleeting moment of pause, before being ravished by the gracile debauchery of the harbour pub depiction, with its light-hearted ladies and pickled herring still lifes; skulls, disreputable show girls and demons; or the sighing and crucified sailor boy – without any sense of hold, without any god who might save, and without any master.

For upon the shimmering 'oceania', or among the treachery of the desert, the pictorial fantasies – Swift's 'savage pictures' – vanquish all that is reasonable. As mighty as they are brutal, they break free from their own bounds; merciless and fearless, they fail to recoil from even themselves. With fatal composure, they befall the power of imagination, flare up, die down again and swelter in self-abuse. Motifs wander and change, slip away or mirror one another, are painted off and clinched together but incessantly painted anew, merged back together and revived once more. Adam Saks bares himself with heinous abandon in his pictures, and these crotchety, awkward, nailed-down and ornery, over-packed and gracefully bizarre escapades bear themselves with heinous wantonness before the beholder.

Christian Malycha

[1] See Joseph Conrad Herz der Finsternis [Heart of Darkness], Frankfurt am Main 1996, p. 15: 'Schon als kleiner Junge hatte ich eine Leidenschaft für Karten. Stundenlang guckte ich mir Südamerika oder Afrika oder Australien an und verlor mich in all den Herrlichkeiten der Entdeckungen. Damals gab es viele weiße Flecke auf der Erde, und wenn ich einen besonders verlockenden sah (aber verlockend sind sie alle), legte ich einen Finger darauf und sagte: Wenn ich groß bin, gehe ich dorthin. [Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Aus­tralia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, `When I grow up I will go there.']'
[2] William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity, New York, 1966, p. 234
[3] Cf. Patrick Villiers 'Abenteurer und Angestellte. Zur Geschichte der Freibeuterei', in 'Freibeuter. Vierteljahreszeitschrift für Kultur und Politik', no. 25 (Freibeuterei), edited by Klaus Wagenbach, Berlin 1985, p. 58
[4] Immanuel Kant, Kritik der reinen Vernunft; Band 1, edited by Wilhelm Weischedel, Frankfurt am Main 1974, pp. 267-268.
[5] See e.g. Michael Baxandall, 'Alberti's Cast of the Mind', in Words for Pictures. Seven papers on Renaissance Art and Criticism, London 2003, p. 29; not to mention John Badham's Film Blue Thunder, 1983, with Roy Scheider and Malcolm McDowell.
[6] Cf. Pierre Klossowski 'Das Androgyne in der sadianischen Repräsentation', in Lektüre zu de Sade, edited by Bernhard Dieckmann and François Pescatore, Frankfurt am Main, 1981, p. 113: 'Das Perverse ist zugleich innen und außen. Wie das denn? Nicht zuerst, eigentlich gar nicht mittels der Gewalt, die bis zum Mord gehen kann, sondern durch die jedem gewalttätigen Akt vorangeschickte Imagination, d.h. durch das Primat des Imaginären über das Vernünftige. [Perversity is both interior and exterior. How so? Not at first, and, actually, not at all by means of violence, which can lead all the way up to murder, but through the precursory imagination, which precedes any act of violence, i.g. through the primacy of imagination over reason.]'