Noah Saterstrom: Faces: Musicians, Writers, Artists, Activists & Educators

Through Sep. 30

Opening reception: Saturday, Jul. 13, 5-7 p.m. 

Horse & Buggy Press, Durham 

I’m staring at a wall of dead people and Gregg Allman is staring back. His likeness, rendered in viscous strokes of oil paint, is one of forty-eight portraits of deceased cultural figures that hang in a tight horizontal grid at Horse & Buggy Press in Durham.

Nashville artist Noah Saterstrom painted these portraits whenever someone of note passed away, often on the day their death was reported. According to his statement, it was an act of intimacy with the simple aim of capturing a likeness that would resonate. A few years and several hundred portraits later, his series of contemporary memento mori has grown into a sweeping celebration of the lives and achievements of our departed cultural heavyweights.

Though the reasonably priced portraits are available for sale individually, it’s hard to see how a single face would stand alone. Saterstrom’s handling of paint is accomplished but lacks the kind of mastery that traps us in the grip of the medium itself. Instead, the power of this work lies in its collective energy and the geometry of its presentation. Each twelve-square-inch portrait seems to have been painted with the larger image in mind. The spontaneous quality of the marks, relative to the ceremonious gesture of the grid, galvanizes the faces as one, and they float in tandem, just above the cool grey background, simultaneously receding into the wall. 

Saterstrom characterizes his work as narrative, and the conceptual lines between adjacent portraits, compounded by the respective stories of these individuals, is where that narrative begins to flow. A pensive Harper Lee in sepia rests above Sid Vicious, whose mouth has been violently smeared with a palette knife. Imagine the quiet offense that the reclusive author might take to the hedonist punk, which he would undoubtedly reciprocate with abject vulgarity. Muhammad Ali hangs next to Pablo Picasso in another clash of egos.

And there are moments when the paint itself fills in a plot point or two. Agatha Christie, the grand dame of whodunits, is painted in deep red, while Peter Sellers, who made practically everyone laugh (except himself), weeps an elongated drop of grey.

Horse & Buggy Press has printed a one-sheet that offers hints to identify the person in each rendering, with the corresponding answer on the reverse side. The idea is to get viewers to engage with the work by playing a guessing game. It’s a wholesome gesture, but one that runs the risk of diminishing the gravity of Saterstrom’s efforts. And anyway, the game happens naturally without the sheet.

But after a few minutes, the mind settles down, stillness sets in, and a sense of loss emerges. The faces become ghostly. The stillness is unnerving because the creativity that each of these giants lived by is characterized by inherent restlessness. Their collective expressions radiate a sense of longing to be let back into the world, to finish what they started. In the grand narrative of the grid, that impulse spans decades, continents, proclivities, and politics.

Then, the grim, inevitable question arises: Who will Noah Saterstrom paint next?