Sam Falls

Interview with Sam Falls, touching on photography, neuroscience and the great outdoors.

Untitled (black and pink, Joshua Tree, CA) (2012) 

Ellen Mara De Wachter: The processes you have developed to make your works are unique and can be quite complex. Can you describe how you arrived at some of them, including the ones used to make the painted photographs included in this show?

Sam Falls: Everything I do is tied in and there is a lot of process involved, but I would never call it process art. The best way to talk about it would be to talk about how I started making art. I went to college to study physics, and during the first two years I did natural physics and theoretical physics. Theoretical physics is similar to art in that you try to figure out why you are doing it and what the general good towards other people is, because it’s so far out and becomes an almost selfish practice. Some classes were moving theoretical physics to the medical realm, dealing with neuroscience and chaos theory, involved with the study of the brain. That practice typically looked at how meaning is created, and how someone can take in information by looking at an image, hearing language or reading text. Slowly I transitioned from the study of physics to linguistics, in particular Saussurian linguistics. As I was studying more about how meaning is created, I looked at the Frankfurt School and the study of aesthetics and meaning until eventually I was just studying art history. By the time I finished undergraduate school, I was coming to art through issues of representation and meaning and the viewer/artist relationship. I went to graduate school in 2009 and studied photography and video art. It seemed like the most relevant practice, because studying painting wouldn’t get you to the conversations that were then current.

At the time there was a lot of abstract photography by artists like Walead Beshty, Eileen Quinlan and Liz Deschenes, which was exciting for me because I was coming to it from an interdisciplinary language. Photography was spoken about in the language of painting and sculpture, in terms of abstraction, minimalism, objecthood and theatricality. But the problem with this discourse at that moment was that the work, materially, always returned to professional photography. For example, Beshty made photograms in the darkroom that looked abstract and were unique and crumpled and had a physicality, but at the same time were still made in one instant with traditional C-paper and chemicals. You still had the romance of photography, a Barthesian ‘this has been’ moment, transitioning into abstraction and into the emotions that the viewer had. It was still about the artist, like traditional painting, by which I mean Abstract Expressionism.

I became interested in taking that language, applying it to photography, but having the next step be away from photography, rather than back to it. I started painting on photographs that documented my work being made. At the same time, the work was a site, an installation in nature during the time it was being made. The rock works were made at High Desert test sites in Joshua Tree. I wrapped coloured fabric around rocks and placed them along a trail, but I left the fabric around those rocks for five months, and then I retrieved it. A large area of the fabric had been wrapped under the rock, so only the part over the rock’s form faded in the sunlight. When I took it off I had a circular image of where the rock had been, and the rest was saturated colour.

I photographed the subject at the beginning of the five months on large format film. That was the first thing, the subject being transferred to the film. I had the film scanned and put on the computer. In Photoshop, I sampled the colour of the subject with the paintbrush tool, which samples a single pixel. It could be a light pink, a dark pink or even a blue because thousands of colours make up that pink. I then did one swipe on the image in Photoshop with the wet medium paintbrush tool. I did that a few times, sampling different colours in the subject. Then I printed them out and matched those colours with acrylic paint and painted that onto the image with my own hand.

The idea is that you have several stages of production. I’ve done this with different things, with tyres and fruit, but most recently the way I’ve been doing it is by photographing a subject in the studio and using the actual thing depicted in the image to paint onto it, like a stamp, so you have a repetition of the image itself. Not only does it question photography, but it questions the idea of representation itself.

It also challenges our conditioning to photography versus painting, and scale. There is a series of processes: the studio set-up or the set-up in the desert, photographing, working in Photoshop and working in the studio. You end up with an object that is not a photograph or a painting, but comes from a melded process. You also have something happening over time and with the hand of the artist. It isn’t just one moment of taking the picture, and a thing that happened in the past transferred to the future for the viewer; it’s a timeline and the viewer becomes incorporated into that timeline. I think this makes for not only a unique object, but also a friendlier gesture. It brings the work into the world of the viewer, rather than bringing them into my world. I like to think about how you engage time, not only in production, but also in viewing.

Untitled (Model Painting, Light Green) (2012)

EMDW: Modelling is a process used in science, in order to understand events or predict future occurrences, so it’s interesting that you have used it in an art context. How exactly do you use modelling to make your model paintings?

I make folded steel sculptures but before I make them, I make hundreds of paper models to decide what angles and sizes to go for. I fold 8 x 10-inch paper and when they are photographed with a white backdrop, you would never know what scale they are. I photograph a model on film, scan it in and sample the colour of the sculpture in Photoshop and change the hue a little bit, to get a variation in the printed image on the model paintings. The model paintings use the wet medium Photoshop brush too. There are so many brushes in Photoshop, and this brush samples brush strokes on oil paintings to create a digital rendering of them. So you have the modelling of the paintbrush and its digital rendering versus an analogue kind of modelling with the paper sculptures. The brush strokes are always diagonal, and of the four strokes, two opposite ones are digitally printed and the other two are paint. In this case, I really tried to match the digital stroke when I painted; my own natural paint stroke would never look like it.

EMDW: The digital brush stroke looks like a cartoon brush stroke.

SF: Yes, and in a totally exaggerated way. In one part of the work I am trying to match a model based on an ideal of painting, so my painted stroke is twice removed from what an actual brush stroke looks like. I think that’s really interesting, because so much of our language dealing with photography and image and representation is built on metonymy, and what people think things should look like. The language of Photoshop is built on ideals rather than realities.


Untitled (Eight Tires, Black, Los Angeles, CA) (2011)

EMDW: How do you make the fabric pieces, like the tyre fade canvases, and what relationship do they have with the works you’ve already discussed?

SF: The tyre fade works were the next step in thinking about abstraction in photography, and how to move it away from the professional. I think the fabric works are the most successful because really there is no photographic element to them beyond the most fundamental theoretical ones: representation and time. There’s no photographic material at all; they are just exposed to the sunlight for about 5-6 months. I always use a vernacular subject: rocks in Joshua Tree, tyres, lengths of 2 x 4-inch timber, and these works are always series that happen in a certain place.

So for example with the rocks, I knew they were going to be exposed to sunlight in a harsh desert environment. I was using rocks, which are rugged, so I got the nicest heavyweight linen I could find, and I dyed it for two days using a synthetic dye. All the dying I do is very rigorous so that it is as safe as possible because I don’t want to cheat the process, and it needs to be archival once it’s done. It is also about the material, and even if it would fade in two months in the desert, I leave it for four or five or six months because I want the material itself to fade too. Every location has a different effect on material. For the desert, it was good to use linen, which was burnt by the sun and got brittle. There’s a lot of salt in Joshua Tree; the rocks are made of sediment and salt because of the ocean, and the salt is visible on the final objects as rings.

The dark line of the tyre on the canvas has a relationship to indexical photography, where ‘that’ is ‘that’. But it also looks like an abstract painting. It has a double language that is like painting but also like photography. The cloth is unstretched, because there’s no reason to stretch it and I don’t want it to be seen like a painting. If I were to stretch it, it would neutralise the effect and make it like a painting.

EMDW: Several of your works rely on extended periods of time to make the transformation from work in progress to finished work. Is this in order to mimic the course of nature, or is there another reason for this extended making process? Where does such a process stop?

SF: The fabric works really absorb time in an interesting way that goes beyond the image and the sunlight. They become an image of the place they resided in, and when you see them in real life they have a feeling that they have absorbed place and time, which a photograph doesn’t have, because it’s a transfer. But they are finished and they are archival once they enter the gallery.

With the outdoor works there’s a subtractive process over time by nature, whereas the works I make in the studio have an additive process, and time and development done by my hand. Each location I work in dictates a subject and the subject dictates the material. The tyre fades are on polyester, because I did them at my friend’s house near downtown Los Angeles. LA is a car culture, and I would walk around and collect tyres for the work. I used pre-dyed polyester because it’s a synthetic material.

EMDW: You harness natural forces to a great extent, so for example you use sunlight, rain or moisture/dryness in the air to achieve aesthetic results. Totally controlling these things is impossible, so there is inevitably a measure of chance in the way they participate in the creation of the work. How do you negotiate this aspect of chance?

SF: A while ago, you asked about the idea of chaos and how it is involved. For me that element is just a part of the concept that is included from the beginning. I grew up in Vermont on a farm and I had to chop wood and cover it with a tarp and my mom had horses, so it was chaos already. I spent a lot of time outdoors and I know exactly what’s going to happen to something that’s left outdoors. But now being in California, which is frontier land, as opposed to the East Coast, where I’m from, there’s kind of a sinister element involved, which I’m finding really exciting.

EMDW: You’ve said in previous conversations that you’re especially interested in ‘how the viewer relates to the art object’, and that for you this has to do with ‘time, representation and material’. What about other aspects of what we might call the ‘situation’, such as the biology of the viewer or the historical, social or physical context in which they are viewing the work?

SF: My work is really about the context of the relationship between the viewer and the object, which is engaged primarily by the object itself. The work is addressing how the viewer sees artwork via time and representation, which are the two qualities of work itself. Traditionally painting was a very laborious thing, so when you looked at a painting, you thought about how long it took and how detail-oriented it must have been. For example, with the Sistine Chapel, you might picture people on ladders working on it. And I think that got lost with photography. So I think of painting as a warm thing, which with photography and Abstract Expressionism became cold.

With photography replacing painting as the representational art form of our day, the question is how to bring these two art forms into something the viewer feels warm about. I think that warmth is the goal of art itself. Aesthetics is kind of tangential to how the viewer feels about the work. The viewer is put into the loop of creation. A lot of people who see the work might not even realise I’ve used a rock, and that’s really successful for me, because my relationship to it is so technical and theoretical. When people enjoy the work without knowing or realising these things, it’s really exciting.

Sam Falls interviewed by Ellen Mara De Wachter, 18 February 2013, London

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