Project Series 49: Sam Falls
Sam Falls creates installations, paintings, photographs, and sculptures that examine entropy, perception, time, and the artistic process. Since 2010, Falls has developed several bodies of work based on the natural processes of decomposition and deterioration, including long-term effects of sunlight and weather as works gradually fade or rust. Influenced by Minimalism and Land and Process art and Los Angeles-centric Finish Fetish and Light and Space, Falls succeeds in embracing the intersection of the natural, historical, and digital. For example, a recent photographic series based on abandoned houses in Joshua Tree conflated photography, rephotography, digital manipulation, and installation. His newest sculptures consist of brightly colored, folded sheets of aluminum coated with UV protective finish on the outside, and uncoated on the inside. These will gradually, and unpredictably, change over time. He has recently created “photograms” by leaving variously colored sheets of material, covered in objects, outside at his studio in Pomona, California. In “Project Series 49,” the artist will present a new site-specific installation investigating the complex nature of reality and the mutability of perception.
Art, Process, and the Elements: Sam Falls
This publication, Ferns and Palms, accompanies “Project Series 49: Sam Falls,” the artist’s first solo museum exhibition. For “Project Series 49,” Falls presents new work, including several of his signature weather- driven paintings and a new outdoor sculpture composed of an altered pickup truck filled with succulents. Investigating the mutability of perception, Falls’s artworks shift between installations, paintings, photographs, and sculptures. He examines entropy, perception, representation, time, and the artistic process. Over the last several years, Falls has developed several bodies of work based on the natural processes of decomposition and deterioration, particularly the long-term effects of sunlight and weather. With each of his disparate works, Falls creates a matrix for a related set of ideas that connect through each object and the process of its making.
Falls created the paintings in the exhibition by placing large sheets of raw canvas outside prior to a storm, then arranging organic material—palm fronds in California and ferns in Vermont—on the canvas, and, finally, spreading dry pigment over the plants and canvases.Where the plants masked the canvas from the vibrantly colored pigment, an indexical image was created. The duration of the storm, the quality and amount of rain, the randomly applied pigmentation, and the vegetal forms dictated the resulting images. Falls emphasizes this open-ended process; natural forces are the “tools” he uses to create the abstracted images. The finished works are luminous and painterly, with layers of saturated colors; at the same time, they reference both the trace of the object in a silhouette against the field of color and the specificity of the environments in which they were made.
Falls’s sculpture, Untitled (Life in California), also contains multiple referents. The Ford Ranger dates to 1984, the year of Falls’s birth in San Diego, California, and his current truck is a 2011 Ford Ranger, the year he moved back to California. Falls has sandblasted the 1984 truck in random patterns to reveal layers of red and tan paint and the steel base beneath. He clear-coated some parts to protect from rust while others were left raw. Over time, the sculpture will shift and transform—the succulents will grow, and the truck’s surface will change color and texture as it rusts and weathers.
While influenced by 1970s art historical movements, including Minimalism, Earth art, Process art, and Los Angeles-centric Finish Fetish and Light and Space, Falls also embraces the very contemporary intersection of the digital, historical, and natural. His study of various photographic processes has guided his thinking about light, time, place, and elements. Starting with graduate work in photography at the International Center of Photography–Bard program in New York, Falls has developed a rigorous yet open-ended conceptual and intellectual framework that guides his projects. In graduate school, Falls experimented for the first time with the effects of sunlight fading craft paper, creating natural “color photograms” in his New York studio, and, on trips to California, with scaled-up photograms on large sheets of fabric covered with simple objects like tires and wooden two-by-fours. The resultant photograms leave a ghostly silhouette of the object in the weathered and faded image.
Perhaps the best-known art historical precedents of the photogram technique were Surrealist Man Ray’s 1920s “rayographs,” in which he placed objects like wire, thumbtacks, and coils directly on sheets of photosensitized paper and exposed them to light. However, some of the initial experiments in this early form of photography took place in the 1830s and 1840s, by William Henry Fox Talbot and Anna Atkins. In 1834, Talbot placed pressed leaves and other plants on sensitized papers covered with glass and set them out in the sun. Where the light hit, the paper darkened, while the leaf left a white traced outline. He called this the “art of photogenic drawing.” Atkins, an English botanist and one of the first to publish a book illustrated with photographic images (Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, 1843), further explored Talbot’s invention, experimenting with botanical drawing and photograms in different media.
In Falls’s “photogram” works, where the objects block out the sunlight or dust, a shadow image is left on the fabric, while the uncovered areas fade or deteriorate in the sunlight. In this way, he says, the works are “tied to a specific place and time.The place is the outdoors—a symbolic space imbued with layers of meaning. The time is extended into months and years, rather than seconds. In the time that passes during the work’s creation, many things happen to the piece itself, but perhaps more intriguingly, things happen in the world that impact our perception of the artwork.”1
Falls’s newest rain-works further expand his exploration of the shifting terrain between abstraction, representation, nature, place, and duration. Depicting an object, an environment, and a process, they mirror printmaking as the sun-faded works mirror photography. By using sun and rain instead of a paintbrush or camera and darkroom, the works echo and reinforce Falls’s interests in process art and the dialogue between abstraction and representation.The shifting nature of his works—from photograms/paintings to site-specific installations/sculptures—reference both an indexical, durational quality of time passing and a relinquishing of the authorial voice in favor of, as Falls says, a “de-skilled” process. Based on each viewer’s individual experiences and references, each artwork is completed by the viewer, as she or he imagines the artistic process and the ultimate outcome of the effects of time and weather. Falls creates, in essence, propositions to the viewer: the artworks become complete only in the viewers’ perpetual presence. For Falls, it is crucial that the process is transparent so that the production of the work is shared.
Falls credits Rosalind Krauss’s seminal 1977 “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America” with influencing his approach to materiality and process.2 In her two-part essay, Krauss articulates an argument about representation and the conditions of abstraction and photography. She postulates a notion of the index, or a “shifter,” as a quality of “transfer or trace” that gives the photograph both its documentary status and its detachment from its surroundings. She notes that certain artworks “are understood...as shifters, empty signs...that are filled with meaning only when physically juxtaposed with an external referent or object.”3 Krauss’s idea of the “shifter,” or sign, is a unifying conceptual thread woven through Falls’s works. He views the shifter as a reciprocal artistic form of abstraction.To quote Krauss:
[T]he photogram only forces, or makes explicit, what is the case of all photography. Every photograph is the result of a physical imprint transferred by light reflections onto a sensitive surface.The photograph is thus a type of icon, or visual likeness, which bears an indexical relationship to its object. Its separation from true icons is felt through the absoluteness of this physical genesis, one that seems to short-circuit or disallow those processes of schematization or symbolic intervention that operate within the graphic representation of most paintings.4
These shifting “indexes,” or “ghostly traces of departed objects...like footprints in sand or marks left in the dust,”5 in Falls’s work are objects both recognizable and abstract—circular tires, wooden 2-by-4s that produce stripes, and ferns or palms that are organic abstractions. The works balance between elements and thus refuse to be tied to any specific moment, place, or process. Instead, Falls captures the life presence of each unique object and invests each piece with all moments of its creation, and “fill[s] it with an extraordinary sense of time-past.”6
Senior Curator, Pomona College Museum of Art
1. All Sam Falls quotes are from our conversation at his studio in Venice, California, March 4, 2014.
2. See Rosalind Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America,” October vol. 3 (Spring, 1977), pp. 68–81; and “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, Part 2,” October vol. 4 (Autumn 1977), pp. 58–67.
3. Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, Part 2,” p. 64.
4. Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America,” p. 75.
6. Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America, Part 2,” p. 65.
Essay by David Pagel
Photography in the Expanded Present: Sam Falls’s Organic Pictures
Time, and the way it shapes our relationships to everything around us, is Sam Falls’s great subject. Just about everything Falls does invites us to reflect on our experiences of time’s passage, particularly—but not exclusively—as they are triggered by works of art. For Falls, art is a fluid enterprise, and this makes it an effective means for exploring time’s elastic nature—its capacity to slow down to a seemingly glacial pace and crawl, ploddingly onward, as if it is something to be endured, as well as its equal and opposite tendency to flash by in a split second, its ephemerality preserved only as a memory, which is no more substantial than the real thing, and even more susceptible to the whims and vicissitudes of emotion.
Subjectivity and time are inextricably entwined, and it is this inextricability that interests Falls. Too skeptical a thinker and too humble a humanist to buy into the irrational sentimentality and overblown emotionalism that often accompany art aimed at deep feelings, he proceeds cautiously, working more like a farmer, an out- of-work alchemist, or a shipwreck survivor who has washed up on a deserted island than as an egomaniacal avant-gardist. Rather than loading his works with the residue of his subjectivity, a surfeit of his personal feelings, or an anecdotal assortment of autobiographical details, Falls gets out of the way. He lets nature take its course. But not without first setting everything up so that what happens matters. The resulting works reward viewers with lots to look at, plenty to ponder, and even more to engage imaginatively and emotionally, both socially and intimately.
Falls’s art is mysterious, and this is what distinguishes his time-sensitive works from those by previous generations of process artists, who were similarly interested in breaking the grip in which their subjectivity held them as they fell into constrictive aesthetic habits that eliminated the possibilities and surprise discoveries they originally had set out to pursue.To emphasize that their works did not express their own inner sentiments, first-generation process artists made sure that the products of their processes led viewers back to those very processes. How a thing was made was not only essential to what it meant, it was what it meant. Extraneous elements were eliminated because they were deemed to be unnecessarily subjective, impossible to control, and part of the over-sentimentalized nonsense the process artists had gone out of their way to expunge from their works, which embraced the objectivity of scientific inquiry.
Falls finds such fantasies shortsighted, particularly for the time and place his works inhabit and the complexities they go out of their way to give rise to. His slow-brewed works make room for each viewer’s subjectivity, leaving us free to make what we will of his crude, caveman-style photograms and storm-assisted abstract paintings. There’s an off-handed casualness to his processes, an embrace of loose ends, rough edges, and stray associations. This laissez-faire ethos reflects Falls’s expectations that viewers think for ourselves, see for ourselves, and take what he has done and run with it—or leave it be. His refusal to tell us what to think is intrinsic to his art’s generosity of spirit, its conviction that art works best when it brings out the best in people, challenging us, to be sure, while getting us to extend our sympathies and convictions and concerns far beyond yesterday’s borders.The elasticity of time extends to the sentiments Falls conjures in his ruggedly sensual works as well as to the selves that experience their renegade rainbows of partially dissolved pigments, their fugitive, windblown stains, and their sun-bleached silhouettes. His works take photography back to the basics by accentuating what it does best, not only making us see the world differently but also reorienting us to its fundamental substances.
Two points of reference form the foundation upon which Falls’s environmentally oriented works are based. The first is aesthetic: Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of “the decisive moment” as the heart and soul of street photography. The second is everyday: the unimaginably vast number of digital images in the world today and the mind-blowing number we look at—usually for less than a moment. Falls wraps these ways of apprehending our surroundings around one another, creating a way of being in the world that shares something of each but cannot be explained by either. His art’s elusiveness has everything to do with transformation—sometimes imperceptible and slow, at other times dramatic and sudden. Either way, there’s no going back. Time passes and it cannot be recaptured or relived—only recalled, however wistfully it suits you.
Today, Cartier-Bresson (1908–2004) is remembered—and revered—for his ability to perceive the exact moment at which to snap the picture: not a hair’s breadth before or after his surroundings arranged themselves in just the right way. When we look back at his 35-mm photographs, we think of a guy who lived in the instant, someone who zeroed in on the highpoints of everyday occurrences and, because of his acute attentiveness, transformed ordinary events into extraordinarily meaningful images: pedestrian epics that resonate with far more nuance than we would have seen on our own. We forget about the time required to make these photographs—the long hours of waiting, the missteps, and the day-in and day-out training necessary for Cartier-Bresson to be able to work intuitively, faster than his mind could think and a lot like an athlete at the top of his game. Being a culture obsessed with highlights, we ignore the backstory to these photographs, extracting them from the temporality they are a part of.
That impatience is part of our overtaxed, overspecialized, modern lives. It plays a role in the shrinking attention spans that seem to define contemporary consciousness. The speed at which we zip through hundreds and thousands of images—every hour of every day—makes Cartier-Bresson’s moments seem to have more in common with nineteenth-century novels by Tolstoy or Dickens than with photographs made in a split second. And that, paradoxically, is what Falls’s art has in common with Cartier-Bresson’s. Rather than seeking out decisive moments or singular instants, Falls invites us to think about decisive hours, decisive weeks, decisive months, even decisive years.
The decisiveness in Falls’s work is even less personal than in Cartier-Bresson’s.That has less to do with the photojournalist’s shortcomings than it does with those of our own age, when the reality of instantaneous communication has replaced the fantasy of instantaneous gratification and the preponderance of “selfies” signals a short-circuiting of two-way communication, otherwise known as conversation. The self-effacing humility of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs—their commitment to engage something other than the artist’s self—enters Falls’s images both in terms of what they depict (ferns and palms and pallets and garden hoses and discarded car tires) and how they do so (by turning to the temporality of nature, of organic processes whose spans of time are far longer than those we have sliced our days into).
The now-ness to which we seem addicted is suspended by Falls’s intentionally crude photographs, which dispense with just about every modern convenience and technological innovation to take photography back to the basics: light and time. Lots of light. And lots, lots, lots of time. The artist’s hand is replaced by the weather, by the sun shining day after day, bleaching out the backgrounds and leaving silhouetted traces of absent objects, or by thunderstorms pouring rain on pigment-sprinkled sheets of fabric to make fugitive color field paintings, their pedigree enriched by a strand of hippie tie-dye in their DNA. A kind of ad hoc romanticism suffuses Falls’s DIY works, which open themselves to all sorts of possibilities. What you see takes you back both to how something was done and to its connection to everything around it. How things could have gone differently is invited into the picture. Falls’s art takes place in an expanded field, but more importantly, in an expanded present. Both matter of fact and mind-blowing, that bodes well for the future— and art’s place in it.
David Pagel is an art critic who writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times. He is a professor of art theory and history at Claremont Graduate University and an adjunct curator at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York. An avid cyclist, he is a five-time winner of the California Triple Crown.