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.