Written by David Pagel
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.