[October 12 2016]
Known for his multi-disciplinary practice, especially large-scale paintings on fabric for which he harnesses natural agents like rain and sun to realize the work, Sam Falls has recently decided to take a bit of a reprieve from this explorative operation and focus on large-format black-and-white photography.
An excerpt from the press release concerning Falls’ current solo exhibition at Hannah Hoffman Gallery in Los Angeles which introduces these new photo works:
“I wake up in silence and move through the house in peace. I drive through downtown and listen to the news, I smell the fumes, I see concrete poured on concrete, advertisements for alien products, people asleep outside and animals dead on the road. I turn off the alarm and the studio is silent and dark. I’m vibrating now and the walls deny the world. I drive to the desert and plant the only kind of flowers that will grow, I feel my skin in the sun, I see my age in the sand. Sometimes the saddest songs are all that makes you feel ok.
I drive across the country and America expands and contracts. The power lines are both fleeting and consuming, the cities are foreign and familiar, the fields are producing and polluting. Sometimes I see the people inside the cars and sometimes I just see the cars. The split second glimpse of the world on film confirms that forever exists. I walk to the woods and spend the day watching the light move through the trees, I listen to the wind and the animals.” Sam Falls, 2016
On a recent studio visit to the artist’s Glendale space, he discusses this new transition in practice.
PAIGE SILVERIA — You have a place in Hudson, New York. But you’re based here now?
SAM FALLS — I’ve been in this space for almost three years. We moved from New York to LA about five years ago, mostly because I was making a lot of work in the sun. In New York, I just couldn’t do it with the weather. So I was flying here a lot and leaving work out in friends’ backyards. It hit a point where they were like, “Our backyards are covered with your fabric.” Then I started making the rain work, but it rains so little here, so that’s why we got the place in Hudson. Both times it was for artwork and wanting weather I couldn’t have. We got this place in Hudson with a lot of land to make the more environmental rain works, but now that that project is finished, I’m sort of overwhelmed with the maintenance of the land. So we might sell it and get something smaller. This studio in LA is pretty big, partly because of the work I was making outside, I needed a place to look at it. Before this, I had a small studio and everything was hanging from the rafters. I couldn’t really stretch it out and look at it. Here I have space to look at the works and deal with them. Now I’m transitioning a bit. I still make big outdoor works, but I’d like to not be so attached to the large studio.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What work are you showing at Hannah Hoffman’s?
SAM FALLS — Mostly black-and-white photos, which are really new. I’m doing more straight photography in general. The work I was doing originally was to loosen up photography, free it up, using the sun and fabric, to not have such professional materials. When I was in school in New York the photo work I was seeing was very camera-and-technology centric. I felt like the success of the work relied more on the mechanics and material rather than the concept, so in a way I was also responding to this.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Do you think you’ve exhausted that exploration outside of traditional equipment or are you just taking a break?
SAM FALLS — I think I’ll always do it. But I feel in a way that I’ve accomplished something. There was a point where I felt it started to flow in the dialogue of my work. Art photography became such a fetishized thing – I don’t think it should be. I think photography should be ubiquitous without a superficial hierarchy. It started to have a bit of a release and people were treating it more fondly. But then there’s this whole wave of real unpleasing work presently – I don’t want to name names, I don’t know if I even could. But there’s this almost indistinguishable type of work, you can’t really tell who, what, when, where, or why it was made, almost like graphic design without purpose and released even from aesthetic query or something.
PAIGE SILVERIA — And people are being championed for it?
SAM FALLS — I don’t know. When I started making work outdoors, I was very specific. Like Liz Deschenes, I admired and responded to her work in a way, I felt like there was a dialogue and a lineage going on. But now I get a little nervous that people not only don’t do their homework, they don’t care. That’s kind of why I started doing black-and-white work and using a large-format camera again. I’d take a day to make one photograph and built this darkroom in my studio. It wasn’t to prove something to those people or to art in general so much as to make me feel like I really do care about photography. I think some of the stuff I was doing beforehand translated to anti-photography rather than just trying to open it up and I wanted to go back to those traditions of photography — people like Robert Adams, Edward Weston and Ansel Adams and early art photography that really dealt with social issues a bit more and direct content. The shit that I was seeing and feeling bad about is just this explosion of color or digital craft without a message of any sort.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Tell me about the black and white photos.
SAM FALLS — It was right when we had our kid. And part of it was learning how to work when I had three hours here and there. I was stereotypically thinking about how the world is now and I was sucked into this more academic focus on a finite element of the world being art and aesthetics and trying to broaden that. I decided to only photograph outside of the studio and really take my time to make one picture and process the film and print it here myself before moving on to the next thing. It wasn’t a serial process; it was more that every day that I had three or four hours, I’d get in the car and go. I’d try to find something that fit. Some days I wouldn’t even take a picture; I’d try to research something at night to photograph the next time. I have this working title for the whole body of work, which is American Iconography in Melancholy.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Why Melancholy?
SAM FALLS — Melancholy is something I’ve always been pretty interested in. With the fade-sun work for example, it’s been about that picture coming out from the sun fading it. So there’s some creation but it’s through a disappearance. So that balance between the passage of time and how depressing it can be versus it being buoyed up by living through it and productivity and time. So that’s the melancholy and the iconography is the landmarks.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Why black and white only?
SAM FALLS — Babies can also only see black and white for the first three or four months, so I was showing my son all of these Ansel Adams and Robert Adams books. They’re so great and have such a positive, or concerned message. I was at the Met Museum recently looking at paintings like Van Gogh’s “Peasant Shoes” and I feel like people dealt with class issues more deftly back then. Then walking into the more modern wing, with Rothkos and Pollocks — those were my jam, what I really loved aesthetically — but then there is this harsh reality of what does that really accomplish?
PAIGE SILVERIA — Just making something beautiful?
SAM FALLS — I don’t know, it felt really empty to me for the first time, cheapened I guess by having gone straight from these heavy hitters of representational painting to abstraction without the mediation of decades. For me it’s new to think this way because I’ve always been so much more in-tune with modernism. Postmodernism always felt like a harsh part of the lineage of art movements, where the message came first after years of aesthetics leading the work, and so I think the impressionist and post-impressionist movements had a better blend of content and aesthetic
PAIGE SILVERIA — Art as an indulgence rather than art as a vehicle for social change?
SAM FALLS — That’s not the way to talk about masters like Rothko and Pollock, which brought about such human achievement in how it makes people feel and that whole thing. And I can appreciate that at the time it was a radical and important intellectual shift. I just think that where art is, it needs more of where postmodernism was where it was heavy handed and in your face about what was going on. Abstraction now seems to be flying off the handle, and these vague technology tangents, it’s just a little worrisome because the position of art in society is important and artists got to be serious. There’s a lot of ways to be serious but I don’t really see the care or justification in style games or … I don’t know but I think people know what I’m talking about, just shit leaning on design without reason. Art is the pursuit of beauty not mimicry of taste – art must be pure or the pursuit of purity. I hate questioning people’s motives. There’s that Raymond Pettibon quote: “Are your motives pure?” I think that should be the first question for someone trying to be an artist. I think a good part of the job is stripping down influences. I think right now with these photos, I’m in a state of altruism, but that doesn’t mean it’s the most pure thing I’ve done. I think pure could mean outside of bias, like Pollock could say his motives were pure. I don’t think it’s tied to social issues. I think it’s possible to be pure. It’s harder and harder, I think about it all the time.
PAIGE SILVERIA — Melancholy, is it hopeful?
SAM FALLS — To me, it’s the purest feeling. I don’t think there’s pure happiness or pure sadness because they rely so much on each other. That’s why I think melancholy is my ideal state, it feels really honest. For me it’s weird that I started making giant black-and-white aggressive prints when I had a baby, because that’s the most colorful, wholesome time. I was making this nice colorful work and then it’s stripped down and that’s maybe the balance: I have so much beauty in my personal life that it leaves me more space for dealing with other things in my work.
PAIGE SILVERIA — It’s definitely a contemplative and reflective time.
SAM FALLS — Yeah and it makes you evaluate what matters.
PAIGE SILVERIA — How did Roberto Bolaño’s “2666” influence this show? It’s pretty violent.
SAM FALLS — The violence happens in the middle and it’s about Juárez, Mexico so there’s the social issue there. It’s a full-on massacre that’s still going on there and especially focused on women and you don’t hear about it that much. I think that’s why he put it so heavy in the book, that part is very graphic. But you read almost 500 pages before you get there. It’s this beautiful ambling text then you get to this part that’s boom boom boom, all of these murders. Then there’s the writer as a youth swimming in the black forest and it becomes very beautiful again. So that book is very melancholic and feels very honest. I’m reading it for the second time. The way the text is written, you can go deeper like with a photo—you have a surface reason for doing something, then when you look at it, you realize how far down the rabbit hole you’ve gone. With that book, there are so many other things that are now having an impact on me that didn’t when I read it the first time ten years ago. Art functions the same way. It’s much more of a slow burn than music. Music for me is the most immediate emotional influencer. Sometimes I wish I was a musician rather than an artist. But I think you have to dedicate your life to one thing. But that book is just beautiful. It’s pure.
PAIGE SILVERIA — What else influenced this particular work?
SAM FALLS — I made a playlist that I would drive around to of the saddest songs that weren’t about love — songs I’ve always listened to, like Elliott Smith or Bill Callahan or Catpower. I started listening to it over and over and over and it would get me into the zone. I wouldn’t always know what I was looking for, but the music was tying things together. It was like Smithsonian Folkways and “The Anthology of American Folk Music”, where they preserve traditional American songs. The songs on my playlist I’ve listened to so many times, it’s like they are my new traditional American songs. My friend, Imaad Wasif, who’s this amazing musician is going to play them in the gallery during the show — all 20 songs, three days a week. We’ll record it each time, so he’ll end up playing 20 times. We’ll make an album of each one, codifying it as a traditional song in our way. Sometimes when art is moved to the gallery, it loses that tangental tie to the ambient world that helped make it. You know that weird feeling you would get from going to your grandmother’s house, from smelling her world? The way nostalgia happens through scent and the other senses is so important, it can always spin me around. So I wanted to try and create that a little bit with the music.
The exhibition of Sam Falls is on view until October 29th, 2016 at Hannah Hoffman Gallery, 1010 North Highland Avenue, Los Angeles.
Photo and interview Paige Silveria