With regard to Sam Falls’ recent works about time and nature

Paul Laster

Sam Falls’ first solo show at 303 Gallery in New York puts the Californian artist into the sight of masters of abstract art such as Jackson Pollock and Yves Klein. But he never stops thinking about the future.

Wherever man hopes to take the mysteries of nature by surprise, he finds only his own image reflected in the mirror. No diver knows, before he goes down, what he is going to bring up. – Max Ernst

Fresh off acclaimed solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto (The Mart) in Italy and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, as well as participation in the 2018 Biennale of Sydney, Sam Falls presents a poetic body of work—three large paintings, four ceramic sculptures, three photographs and a collage—in his first exhibition with 303 Gallery in New York.

Graduating from ICP-Bard in New York with an MFA in Photography in 2010, Falls took a decidedly different course from his photographer classmates. Working from a previous interest in physics and linguistics married with a developing philosophical point of view, Falls took the essence of photography, light and shadow, and employed it in the making of another—more experimental—form of art.

Harnessing the Earth’s elements, Falls used the sun to fade dyed fabric and canvas around objects, which he would place on the material and leave outdoors for long periods of time, as well as the atmospheric moisture from dew and rain, when sprinkling pigment around objects to directly define their presence. His large paintings in the exhibition are of the second sort. Made on location with materials gathered from the site, the paintings are named for their geographic origin.

When he created it, the 2018 canvas Untitled (Topanga Park) was the largest painting he had made to date. A woodsy, seaside mix of herbs, ferns, grasses and seaweed defined by a dark palette of black, brown and purple pigments, the painting has a spiritual depth that pulls the viewer into its natural, almost fairytale-like realm. Created over the course of one or two nights in the forest northwest of Los Angeles, it has two layers of action, with the first layer of plants and pigment fading into the distance and the second level clinging to the surface. There’s even a visible raccoon’s paw print, which seems to vouch for the authenticity of its creation.

The 2018 painting Untitled (Conception) was created at Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara, California. Measuring an amazing 7-foot, 6-inches high and 41-feet wide (229.2 x 1250.3 cm,) the visually compelling canvas brings to mind Jackson Pollock’s abstract Blue Poles, which is roughly a third as wide, and Claude Monet’s scenic Reflections of Clouds on the Water-Lily Pond, which is just slightly larger. Composed from seaweed that Falls pulled from the depths of the ocean, arranged on a giant canvas on the beach, dusted with pigments and then waited for the atmospheric moisture to transform, the painting captures the spirit of the place, and a particular moment in time, better than any camera ever could.

A realistic image created in an expressionistic way, Untitled (Conception) exudes nature. Ritualistically developed, as Falls stepped—like Pollock—in and out of the canvas in a choreographed, shamanistic dance while laying down seaweed and spontaneously throwing pigment into the air to land where it may, the painting comes to life in the morning light. In Falls’ work, the hand of nature is not only visible, it’s even more significant than that of the artist, who—like Max Ernst, when creating his surreal frottage and grattage works, made by rubbing graphite and scraping paint over ancient wooden floors—becomes a witness to the making of his own work.

While this large painting is bright and fluid—with the clearly defined leaves of the seaweed dancing across a field of vibrant colors—the third canvas in the show is dark and moody. Created on a rainy night in the deep woods of Arkansas, Untitled (Ozark National Forest, 1) captures a flurry of small flowers and leaves in a field of smudged browns, burgundies and greens. Reminiscent of Mark Rothko’s dark, hazy palette and Odilon Redon poetic pastels, the painting is the perfect marriage of abstraction and representation. It also brings to mind the sublime paintings that Yves Klein made by strapping a pigmented canvas to the roof of his car and driving from Nice to Paris in the rain.

Newer to Falls’ engaging oeuvre are his ceramics, which he began making in 2016 and exhibited at the Mart earlier this year. The clay sculptures reference minimalism while offering more of a natural approach. Made in the studio, when the artist is not working on projects outdoors, they begin with flowers and plants being pressed into slabs of clay and then burned out in the firing process. Next they are glazed, where—as anyone who has studied or made ceramics knows—the glazes start out as grey liquid and reveal their colors when fired. Finally, Falls makes a simple cut in the slabs that allows them to be assembled as pairs, like the interlocking cards of Ray and Charles Eames’ famous multiple, House of Cards. Displayed on raw, plywood plinths with crisscrossed legs and round tops, they amusingly look a bit like form-shaped shrubs.

The photographs and collage in the exhibition bring Falls full circle. Shot using film with a large-format camera and printed one-to-one on silver gelatin paper that’s further toned with silver, the three black-and-white images mysteriously capture elements of nature. Silver Lake Reservoir depicts the body of water waterless, after it had been drained by the City of Los Angeles to build a new pipeline beneath it. Paper Skin portrays a vertical piece of bark (the oldest form of paper) suspended by horizontal tree branches in a forest. And Moon Light reveals bits of light coming through woodland trees at night. It’s the collage, however, that takes us to the photographic source, while also bringing to light the artist’s lifelong fascination with and concern for the environment.

His matted-and-framed collage piece Untitled (Rock, Merced River, Autumn, Yosemite Valley 1962-2015) juxtaposes the cover of the photography book Celebrating the American Earth: A Tribute to Ansel Adams, which was first published by the Wilderness Society in 1980, with a Polaroid by Falls. The rock in a river from the 1962 black-and-white photograph on the cover of Adam’s book is the same Merced River rock in Fall’s 2015 color picture, which pays homage to Adams creative engagement with nature while building upon and transforming the past.

In a statement for his 2015 show at Ballroom Marfa, Falls expressed a philosophical point of view that smartly sums up all of his art: “I work on the issues of representation and abstraction in art, which I see to be its contemporary and historical building blocks, as well as the defining element of human life: time,” he wrote. “I am always trying to draw out the inherent qualities of time and make them visible, to share the past in the present and point toward the future coming to pass and all together immerse ourselves within it.” With his works at 303, that mission both continues and succeeds.

November 25, 2020