Sam Gilliam: New Work on Paper at FLAG Art Foundation

Installation view of Sam Gilliam: New Works on Paper at The FLAG Art Foundation, 2019. Photography by Steven Probert.

Sam Gilliam: New Work on Paper

FLAG Art Foundation

June 6 - August 16, 2019

By ANNA SCOLA, August 2019

You walk into an empty apartment, the couch pillows are of quilted fabric - there is a thin layer of dust settling on the tops of the photo frames. The space is quiet until you notice the seconds ticking on the clock and single droplets falling into the kitchen sink, keeping perfect time. You walk towards it and there’s a creaking with each step on the floorboards. Somewhere outside, the traffic starts up. What was once silence is but an illusion to the ambience or noises that begin to sound more like life’s natural melody. 

This is the initial sensation of entering the space of Sam Gilliam’s show at the FLAG Art Foundation. Gilliam is an abstract painter who emerged as part of the third wave of the Color Field movement in the late 1960s and Gilliam was an African-American artist based in Washington D.C. at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

Installation view of Sam Gilliam: New Works on Paper at The FLAG Art Foundation, 2019. Photography by Steven Probert.

The show is a selection of twelve new works by the artist presenting his signature technique of spilling ink over folded and crumpled paper that is then left loosely hanging. These pieces are uniformly framed, hung along the wall, but each encapsulates its own spontaneous rhythm and energy through color and pattern. Within the hard-angled shape of the frame, the colors float and leak and bubble, so what is supposed to be linear, actually happens all at once washing over you.

The lines, which are the traces of the folds made by the artist, are vertical, as is the paper itself, but the spills of color pull at those seams in the other direction. The ink that flows through the surface plain defies gravity. It falls parallel to the ground, rather than submitting to its weight, giving the impression that it is growing, transforming, mutating.

Color is limitless, often our responses to color is subjective - it is solely and preciously our own. Color fields that Gilliam presents to us are liberated, they have been channeled to us from the artist - but as they reach us now. The painting is no longer his; it is given to the viewers’ experience. Subsequently, the single work is the bank of collective memories from all that have witnessed it. It is an intimate moment and, at the same, time shared, detached from everything and intertwined with everyone. 

Installation view of Sam Gilliam: New Works on Paper at The FLAG Art Foundation, 2019. Photography by Steven Probert.

Upon taking a seat at the center of the room, your meditation allows you to hear another type of sound, music—particularly, jazz. Sam Gilliam’s color field practice is jazz if jazz was to leave behind its only submission - the progression of time. Beyond the skeletal structure that holds the piece, it is the improvised layers of color that give the texture to make the piece what it is. And, with each iteration—something new.

You cannot force yourself to understand Gilliam's work, you must allow yourself to feel it instead. The synthetic purples and greens raise the pitch and the the earthy colors, rusted browns and oranges, bring the sound a muted tone. It is the combination of the two dancing together that is a strange psychedelic calm. Like the grounding vibrations of a bass complementing the vivacity of tenor sax, the paintings create a stirring within you that suspends all inhibition. 

The abstract works of Sam Gilliam are not sublime in the way that they are incomprehensible. They do not intimidate or make you feel less human. Instead, they are beautiful because they are simple and in this way, the ordinary is generous and inclusive. You can sit amidst these paper works and feel like you are exactly as you must be, the crests and the troughs are necessary to your world and justifiably yours. Like jazz, which makes you feel everything at once, Gilliam’s pieces make you feel perfectly and rightly human. WM


Anna Scola

Anna Scola is an American and Russian artist, writer and curator based in Singapore and New York. As a practicing artist, Anna uses performance and installation to explore issues of identity and insecurity that arise from personal and socio-political relations to contemporary migration. As a curator, she has conceptualized and managed a number of exhibitions that create unique conditions for the artists and explore the potential of a gallery space.


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