Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sam Scott: Order on the Amorphous Swarm (1981)

Sam Scott, photo by Bernard Plossu
When we called on Sam Scott at this hand-built Santa Fe adobe a few months ago, he impressed us as a friendly, bear of a man.  Tall and broad shouldered with a mop of brown hair and a heavy mustache, he was wearing the clothes of a working painter—paint splattered overalls and black work shoes.  His living room is warm and cluttered with friends’ art (a Larry Bell vapor drawing, a Paul Caponigro photo of a Japanese temple), books (Art and Artist, by Otto Rank, The Village Voice Anthology, tomes on DeKooning, Picasso, Cezanne), records, tapes, art supplies, coffee cups.  He made us a cup of tea, talked briefly about the past, learning that he first moved to Santa Fe in the late ‘60s, then to Arizona in the late ‘70s where he taught art for five years at the University of Arizona, before returning last year to the red clay that still tenaciously grips his art roots.  Then we slipped into an easy and wide ranging discussion of art and ideas.
Here’s an easy question—what do you do and why do you do it?
(Laugh followed by long pause)  Well, I’ve been painting since I was a child.  So I’m doing what I’ve always done.  There were some side trips, some questioning about the commitment, because it’s a frightening commitment to make, but it’s always been something I knew I had to do.  Why do I paint?  That’s simple, too.  It’s the glue that holds the world together for me.  I wouldn’t know what to do if I wasn’t painting.
What do you paint?
(Long pause)  Well, the interesting thing about art is that the part that really matters is the part you can’t speak about (laugh).  Right?  If we’re all interested in the fascinating thing of our . . . extraordinary privilege of being sentient beings . . . There’s all this methane out there and ice, and we exist on this moment of space-time, what an extraordinary privilege it is to be a sentient being, to have this exclusive human consciousness.  I think that there are many functions of art.  Art is big, it’s not little.  One function of art that interests me above all others that can be addressed in the art of painting is to experience experience.  If it is that, then it’s a statement of wonder before experience.  Then it’s celebrative, and in a way it’s art destroying itself.  The painting is a snakeskin, a cicada shell, a souvenir.  What really matters is how you feel when you’re painting.
You say “wonder before experience”?
As witnessing, as in front of.
On your knees?
Yes.  You’re right with me.  This is going to be fun.  Painting is about consciousness.  It’s a very moral statement, and that’s why Rothko wasn’t talking about light when he talked about the central issue of vibrato in a painting.  He was talking about something that was in the late works of Mozart.
For some reason this discussion reminds me of a quote I read some months ago in the New Yorker.  The article was examining the controversy over the legitimacy of psychoanalysis, and the writer said, “The unexamined life may not be worth living, but living the examined life is only possible for a moment at a time.”
That’s interesting.  I think painting connects both modalities, balances them.  Do you know Allen Bleimtraub’s Parable of the Beast?  It’s an analogue between behavioral characteristics of animals, and he was interested in what he calls significant time.  The common Rocky Mountain wood tick, in its juvenile life, will go out to the end of a twig and there go into a somniferous trance – however long it takes, ten, 20 years, it doesn’t matter.  The moment that it senses a certain collection of molecules that translate as animal sweat, it instantly is galvanized into action and leaps into space.  And this is what Bleimtraub calls significant time.  So in reference to your quote, both things are true, and I might add to that a quote by Helen Keller who said that life must be a high adventure or it’s not worth living.  I guess what we’re getting at is the idea of painting as a parable for a fulcrum that exists between those disparate parts.  Tillich uses a Spanish phrase, salto mortal, the leap of faith, or the mortal leap, that moment of movement between the known and the unknown, which essentially is the painter’s job, any artist’s job, going from the known to the unknown. 
You said over the years you’ve been on a number of side trips.  Were those significant times?
Some of it was, some of it wasn’t.  When I was in seminary that was very significant.  When I was in landscape architecture, it was a disaster.  These were things that happened while I was on my way to making a commitment as an artist.
It often seems that creative people go through those periods where they check out, either do nothing or do something unconnected with their creative endeavor, to recharge or refresh.
We’re electrical beings, our minds are alpha charges, our lives are always in some aspect dealing with the nutritive or the generative.  When you push hard enough, then you need to go to the nutritive, to receive, or else you don’t have anything to paint about.  As De Kooning said, “You can’t be a painting machine.”  If he had become a painting machine, he wouldn’t have the greatness he has now.  This glass of juice here (in his hand)—until it’s full, it can’t spill over.  So fill it up!
What are your work habits?
I’m a compulsive painter, but I like the luxury of a routine.  I need it.  I like to get up early, 5:30, and I like good coffee, go for a run with my dog.  That time while I’m running is preparation.  I run an hour . . . I regard myself as a weather painter, and it’s important for me to know what the day’s going to be like. The weather of the day has to do with the kind of painting I’ll do.  I like that link-up, immediacy.  Then I come back, make lunch for my kids (he has two sons, 5 and 12), get them off to school, and try hard to get into the studio by 9.  It’s a 9 to 5 trip.  Some nights I like to be with the kids, be close to the fire, and I’ll do watercolors on the table here.  I just got a real nice Eaton press, so I’ll be doing linocuts at night and woodblocks.  The time when I’m not with my kids I’ll go down to the studio.  In terms of the life stuff, I give over Mondays to paying bills, correspondence, laundry, and grocery shopping, and write off the studio that day.  So I have four very clean days and optional weekend time.  It’s important that I work as a painter like a truck driver works or a plumber or anyone else. Working seriously.  Discipline is freedom.  Otherwise, you’re a slave to time.  Art is about the language of freedom, and the only way to get it is to take it.  It’s not given. 
Black Angel (detail), oil on canvas, triptych, 66 x 240 inches
That’s not a comfortable notion for many people.  Maybe that’s why artists sometimes have a bad reputation. 
I think they have a bad reputation—and we deserve it—first because the first job of the artist is to be a criminal, and by that I mean an agent of change.  Reagan’s not a friend of the artist.  Working against a clearly defined social order to try and enlarge consciousness.  I don’t know about much else than painting, but I see it as a clandestine activity.  It’s meant to be a direct action questioning the status quo.
Has it always been that way?
Always.  From the first moments of the ritual magic men, it’s been understood that painting taps into the essence of our consciousness that is outside time and history.  Art is not additive, it’s subtractive, peeling off layers.
 That scares people who just want a warm fire and enough food for the winter.
I don’t blame people who want that!  I want a warm fire and enough food for the winter, too!  (Laughter)  But it’s interesting.  I got a very nice letter from my sister who is a social anthropologist, about this very question.  The fact is that the artist is not meant to “fit.”  He does fit, but not sometimes where we would like to fit, which is there with a rabbit cooking over the fire.  Unfortunately, where we fit is at the edge, and you can be pretty damn unhappy until you recognize that fact.  The situation for any young artist—let’s say under 30, in my case under 40 [Scott is 44]—is you have to understand very clearly that your position is on the outside.  If you want to be an artist and have the cake, you’ve got to forget it.  What disturbs me about younger artists is to hear them complaining.  If you’re going to make the decision to make art, then you have to have the maturity to accept the responsibility for that decision.  Understand the consequences, and know there is going to be a great deal of pain.  Ultimately, you’re giving yourself permission to live where art is.  If you can stop worrying about whether you’re an artist or not, it ends up being that where you are is where art is.  Strange, but it works that way.
As in so many other aspects of life, it’s a kind of surrender.
All aspects of knowledge say that over and over again—that you must die unto yourself to be born.  The story of Christ, the Upanishads, Koran, Vendetic passages, the Hopi . . . it doesn’t change.
When you’re painting, do you strive for or feel the ecstasy we associate with religious experience?
I’m not comfortable with the romantic sound of that, but it’s a fact.  Why else would I live such a goofy life?  There must be a payoff somewhere, and it’s in that feeling.  Ecstasy and surrender seem to be intertwined.
I felt that connection some months ago when a friend was teaching me to rappel.  That business of getting out on the rock and trusting the rope, going through the panic and saying, “I surrender,” and then the ecstasy of going down.
And did you notice the way you felt about the sky and the surface of the rock, the wind . . . Was ever anything so right?  You’ve got all that vertical exposure . . . Crazy, some people might say, but I think it’s the ultimate sanity.  There’s nothing like it.
You’ve been doing a lot of monotypes lately.  That’s an easy medium, isn’t it?
Yes.  In ’78 I was showing with Marilyn Butler and saw some monotypes Nathan Olivera had done, and they blew me away.  He works very differently than I do, he does multiple drops, and I’m very interested in a single drop, bringing everything you have as an artist to the situation, a and if it’s not good you rip it.  I like that.  It’s a natural medium for a gestural painter, but also nice is this sense of high rolling.
Do you think of yourself as a gambler?
I wouldn’t be comfortable with that . . . Again, that sounds a little romantic, like Kenny Rogers.
Do you go to the track?
I do (laughter).  Let’s just say I think that horses have the right to make me a living (more laughter).  Actually, I go on the shirttails of a friend here in Santa Fe.  I ride his bets.  I brought home an extraordinary $73 last summer.  With the monotypes, so much is riding on the situation—it’s about $400 a day to be in there, someone’s putting trust in your professionalism, you’ve got assistants standing around, four plates in rotation.  I like that milieu, I feel confident in it.  It’s intense pleasure. It’s a collaborative thing, a very nice give and take between the artist and the printers—though that’s a misnomer.  The printers are artists.  Trying to come to a purity of intention together.  I like that.
You like solitude, too, working alone in the studio.
Why did you come back to Santa Fe?
Well, the walls here (gesturing about the studio) are draft cards, pot shards, a lot of my history.  I think it’s kind of important—when you live in a house that you’ve built, it’s a special experience.  Also, I feel I came of age as an artist here, with my friends here.  I came to Santa Fe in 1969.  Looking back I think I had the content of what I wanted to do, but I didn’t have the ability yet to manifest it.  I went through all my changes here.  Back then Bob Ewing was the curator at the museum, and incredibly dynamic curator who was always in the artists’ studios.  It wasn’t paralyzed the way it is now.  Everyone was excited and working, and there weren’t really any art galleries in town at the time. The first with any concern for contemporary issues was the Janus Gallery.  But I came into myself here, and after teaching five years in the desert, I wanted to come back to where things galvanized, to start a new cycle.  I know I wasn’t going to be teaching forever, it was preparation for full-time painting, even though I was painting full-time there.  I’m a Southwest painter.  Like Michael Jenkinson said, it’s the land of clear light—it’s Arizona, New Mexico, Guaymas, the Gulf, up to red rock country of the San Juan river.  This is my country.
Ring of Bone, oil on canvas, 66 x 80 inches
(We moved from the living room downstairs to Scott’s studio where he pulled several large paintings from storage racks.  Most of the works contain highly energized color and gesture, and a wide variety of textures, from thin, elegant washes to heavy, creamy passages.  The first painting was Ring of Bone, and we asked about the origin of the strong, central image.)
 I don’t know.  These paintings are thought out, but they also have to be worked out.  The point at which a painting can be ethically abandoned is when the forms won’t move anymore.  It’s over.  You start with a blank canvas and infinite possibilities, and then go through a series of destructions, until it’s time to go on to the next one.  It’s all one painting, anyway.  We only make one painting, one body of work with all these installments.  So you can’t say a painting is finished . . . that’s like saying I’m finished painting!
Where did the title come from, Ring of Bone?
(Poet) Gary Snyder, who’s been important to me.  It’s a line from one of his poems, it fit.  The painting is about rites of passage, time, in the context of where we live.  It’s about a sacred site, a celebrative one, a place where energies converge.  This image wouldn’t have come out of New York City.  You know, as a painter you’re a thief—you have to steal hearts.  It’s strange.  I want to paint for people that have passionate eyes.  Now sometimes you hear people say—especially in academic circles—that abstraction denies information, communication.  But “abstract” means to distill truth, from the Greek.  You’re dealing with the essence rather than the appearance.  Which do you want?  But you always have to be held by the classical rules of composition, our human sense of order on the amorphous swarm of things.
 (Scott’s work is the subject of a one man show at the New Gallery, Taos, through June 16.  His work is also included in New Art New Mexico at the Stables Art Center, Taos, through June 17, and will be shown at the Keats Gallery, Santa Fe, beginning August 15.)
 --Stephen Parks, June, 1984

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