Artist Profiles | Visual Arts

Sam Wilson: It’s All an Illusion

In 2013, Sam Wilson was selected by 200 of his peers as one of “Utah’s 15 most influential artists.” The following profile appeared in Utah’s 15: The State’s Most Influential Artists, published by Artists of Utah in 2014.

Photo by Zoe and Robert Rodriguez.

Sam Wilson says, “It’s all an illusion.”

“The noble way in which the poem is written is a harmony of all the voices that had ever struck his ear”—Erich Auerbach on Dante

Thirty-five years ago Bob Olpin, the legendary chairman of the University of Utah College of Fine Arts, invited an itinerant painting professor to tackle a one-year teaching assignment. Olpin couldn’t know that when he arrived, Sam Wilson would possess qualities that could make him a significant artist. At the same time, Utah was about to surprise Wilson by providing him with the working conditions he needed to produce his art. He stayed on, joining a small group of remarkable painters who together illuminated the climactic chapter of Utah’s epic story as a place apart. More than three decades later, what could be the last generation of pure painters is fading from the scene, but Wilson remains at the U of U, vital and full of creative energy. Trim and fit at 70, his shaved head and piercing blue eyes instantly recognizable from a multitude of self-portraits, he still works seven days a week. And for some time now, Wilson has been at work on a long series—dozens, perhaps hundreds—of extremely personal drawings that look toward a grand summation of how belonging to that last generation feels for him, and of standing fast against changes that threaten the ever–marginal, oft–eulogized art of autonomous painting.

While talent has only begun to give up its secrets, we can say that 80 percent of success lies in just showing up. Sam Wilson first appeared in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1943, a time when artists felt more a part of society than they do now. Policies the Roosevelt administration created to deal with the Great Depression had put artists to work alongside industrial and agricultural workers for the common good. A regionalist like Thomas Hart Benton painted post office murals, while his student, the future Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock, and Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner, worked in their studios. Their salaries—imagine artists earning salaries!—came from taxes. Subsequent events saw artists don uniforms to record the look of a democracy at war. The next generation of artists came of age believing that society valued what they did.

Like many other restless families, Wilson’s moved west after the war in search of opportunity. Sam graduated high school in Long Beach, California, in 1961, the year John Kennedy became president, and witnessed the violent dissolution of national unity that followed the assassination. Vietnam divided America, becoming its greatest mass disillusionment since the Civil War. For those who came up through the Depression and World War II, doing without was a self-evident part of citizenship; their children, offered unprecedented opportunities, struggled to find a similar sense of purpose. The generation gap, a cliché today, was as real as street demonstrations and campus violence then, blighting lives on both sides. Many saw this broad social confusion reflected in their personal lives. It was the era of “dropping out,” and by his own admission Wilson wasted several semesters of high school and junior college before finding his way through art.

Successful artists often claim to have found their vocations in childhood. Wilson makes his curriculum vitae sound more like accidental discoveries, including the discipline and manual dexterity that emerged in his community college art classes. In reality, he was serving a uniquely American artist’s apprenticeship. An exploratory month in Europe in 1963 grew into four once he was there. In ’66, having developed the skills he’d felt he lacked, he transferred to Long Beach State College, only to be drafted out of his first semester and sent to Vietnam. On his return, sobered by war, he realized, “I was too young to be a Beatnik, too old to be a hippie.” A lot has been said about how those returning vets were treated, but Wilson’s service qualified him to return to college on the GI Bill.

Over the next 10 years, as the apprentice grew to a journeyman, he learned some surprising, paradoxical things about his new profession. One of the best ways to learn a thing is by teaching it. The thing that defeats most would-be artists is loneliness: the need to sacrifice normal life and society in order to work. Yet Wilson, who thrives on solitude, found that just getting into the studio was an uphill battle. “You have to fight for routine studio time. The world doesn’t want you to be alone. Imagine you have a hundred friends,” he reasons, “and each one of them wants to buy you a drink. Now for each of them, that’s one drink. But YOU have to get through a hundred conversations, and down a hundred drinks!” Even however exaggerated, the metaphor is as accurate as it is vivid. Nor were distractions the only problem. In California in the ‘70s, as in New York and other densely populated art scenes, something unprecedented was going on: something that artists had no control over. Some observers consider it the inevitable effect of modernism’s relentless attack on values, which continued even as unquestioned values became almost extinct. Others blame the influx of money into the market, as art became a symbol of wealth and status among a rising class of super-rich consumers lacking taste or discernment. Whatev- er the explanation, the art that mattered came to have less to do with beauty, individual experience, and emotional response, and more to do with shock, novelty for its own sake, and the bizarre idea that art is just another commodity suitable for conspicuous consumption.

And so, after five years of temporary teaching while eyeing the stratospheric end of the art market up close, Wilson took Olpin up on his offer, only to find himself in a very different environment. On the one hand, unlike schools that impose a single, fashionable approach to art making, the U of U encourages artists from LeConte Stewart to Paul McCarthy. Over the years, Wilson’s colleagues have included Alvin Gittins, Paul Davis, David Dornan, and Doug Snow, whom Wilson recollects in yarns one wants to write down for posterity. They, and those who have followed them, embody a lively debate on how best to make art, but agree on a few basics: that values are inseparable components of art, as is the pursuit of quality. And while James Joyce thought part of exile must be cunning, Wilson found salvation in the fact that no matter how long an outsider lives here, he or she remains an outsider, or at best what villagers around the world label an “incomer.” One could argue that Wilson, who hadn’t been native since Kansas City, traded a world too much with him for one that left him alone to create. At least he needn’t worry that everyone would want to buy him a drink.

Looking back over the decades, Wilson muses that he was “a liberal” when he arrived, but has become conservative next to today’s young artists. In some ways, that’s inevitable: an artist’s work grows organically, while radically new art comes from new artists, like those street rebels who brought graffiti into the galleries in the ‘80s. In another way, though, it’s just not true. Wilson wasn’t a typical Cool artist when he left California, nor has he adopted Utah nostalgia. His innovations have not been outmoded: just overlooked.

All his early works are in private hands; even the painter who mocks himself for having “the largest extant collection of my own work” owns none. Fortunately, a pivotal collection, marking the transition from his formative years to mature work, is on permanent display in Salt Lake. A close look at the Stations of the Cross at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City will reveal some things. First is his focus on appearances. His drawing testifies to long contemplation—clarifying, memorializing, prayer-like. And second, he juxtaposes those consecrated objects in ways that further emphasize their visible identities. Either he fragments them, layering the parts into visual puzzles that allegorize the way ideas form in our minds, or he keeps them whole while detaching them from the surroundings. Here he invokes cubism while incorporating a running commentary on the varieties of representation; there, over time, he focuses on the figure and gradually omits the background completely.

The Stations also show the waning influence of Southwestern Art, which had become a vogue during Wilson’s college days. Desert soils, indigenous plants, and iconic animals participate thematically in scenes from the Crucifixion, playing roles that later will be taken over by masks, neckties, mock handwriting, and false teeth. His search for what amounts to a Post-modern Jesus led to a far greater discovery. Presenting a different historical era or ethnic identity in each scene of a narrative was hardly a novel idea at the time, but in researching the historical image of the Crucifixion, Wilson, who calls himself a “closet art historian,” discovered what mainstream art historians had left out, which was to become the springboard for his own art.

Any genuinely new art form—like the optically convincing, wall-mounted paintings that replaced moveable altarpieces in Florence during the Renaissance—will initially display great vitality: there are no rules, and everything remains to be done. Italy in that era is certainly art’s most-studied, best-known place and time. Perhaps that is why attention has focused on its heroes. But it was the figures in the background, overlooking the miracles while going about their mundane tasks, that intrigued Wilson, as they had W.H. Auden. Just why these witnesses fascinate him is key to understanding the dramatic tension that engages the viewer of his work and brings the encounter to life. The historical progress of two-dimensional abstraction is the lure, the eye-candy that initially captures the eye, but it is the conversation, sometimes in wordy dialogue, more often in facial expressions and bodily gestures, that truly pays off.

Although his first love remains the Italian Renaissance painters he discovered while researching the Stations, Wilson draws on the entire history of subjective representation, increasingly mixing cultural and stylistic conventions in a single painting. The world, and everything in it—including our thoughts and memories—being fully dimensional, the artist’s challenge has always been to represent its complexity. His claim on us is that he wants us to see it like he does. So he jams together not only as many objects, but as many ways of showing as he can, manipulating them to simultaneously show and flatten space, making all things as equivalent in the mind as they are in the eye, before the mind sorts them.

In addition to a powerful new way of seeing, Thomas Edison created a timely metaphor when he invented moving pictures. Modern music has been called “the soundtrack to the movie in your mind,” and recent pictorial art is often compared to a film still requiring each viewer to imagine the rest of the story. Wilson’s paintings are also moments taken out of context, but not from anything so obvious as an unspooled movie. Rather, his illustrations—he is not afraid to use that term—work backwards, the pictures (another unfashionable term he feels comfortable with) preceding the text and calling the words into being—often literally in their margins. Like all real artworks, they proceed from impulses and only discover what they’re about as they go.

Treading quietly through most Utah galleries, you might imagine you hear wind whistling through weathered crags, wooden wheels creaking as they cross the prairie, the soughing of domestic animals, a distant choir intoning “All is Well.” Not among Wilson’s paintings, though. They bring to mind clashing self-expressions. Some are vocal: conversation, meetings, a marketplace, a cocktail party. Others display fashion, or debate what is natural. Then the loosely–delineated spaces in his paintings come to resemble nothing so much as a theatrical Green Room, reserved for actors in a historical pageant: a drama that features all of humanity, costumed as they saw themselves, enacting itself in real time. In this ambivalent space, the actors, already masked and made up, break character just enough to reveal their thoughts and feelings. Their maker often stands with them, frequently wearing a vaudeville disguise: false nose, shaggy eyebrows and mustache, all attached to empty eyeglass frames. Sometimes his head splits apart, multiplying in a cubist array or cinematic replication. Much of what he beholds confounds him: especially some of what passes for art these days. A banana peel, tossed on the gallery floor at the behest of a visiting art star, prompts his verbal response in a cartoonist’s thought balloon, written backwards because this portrait was drawn in a mirror. Nor can a limp, disemboweled peel stand up to this immortal, painted one, given perfect form by the artist’s brush.

Illustrators take someone else’s stories and give them visible form. Artists create visible events we viewers turn into stories, which otherwise have not been told yet, and come into being only through discovery. It’s not a subtle distinction: one of the frustrating things about galleries today is how often one meets efforts to illustrate some scientific or philosophical notion that literally captured the maker’s imagination. Wilson’s art, even when trivial, never lacks that originality. So, why those private drawings, the ones kept in portfolios in his studio? With his mild, self- deprecating manner, Wilson has always fought a guerrilla war against the way art history is hijacked by non-artists. When not only art, but also music and literature were force-fed Minimalism, he responded with his ‘maximalist’ manner. But what happened next cannot be so directly confronted. The invasion of art by obscene, gravity-warping amounts of money brought with it a layer of middle-managers: curators, dealers, and collectors more interested in the cash value they can generate than the rewards its audience used to count on. And they can sneer at efforts to defy their hegemony. But those sheafs of drawings present a classic, demotic response. Like poetry, graffiti, or the comics they resemble, they fly their message under the radar. Whether those archaically splendid drawings see the light of day sooner or later, they will stand as one man’s act of resistance: Sam Wilson, thumbing his nose and saying, as artists have always said for themselves and for us, “I exist.”

Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.

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