Going out into the big world: that’s Sam Walker’s paintings in this exhibit called SOIL SAND SURFACE.
Danielle Susi, the fiber artist whose work appears like crafted landmasses between Walker’s large paintings, tells us with her embroideries that all our life continues due to continents, continents which hold us up above the sea.
Walker, in paintings titled “Place to Place” (a tiny tightrope walker, walking between two cliffs), “Where Nobody Else Exists” (one swimmer churning through water), “Red Forest” (flagrantly red-orange maples bigger, much bigger than giants, two tiny figures below) gives us our dilemma: in a world so big, how do we stay brave? And our answer: by facing hugeness, by doing brave things.
In “Alone Time,” one canoeist is alone atop the giant lake. Walker doesn’t make this easy for us: he refuses to fill foreground with trees or shrubs or sides of houses to make us feel the very small person who has chosen to go out alone in the canoe is nestled, contained, made safe by other enclosing and side or foreground objects.
In Walker’s paintings are big, pleasing expanses of keeping-true-to-color: there’s barely a variation in the serge blue or the teal or the tan or the black of large expanses of land; these color chunks are as humble and effective and pleasing as big colored wooden puzzle pieces are for children.
All the better, of course, to show off small figures: small figures engulfed by nature, but proving they can make their way through “the urgency of the natural world” (the curator’s statement for this show). In “Red Forest” two little figures walk beneath a tree-line of giant maples; you might be very sure the person leading the way can do so because her shoes are the precise burning red-orange of the enormous trees behind her. In color language, you’re hearing the promises of fairy tales: she’s wearing shoes the maples gave her; she was meant to be here and to lead. Those huge trees — they are on our side, her side.
Are Sam Walker’s paintings, in this way, like sports therapists, encouraging one to visualize how to successfully maneuver against an opponent? Or, are they one artist facing the troubling and joyful and necessary reminder to one’s self that, as artist, they are always alone? Or, like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, is it the urgent story of man versus nature?
Our hands, however small, conduct courage. Look at the cupping, somewhat ferocious hands of Walker’s one large figure, a female swimmer (“Where Nobody Else Exists”): one hand’s up, surging for forward traction in the water; one’s down, getting ready to wheel itself back up through the froth of white bubbles created by the speeding swimmer. Our hands and arms are paddles of our body’s canoe. Look over to the tiny tightrope walker between cliffs in “Place to Place” — one arm’s thrown up, that hand, too, sculpting, challenging the air. Other hand waits its turn, its turn to balance and lead.
Persevere, practice, say these paintings: then comes strength and grace.
Look to Susi’s embroideries — on muslin, small in scale — between Walker’s painting and you see she’s given us a way to look straight down at land. It’s land-grant; she’s continental. There’s the fat twist of trees in “Limus Terra” and “Magis Terra.” Dark greens and sages and lichen greens abound; there is even preserved moss in some of the pieces, and glass beads in “Magis Terra” gleam like bluish fish eggs, an ethereal caviar among twisted threads and wool, a treasure glimmer of stream or lake.
In other, flatter, pieces (like “Pratum” and “Triticum” and “Anguis”), the flat-profile sheen of Danielle Susi’s embroidery thread predominates. Sometimes they create fluted edges almost like edges of shells, or like bird wing or fish fins. If “Anguis” is symbolic of landmass, it’s an island like a coiled snake, patterned with zigzag repeating shapes and lines like those in/on American Indian pottery pieces.
Walker the painter’s canvases hold men and women in indistinct knitted caps and swimming caps and hoodies and swimming suits; their attire distant and plainly colored. And Danielle Susi’s work on plain soft muslin also make you think of clothes. Wool and cotton and moss which spring from field and forest, surrounding us with privacy and protection, giving us reassurance, comfort and courage wherever we go. You are of the land, our clothes remind us; and the land’s with you.
Danielle Susi & Sam Walker: SOIL SAND SURFACE, Bountiful/Davis Art Center, through Dec. 20.
Rebecca Pyle is a writer and artist in Salt Lake City, living in a house the telegraph operator for The Salt Lake Tribune lived in a hundred years ago. She really is a journalist, as her short stories, poetry, and paintings appear in Remembered Arts Journal, Raven Chronicles Journal, Stoneboat Journal, and Requited Journal. And reviewed: her writing and painting are in New England Review, Wisconsin Review, and Roanoke Review. See rebeccapyleartist.com.