Mental Escape is a series of live interviews exploring how the art world responds to today’s challenges. Live-streamed from Flash Art’s Instagram, Alexandre Stipanovich interviews artists, curators, gallerists, critics, and collectors about their hopes, fears, doubts, visions, and projects they are dreaming of pursuing once the dust settles. This series took place during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Welcome to the fourth episode with the artist Sam Falls.
Alexandre Stipanovich: Hello Sam. Where are you now? How does it feel?
Sam Falls: Hi. Thank you for having me. I’m in my studio — East LA, down kind of ten minutes east of downtown — for the first time in, I guess, five weeks almost. Yeah. It feels strange. I’m kind of used to this duration of leaving, but usually I come back with a van full of artwork. It’s funny to come back and have it feel kind of quiet and solitary still. You know? Usually, if I’ve been gone for this long, there’s a big energy coming back into it.
AS: Is this the parking lot situation? Is it next to that still?
SF: That’s in Pomona, where I made the larger works. That was just an open-air, eighteen-wheeler storage lot that I rented for a few years. And now I have a place that’s kind of in the high desert where I work outside. And I mean, usually I’m working all over, but certain times, when there’s a big project that I want to know won’t be interrupted — because sometimes they disappear, and sometimes I can’t have them disappear.
AS: Tell me, how does it feel for an artist like you who likes to go outdoors and spend lengths of time outside in nature? How do you reflect? How do you manage?
SF: Yeah, right before the quarantine I was on a trip, because I kind of felt the stay-at-home coming, and so I went for a week out to New Mexico and Arizona, just driving and going to different national forests, down into Texas a little. And that was also strange because the national forests — often where I go, deep into the forest, you don’t encounter many people. And when you do, it’s more standoffish: “This is where I am. That’s where you are. Let’s keep our space. I don’t want to talk.” And this time it felt more like these secluded spots with isolated people, searching out isolation, wanted to talk. They wanted to get a sense — from someone coming in that they hadn’t seen, coming in from civilization — of what was going on.
I had a couple people who, when I was in a spot for two or three days and they were camping maybe a mile away, would come over and talk, which was totally abnormal. And in a way it felt nice, that immediate sense that I believe people are also seeking out right now, of community. Even out there, in isolation in the woods, it felt like there was a sense of a worldwide issue happening, and not just this kind of every-man-for-himself libertarian thing that I often encounter.
Then, when my wife called me and said that the preschool was closing and the nanny had to go home, I came back. And it’s strange, because I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I kind of thought, I have a camper van that I usually go out working with that can sleep the two little kids, and my wife and myself also, so I was like, “Oh, we’ll just go.” And then the national forests kind of got shut down, and also, to be smart about it, we’ve stayed home. And as long as I steer clear of full-blown anxiety, I feel okay. I enjoy isolation.
AS: You don’t have a call of the wild or a longing for…
SF: I do, oh for sure. But that’s constant. And especially with two kids, I realize I don’t get to satisfy that as often as I’d like. And so it’s just always there and waiting. And working at night, I work in the backyard now every night. And it’s pretty much the same. Once the sun goes down and you can’t really see beyond twenty feet, it could be anywhere.
AS: Yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about your work and how it would be hard for someone like you not to be able to be interacting with your material, which is nature, but apparently you can. But I was thinking about the Vivaldi Four Seasons project. On the one hand, it’s a sound experiment, which is not your main practice. And on the other hand, the cloth on the ground, too, receives rain, sun, pigments, tires, to make almost like a pictogram, a photogram of nature, leaves, flowers, or branches, happening live. I realized that they were a little bit of a one-to-one scale — in time with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the one-to-one nature of the objects. Right?
SF: Yeah. And that question kind of brings everything into perspective, and what I’ve been thinking about. And like, what you say about “the call of the wild” and all of that. I mean, I think that’s often perceived because my work these days is so nature-oriented, and, especially in the national forests, it seems like that is my commonplace setting, like in my studio. But really, I worked in nature from a very conceptual agenda in the beginning, like studying photography in grad school in New York, and feeling at the time, like 2009 really, when there was this big push of abstract photography and everyone was using darkroom methods or large-scale inkjet printing. And as I studied that and became accustomed to the material and the medium, it seemed to be pursuing that medium-specific agenda that painting had, that led to the death of painting and postmodernism. And so I was more under the influence of early photography. Kind of thinking backwards about how to jump forward — as is often useful in art.
Like the conceptual photography from the ’70s and moving into the Pictures Generation, which was an initial draw for me going to California. But also just to drop all of the professional techniques of photography that were really being highlighted. I thought, “Well, what if I get rid of these but still have the same sort of goal as any photographer.” Which would be using light and time to express place and history, or the present. But then it unites you — once you get rid of the camera and the darkroom or the inkjet printer — more with a larger artistic goal of whatever it may be, since the beginning of time, to express the universal themes that come up, i.e. life, death, love, and, I think, nature and your surroundings, which perpetually are going to be the most meaningful things in human life, despite any technology such as photography.
So, going to California on trips. But before I moved I would leave works out in the sunlight, fabric and such, which led to the Vivaldi pieces, and realizing it would take about a year at least for fabric to fade in the sunlight, so it became kind of like this long-term photograph. And also I was really, and still am, into Robert Smithson and these things of the site and non-site. And one thing that always bothered me about photography is no matter what you took a picture of, no matter where it was or what it was, it was translated onto this glossy or matte paper, and unified in addition. And I really wanted to figure out how to get to that primary source, that could be shared from my experience to the viewer, and forevermore.
Long story short, we moved to Topanga and I was originally just using things that would be both abstract and super descriptive, kind of like Rosalind Krauss’s Notes on the Index — thinking about the symbol, and then the sign, and then the index. Originally I was staying at a house on a construction site. I used two-by-fours, this common building block of at least Western and American civilization, literally. And then it also had this [Barnet Newman] kind of zip line. And then I used tires because that was such a… the size of a tire is so descriptive, but then it’s also a perfect circle.
And then our neighbors in Topanga were these kind of ex-hippy, strange, local music teachers in Topanga, and they heard me playing music a lot when I worked outside in the back yard, and they gave me these two crates of records that were naturalist symphonies mostly. And they were like, “Oh, you love nature, you work outside.” And it was, the best example being Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. And I always liked the idea that I could use any material with fabric, to use something, have the substrate match the subject matter.
For the two-by-fours, I was out by CalArts in this place, Val Verde. And the house I was staying in had prayer flags, so I hand dyed an organic muslin to match the kind of vibe. And then with the Four Seasons project and the symphonies, I got this bedazzled fabric that had an operatic feel, knowing I wanted to spotlight the final installation at Franco’s [Galleria Franco Noero]. And so, or wherever it went, because that was before I was working with Franco even.
The original idea was just to put the records on the fabric and leave them there for a year, and that I could match the fabric to the subject, and then the color to the record. And I put the twelve-inch LP vinyl, with the sleeve, so you had the circle and square. I was looking at this one Ad Reinhardt painting specifically, the black-on-black that has a circle and a square. And so compositionally it was all perfect. And then as I was doing it I had this idea of the timeline — it was going to be a year at least to leave it in my backyard, and I was looking at everything, I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great to take Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and have it play throughout the installation?” And this thing that seemed like such a simple idea, where I would take a recording and slow it down, in whatever program on my laptop, I couldn’t do it.
And I had this kind of little record label starting with a friend in Brooklyn, and he’s a wizard with music and works with producers. But when I would slow it down, I wouldn’t have enough… it would just go blank and my computer would crash and they’re like, “Oh yeah, you need a longer recording.” Sorry, this is such a long answer.
SF: But we took, he got a tape, it wasn’t like an eight-track, but it was old, it was bigger than regular tape, bigger than the eight millimeter. I forget what it was. But he played it in his house for three months slowed down at whatever he could get it to, two percent. He messed with a tape deck and recorded that digitally, going from the analog to digital, so he had three months of information. And then that created enough digital information to slow it down to twelve months.
But by then you had this very low drone sound. And so we worked with this violinist in New York who has perfect pitch, and they kind of brought the whole thing back up to its natural register. And then, we’re sitting on seventeen terabytes of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, which has several movements within each season. And each season ranges in the movement, ranges in time. But I wanted it to match up, so say that it would change on the solstice and the equinox exactly. And this was 2015, I believe. Or no, it was 2013 to ’14.
And then I met Franco and I told him that I had this idea to install a show, but I needed it up for a year, and he was like, “Yes, we’ll do it for a year.” And that was when I was like, “Oh great. I’d love to work with you, what an amazing guy.” And that’s when we started working together, and the show was up for a year, 2015. And we had built this supercomputer to handle the seventeen terabytes, because in order to have it keep going on and on, just be digitally rendered for the seasons changing to the year of 2015, because they change on different days slightly every year, we worked with a programmer to take the information — he created a software program that runs through the world clock and is hooked to the internet and is constantly processing the sound to line up with the clock as it changes. And it took like three years, the simple idea that I had in five minutes of, “Wouldn’t it be great?” You know? And it was crazy.
But by the time I finished that, the fabric was finished and it kind of all came together, but it was one of these things. And that really, to me, was the nascent element of working with nature. Before that it was tires and two-by-fours. And then thinking about the four seasons, and I remember that winter in Topanga it started raining. And I was like, “Well, I had moved to California to the sun. Now how can I work with the rain outdoors?” And where those sun prints were kind of these large-scale, long-term photographs, working with the rain became more like a large print, like using an inkjet printer or something, or monoprinting. And at first I used the firewood that was in our yard, and this pigment on terrycloth.
And then it kind of… I went to Vermont, and my mom has this field there, where I grew up, it’s all ferns, so I used the ferns. And coming back I used the palm fronds. And so it became this site-specific project that kind of kept going. And that’s how I ended up deep in nature.
AS: So this Vivaldi Four Seasons project is a year-long track? Where can you listen to it? Is there a way to do that without crashing?
SF: Well, no. I wish, we wanted… I own a website, Four Seasons Forever, and then I haven’t ever gotten it back up. We need to condense it. It’s one of these things where the people I worked with are so fetishistic about the sound quality that they’re like, “Oh, you’d lose all this stuff.” And to get it to run through Wi-Fi, or whatever. But I’ve been working to compress it. Right now it’s just the two supercomputers. One that’s in Italy somewhere, and then the other one in my studio.
AS: So it can be only live?
SF: Which is in my bathroom. Yeah, I put it in the bathroom because you can — it’s nice, you go in and it’s always a different pitch. But eventually I want to get it online. And there is the book that Flash Art put out.
AS: But I find it fascinating that your art is trying to scale to the scale of one, which is the planet, and with a year-long soundtrack. I find this pretty fascinating. But so you let nature operate in your work, and I was just curious, when would you decide to intervene? Is it just at dawn, for example? Do you decide at dawn? Or do you have a certain time? Or do you just decide by looking at the artwork? What’s the end for you?
SF: Yeah, that has changed of course. When I first started with sun works, it was kind of perennially and whenever I could get out to California. And I had things on people’s roofs and in their backyards, so also when they were like, “You need to take this.” And it was always kind of as long as possible to get the most drastic shift in color from the sun, which was usually a year or two years even.
And then with the rain prints, it’s really the course of a storm. Originally, that was how it was, and I would use a single plant to relate to the area, like the ferns at mom’s house. And so I’d set them up, like cut a swath of land, put them down on the canvas, and then put the pigment on and it rains and then, when it’s finished, I leave it until it’s dry. And you can’t really move it or else the print gets shifted. If it was a heavy rain, the image would be more abstract, but it becomes a picture of the environment, too. And that was really the beginning of the project.
And then I kind of moved on to other things. I felt like conceptually I had accomplished this. And then I did this project at the Hammer Museum, where I went to every national forest in California. And that was this thing where I had a specific goal, but if I was out in the middle of Klamath, which is the northernmost forest, and I had driven two days to get there, and I had a baby at home, I couldn’t, if it didn’t work, come back next week, so I had to make it work. And several times, if the image got rained out, or it didn’t rain, I would do another exposure. And that’s kind of what developed into doing multiple images on the same canvas, of the same place.
And I realized there, too, that if I did more than one exposure, the first exposure to a storm would kind of get fuzzy and washed out, and the second one would be sharper and it kind of created this depth of field. And that’s when I started incorporating more of a landscape imagery, because I could do one of, say, trees and leaves on the first exposure, and then the next night, or next storm, do the undergrowth and flowers, and have more of a depth of field and a horizon in an image. Still, I’ll leave it until it’s dry. I can’t move it. But sometimes it’ll be weeks.
Sometimes I’ll return, too, like I did this one recently that was outside for three years, because it got snowed on and I couldn’t pick it up and it was this twenty-foot piece. And then the winter came and I couldn’t move it and I had to go back the next summer, and it developed into this piece. And that’s also kind of why I shifted to linen sometimes instead of canvas, because it’s more rigid. So all these things keep developing.
AS: But so, thinking of forests, because you did a residency in Finland where you exposed some of your canvases, and in Vermont, in California, do you think you get a signature of a forest? Would you be able recognize… would you be able, by looking at the biology, or by looking at a forest and the ecosystem, what type of painting it would give you?
SF: I think so, and I seek that out. Before I go, now that I’m primarily working in national forests for these, I’ll research what plants I’m looking for, and kind of drive all over for a day until I find a place that I can both camp and work with those plants. Along the Southwest, for example, I went at that in early March, late February, early March, because that’s when the wildflowers were blooming and you find those ones that are specific to the area, as well as cactuses and stuff. There’s a general, like, Southwest versus Northern California — you really see it shift.
And then also it becomes interesting if there are species like the aspen tree that runs almost all the way across the Western states. The indexical plants are really nice, and then also finding the shared things between parts of the country has become also interesting. And it’s, you know, they’re both there.
AS: And what about the moon? I read that you were planning on working with some moon influence… Got a new direction?
SF: Well, it’s funny you ask, because there’s a project that I’m working on right now, that I feel like I hadn’t told anyone about, but I did do a moon project prior, where looking at the cycles of… it was right after the Vivaldi piece, too, to have something that was… like thinking kind of, whenever I am thinking about a new project it begins with how, still, this sort of photographic impulse of representing a duration. And even thinking — I’m always returning to these kind of photographers like Robert Adams and Ansel Adams, who both have very beautiful shots of nature at night, and capturing that movement.
I’m thinking about working with the moon, but I’m not going to use just a camera… and I’ve also begun trying to work, as I’ve developed, using natural pigments. I’ve also started using beeswax and thinking about encaustic and been drawn into this, too, like looking at Brice Marden’s work and that idea of the process, and time, and wiping away, and adding whatever. I had all this beeswax and I was pigmenting it in the studio, not really sure what to do with it. And then one night I made the shape of a moon out of the wax on the wall, and they were candles essentially, and I lit them up and photographed them, and then I made the print right there on a digital printer and put it under it and let the wax burn down onto the print of this kind of fire full moon. And so you got sort of a full line across the print, because it was a full circle.
And then as the moon waxed, I kept rearranging the candles and reprinting them, so I ended up with these twenty-eight prints of the moon cycle for October, which was the month I was doing it then. And the wax that dripped on it sort of had almost like a tide receding. And that’s what kind of also drew me to starting to work with the tide and the ocean in these paintings.
AS: Yes, because there’s moon, sun, rain, but also oxidation and salt in your work as well.
SF: Yeah, well, I know. That’s kind of also… when I started working, my wife Erin does ceramics and we had a kiln, and so I started working with ceramics, partly because of the earth and also I’m working with gemstones, healing crystals, which sort of took on… after she was doing Reiki and we were living in Topanga there was this person selling crystals, which I thought was funny at first. But then reading about it and getting more interested in these colors that come from the earth, and they’re also really related to the place. And I started working with marble, like doing a project in Italy, and these stones that really, the same as plants, can be so site-specific. And then even clay too, depending on where it comes from, depicts the color. All of these things, sort of on different ends of the spectrum, can really artistically unite pretty quickly.
AS: When I was interested in doing ethnomusicology and traveling to Papua New Guinea to study the birds singing, and going through different communities there, one ethnologist told me that deforestation is a big problem today. But not only for biological things — like we’re losing species, we’re losing oxygen, and we’re losing all these things — but it was a big problem also because of a potential lack of poetry, a lack of inspiration. That nature was actually a well for human inspiration and that without nature we will dry up, our poetic wealth will dry out.
And I think one of the things that you bring with your art is that constant connection with nature, that it’s a route into our poetic source. Nature has a poetic source.
SF: Yeah. Did you go to Papua New Guinea?
AS: I ended up not going, no. I went to South America instead. It was a cannibalistic area, so it was taking a long time, several years, to get a visa. So I decided to take an easier route.
SF: Yeah, that’s a funny thing though. Like, I studied physics for a few years in college before ending up in art and then going to graduate school to study art. But when I was studying physics, part of the reason I ended up switching, kind of slowly… I did a classic thing where I had a crisis after a few years of physics and math. And I studied Buddhism and went to Southeast Asia for four months, and lived in China and then came back and started studying art because it was kind of the only thing that made a natural sense to me.
But when I was studying physics, part of my original interest in it was the mathematics and the abstraction of space and theoretical physics, and how you can explain the smallest and largest elements of the universe through this language. But slowly, as I learned more and more — and you kind of have to focus on one thing, and you realize this abstraction becomes so distended and detached from the universe, and after a while you’re just in this white room doing math all the time and working with machines and computers — that’s kind of what led to a crisis and realizing that even mathematical and theoretical physical abstraction, which seems like more of a hard language, is almost much more abstract than abstract art. It sort of lost a connection to nature and reality.
And I think that’s really interesting what you’re saying about nature, because I get so afraid of the future of living on Mars, or if you see people talking from the International Space Station, it just looks disgusting, like, the wires. And I get physically nauseous thinking about being detached from the world and living in a sort of technological product. And I think that mimics sort of my trajectory in the work I’ve made, and working with art. Where originally I was interested in video art and photography, and now just like with straight pigment and canvas out in nature, but that’s what makes the most sense to me. And I think nature and death seem to be the only things that can hold my attention and inspire me perfectly, day to day.
AS: Yes, but I would say your interest in physics and in Buddhism, for example, is vivid in your practice. We could see optical experiments and also subtracting yourself from the artwork as Buddhist practice as well. It feels very consistent throughout.
SF: Yeah, and I think that thing, there was something I read, I think it was one of those, like, Osho or someone saying, “Civilization is essentially a clearing in a forest, and the role of poetry, and art, and literature, is to send explorers out from that clearing and then return.” Which, I think, is kind of true. And the fear, too, is making that swath of civilization so large that there’s nowhere to explore.
And that ties into things I think about a lot too. With what I do, originally a big inspiration and catalyst for going west was land art and, like I said, Smithson and these people who were doing big projects out in nature. But quickly, as I saw them for the first time, and going out, like, when you see Donald Judd’s Marfa, and especially like the aluminum boxes, it seems so against nature too, and even begins to have this sort of manifest destiny feeling of this masculine insertion into nature, and it’s not going to change, and it just felt so cold. I kind of wanted to switch more to a camping metaphor of going out, being inspired by nature but then leaving no trace. You know?
AS: Yeah, maybe Smithson is about leaving an imprint, whereas you create more of an echo chamber in a way. But it’s true that I don’t know why we’ve been opposing the poet and the scientist. One’s only tool is intuition and the other one is logic. But maybe they could compliment each other. And I think in your practice we find a little bit of both, so I find this very interesting.
But so, would you like to be an extension of the Light and Space Movement?
SF: I would like to be. I mean, I love the Light and Space Movement, but again, that comes also to a very medium-specific halt in a way. I feel like sort of where they ended, with Turrell or Irwin and the physical objects, the early Irwin and the early Turrell even in the echo chamber, and when Robert Irwin was doing more philosophical studies and driving around the desert and tracing lines in the sand, literally, and leaving that as an artwork, I find goes to this sort of zero. I think the most important part of art, what the artist gets making it and the viewer receives looking at it, is an idea. And so the invisibility of light and space, the idea in that sort of ground zero, when they were talking about it and meeting with NASA and things like that, that sort of interstitial space seems really inspiring.
But the actual, where Turrell is now making Roden Crater, I don’t find as inspiring. Or even the idea of the Lightning Field, it’s like the idea of it is less great. And I think that even with my work, the paintings are great, but the idea of making it and the books I’ve made are just as important, definitely for me, but also for the viewer I think. Not as a process, but as an experience of how it’s made, and where it’s made, and maybe inspiring to go out. You know?
AS: Could you tell us a little bit about your last body of work at the High Line, or at Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis? Are they interactive also?
SF: Yeah. That work with ceramics and the amount of, really, the gemstone work I was doing, where I was collecting gemstones and then making really a terrazzo that at first was kind of monolithic. But they are healing gemstones, and even the combination of colors and their meaning will be something translated to spiritual healing, but also it’ll be good for heart disease and blood, so each one has these really specific physical properties. Of course, no one would touch them once they were installed, so I made them into different forms like a bench or even the beaded curtain, so you were forced to interact with them.
And those terrazzo works led to the ceramics and embedding plants into the clay and then burning them out. And yeah, for the High Line, because I’m in Los Angeles, they were sort of seasonally Fed Ex-ing me plants overnight from the High Line that the horticulturists would trim, and then I would put into the clay. And then we’d ship them back and put them in the railroad ties that have been salvaged from the original High Line. And then to walk under them, so that you’re sort of there. And they’re through the season, so even in the winter you have this image of the summer and the different plants coming up and blossoming. And then the same for St. Louis.
AS: Yeah, I mean we could go on and on for hours. I have a ton of questions, but maybe I’m going to let you go. Just for us, would you have any good records to recommend right now, or any book, or anything exciting you’ve discovered in the past few weeks that you’d like to share?
SF: Yeah, well, one thing that I’m thinking a lot about is this book This Life by Martin Hägglund, a Swedish philosopher. I started reading that a couple weeks ago, and it’s sort of about finding secular religion in both literature and economics. It’s this sort of post-capitalism that’s further breaking down. But it’s very much about accepting a finite loss, or finite life and loss, and it’s really beautiful. And it speaks to — I think it’ll speak to any artist in a real way, about why you’re making art, or why you’re viewing art. I’m a big believer in sort of the spirituality in art, that’s not tied to religion. I think you’re going to have some spirituality in any form in your life, and definitely for me it’s not religion but it’s art, and that’s what you dedicate yourself to, and this is a really good book about how to think about that.
I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest for a second time. I read it the first time at eighteen. And the president creates subsidized time by companies, so you have Year of the Whopper, which all of a sudden doesn’t seem that far off.
And just, like, they’re shooting the trash into Canada. That book has a nice comic tone to it, even though it’s apt now. And then I try not to listen to my usual Nick Cave, because it gets a little dark. That Bob Dylan song that just came out got me back into a Bob Dylan trip — that new Bob Dylan, “Murder Most Foul.” I’ve been listening to that a lot, and Dylan, and I’m making a playlist for Dia.
AS: Oh, that’s great. One last question: how did the crisis impact your different projects? I saw you have a show opening in Torino. How do you readapt your projects?
SF: Yeah, well, it’s the first show I’ve installed via Skype. I was supposed to fly to Turin, fly to Milan the day they stopped travel. And the show is up, it’s online at Franco Noero, and it’s kind of really bittersweet, because the work is there and it’s this wonderful space, Piazza Carignano, the space downtown in Torino, but I can’t go. So it’s a really strange feeling. It highlights everything now in that work, which is largely based around life and death, and using physical appearances in the work, so it’s kind of heavy.
I was supposed to go to Japan next month for a month, to work on a ceramic project there, and that has been postponed. I was supposed to go to Italy and Japan. And I have a show that I’m working on now for 303 in the fall, and I was really going to drive across the country. That trip I was supposed to continue all the way to Maine, and I had to turn around doing the national forests. That one will be more like the Southwestern national forests, and then incorporating works… You know, it shifted me in kind of an exciting way, to just work at home, kind of the way I started out, and working on smaller works, and I’ve been planting more plants to use. Nurseries are essential businesses, so they’re still open, which is great. You can support your local nursery. I think shifting the work in a more domestic turn. But also, I think for everyone, it gets more serious also: why you’re doing it, what you’re doing with your time.
AS: Well, thank you so much Sam for your time.
SF: Yeah, thank you. It was nice to talk to somebody. And keep doing these, I’ll keep watching. It’s great.