A Conversation: Sam Reveles
Sam and I sat in a coffee shop a day before he left from his residency at the University of Texas at Dallas residency program, CentralTrak. His residency produced new paintings and drawings for his solo show, Aran, currently on view at Talley Dunn Gallery. Speaking of his early years in LA, Reveles recalls an integral moment. Beginning from there, Sam and I had a conversation. – Arthur Peña, Dallas Contributor
Sam Reveles: Something that happened in LA that was formative was that I saw a Mark Rothko retrospective in the late 70's and I had no idea who he was. I didn't know much about art. I didn't know that he was dead. I didn't understand exactly what a retrospective was. Anyway, I saw this show and it was hung chronologically. So if you know the work, the black and grey ones were at the end. I left feeling things that I had never felt before in my life. In a way, it was kind of devastating. I was laid bare when I left. I was studying environmental design at UCLA at the time but after that experience I realized that I needed to face the facts and focus on art.
Arthur Peña: I remember seeing a late Rothko as a child and feeling super bummed. I didn’t understand why that was happening. It embedded an idea of what was possible in painting. But that’s a good start to talk about your work. I can remember seeing your work early on and thinking, “this person must not only love Painting but they must love to paint.” I think that is a very direct read and in some ways, very obvious. So, why painting? What I really want to ask is why do you love painting so much?
SR: Well, I want to go back to something you said about Rothko when you said you were feeling "bummed". I wasn't feeling bummed necessarily. It was that the feeling was otherworldly. The paintings seemed very real. The way he was handling paint. What he was doing when everything was stripped down to the bare essentials and to experience something that was so refined was a revelation. I had seen different kinds of paintings before and admired them to varying degrees but what Rothko achieved with paint, color, composition, etc. was truly enlightening. Back to your question, I love painting, all kinds of painting...
AP: Is it the history, is it its resilience, the fact that it can take whatever you throw at it?
SR: I don't know. It's just my passion. But I look at a lot of things.
AP: What do you look at?
SR: I'm aware of what's going on around me but there isn't anything in particular that I can say.
AP: Do any of these things make it back to the studio with you?
SR: I think some things do. Right now it's about being out in the more barren parts of the world. That's what I'm enjoying. Being in the landscape. That's affected me, definitely.
AP: It’s interesting that you mention environment. You’re Juarez paintings and the paintings in your current show Aran take the show titles from specific places. How do those paintings function for you? Are they a remembrance of a place and time?
SR: Is it homage to a place?
AP: Yeah, is it?
SR: I don't know, maybe. If I were to briefly state it, it would be that I am trying to comment on or say something about the energy of a place. And the energy being affected by many things like the quality of light, the weather, the geography...everything. It is things that are hard to specify or articulate... the "feel" of a place. And even the colors in the new work are very mineral; grays. This exhibition is different from previous ones because the palette is very much about that. Right now gray is resonating with me quite strongly. It's fascinating but it kind of doesn't exist; or exists in terms of degrees or context.
AP: I mentioned to you earlier how bright I thought your show is. Not just relating to the gallery lighting but those paintings were, in a way, reflective. The earlier work that I’ve seen is really dense in marks. Each one of them was like a vacuum that sucked you in. These paintings felt very surface oriented…
SR: Very open.
AP: Yes, these felt so much more open. I’ve never been to Aran Islands. Knowing that these works came from you visiting Aran and after seeing the show I began to wonder how much sunlight is in this place. Was there a certain brightness there that you were pulling from?
SR: Well, the intensity of the sun is different from here. The light quality is much more diffused. The brightness that you're talking about could be because these paintings are light colors against a dark background. Some get very pale, very white on a dark background and some cling to light in a way.
AP: These works in particular are very loose and not as compositionally tight; I think I even saw some drips. In reading about your work, the word “attack” kept coming up. Some say that you would “attack the canvas.” I never saw your work this way. I thought you were aggressively caressing the material. What do you think about this idea in regards to the new work?
SR: Maybe initially I was doing work that was more like this attack thing. In the early work, many times, I was tearing through the paper I was drawing on. They could be seen as more aggressive. I was also moving material around with my hands and with rags, really using my body.
AP: Where these on the ground or stapled to a wall?
SR: Stapled to the wall. But what it came down to was trying to be physical, to spark some energy into the work. I was thinking about how I could bring life to the painting by moving paint, hitting it; by pressing it onto the canvas until you got some kind of image that spoke of life and showed that it was alive somehow. I think in the back of my mind I still might be working that way. In the new paintings I am establishing a space that I can literally and metaphorically move around.
AP: So the new pieces weren’t made on the floor either?
AP: How did those drips happen?
SR: Sometimes I have a second thought about things. It's like a note that I was there, like a record of a presence. When I make a line or gesture or whatever I'm noting that I was there. And it builds so it’s a long record of presence in the space. Some marks, I don't know how they got there, and I like that. A lot of times my eyes are not glued to the brush. I don't want to know where it's going but I do decide whether it's going to stay or not.
AP: Why is this record of presence important?
SR: Very early on my relationship to the canvas was important for me. I remember staring at the canvas and thinking; “what motivates me to do something to this beautiful white canvas? How do I make that my space?" I would go through a lot of strategies to personalize that space for myself. Early on, the sizes of the canvases related to the size of my body. I had paintings that were the size of my arms or my torso. They were unstretched and pinned to the wall, so they were like skins. And then I remember the color palette was all based on the color of my skin. That was very important. Later, I started copying Old Master paintings; painting them very thinly and using them as under paintings which would take me weeks to make. I would then start to work on top of them and make notations on them. It made me hyper aware of what I was doing. It wasn't a throw away mark. For these new works the under painting is done in sections. Each section is a series of Roman numbers painted on top of one another like writings on top of one another. There are at least fourteen layers of Roman numerals and that is what builds the density. Sometimes the paint is very transparent and sometimes more opaque and I do that on every section. Some of the paintings have twelve sections, some up to twenty sections.
AP: So it’s important to set a structure that then becomes something for you to work off of. Even with the new work in relation with the under painting, it matters that you’ve given that initial energy to feed from.
SR: Yeah, I’ve used various strategies in order to touch the whole canvas, to get a sense of the space of the canvas; then I go all over it. It's a way to start thinking about how you're going to deal with it. The Roman numbers are just lines really and are based on previous drawings that I did many years ago.
AP: I have to ask you, is your work exhausting to do physically?
SR: Sometimes, yeah.
AP: Do you think you will be able to make these paintings forever?
SR: After a session I do think about it. You can't go on all day. It's such a physical activity. I like working in spurts of a few hours throughout the day. It's a constant back and forth.
Aran is Reveles’ fifth solo show with Talley Dunn Gallery. Reveles has had numerous solo shows that also include CRG Gallery in NYC and Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. He has also participated in national and international group shows and in 1995 Reveles was included in the Whitney Biennial. His work is in the permanent collections of museums that include Centro De Arte Contemporaneo, The Dallas Museum of Art and Whitney Museum of American Art.
Arthur Peña is an artist, writer and professor currently living and working in Dallas, TX.