Canvases of fabrics that emerge from the ceiling, but behind them there is a hidden philosophy. These are the art works by Sam Branden, an American artist currently based in New York but with a nomadic touch. Sam decides to go further, to refine his art, also studying as a self-taught and learning to sew. With a noble look, Sam is interested in the residues of city life, upholstery fabrics to give it a second life, creating a collage of stories. Sam's works do not have a clear statement but they certainly break into everyday life, create question marks whose answers are different based on whoever looks at them.
We met Sam and asked him about his creative path and his vision on art.
The work isn’t ever based on research, nor does it rely heavily on concept…it’s a combination of autobiographical instances and my own general aesthetic instincts and queries.
Hi Sam, tell us who you are.
I’m a 28-year-old artist, originally from Cleveland, Ohio.
Tell us about your first steps in the world of art.
My mother is an artist and saw some inclination I had toward art early on, and always
encouraged me. My Grandfather on her side painted these incredible illustrious scenes from out west in the desert where he lived, so seeing those when I was young really stuck with me as well. But I feel what steered me down a creative path the most was growing up entrenched in skateboarding. The music, the city, the griminess, and of course the fashion and style of it all really drove me into thinking that you can do things how you want, you can express yourself, and there’s usually a risk involved. I ended up studying at a vocational fine art program in high school under Maureen Covatta, who taught me so much and guided me into art school in Columbus (Columbus College of Art & Design, CCAD) where I studied for four years before moving to New York.
How would you define your art?
Almost everything I make is some form of collage. That leaves it open enough.
What are the materials you use most? Which ones do you prefer?
Over the last several years, I’ve been deconstructing and hand-sewing thrifted clothing, upholstery fabrics, and various scavenged materials, to make things that are sometimes sculptures, sometimes paintings, and sometimes (or maybe always?) both. I’m becoming increasingly interested in transforming spaces through installation, and the possibility of implementing new media as well.
What message would you like to convey?
My work lacks an acute statement, but what I’d hope it does is raise questions and create a multifaceted conversation about the references and realities that inform it. The work isn’t ever based on research, nor does it rely heavily on concept…it’s a combination of autobiographical instances and my own general aesthetic instincts and queries. Each piece or body of work can operate with a different attitude, and I hope to carve out my personal space while attempting to synthesize with our time in some way.
A culmination of experiences filter in and out and inspires
Tell us about how your work of art was born.
In undergrad in Columbus, I used to make very large-scale figurative scenes and
landscapes painted in oil. When I graduated and moved to New York in 2014, I
immediately abandoned working that large and with oil, and began making smaller scale, geometric abstractions on canvas. I began visiting galleries in the Lower East Side and Chelsea and quickly realized I was wrapped up in a painting trend I needed to separate myself from. A lot of the imagery that inspired the paintings I was making were 1980s and early 90s Polo Sport designs and palettes, so I decided why not use these actual materials? I taught myself a few basic hand stitching techniques and began to thrift jackets and jerseys, while also collecting fabric, burlap, and linen. Overtime, this media has shifted and grown greater meaning to me. Though I still make stretched works, I gravitated away from using stretchers and was more focused on creating large-scale tapestries, which have since morphed into what I’m fussing with now in the studio. In retrospect, the abstract work has come full circle and enables me to discuss elements of landscape and figuration at the same time, among other things.
Is there something you are inspired by?
I’m really interested in the action and residue of city life, and have always been fascinated with street fashion, graffiti, and east coast hip-hop, before I actually moved myself into the center of it. On the contrary, I also look to my roots in the Mid-West, the outdoors, and aspects of the natural world, such as physical traits of animals and their behaviors. All of these things are connected and inform each other…”everything is everything” – Prodigy (rip). A culmination of experiences filter in and out and inspires me. For instance, I grew up with my mother running her own upholstery studio/business out of the basement of our home, while also coaching travel soccer. I think that example sort of sums up what I mean.
The show itself was very ominous, and explored fractured realities pertaining to the body, morality, and (as a whole) facade. The show had a dense air and underlying serious tone, and each work seemed to quietly confess more secrets the longer you stayed in the gallery.
How many hours do you spend a day in your studio in the Bronx?
My lease in the Bronx was up right in the midst of uncertainty and panic as Covid ramped up in New York, so I moved back to Cleveland to be with family and escape the larger crowds. I have a new studio just east of downtown now, which has been a life-saver. Back to your question about my Bronx studio, I wouldn’t stress to be in the studio for a set time everyday. I find myself working in spread-out sprints. I’m most productive in my studio when I’m feeling juiced about what I’m working on, or when I’m excited about new materials I’ve collected. One thing I’ve heard people tip-toe around is working a day job, which, like almost every emerging artist I know who isn’t independently wealthy somehow, we all have to do. I worked for a wallpaper company between 40/50 hours a week with long commutes everyday, so that greatly affected my output in the studio. But, that’s how being a young artist in New York is, and you still have to make your rounds and stay informed on what’s being shown in the galleries, and you better show up for your friends openings. Currently while I’m back home I work in my studio something like every other day for six or seven hours at a time.
Let's talk about your posted works. Realism or abstraction? Where does this need
When realism enters the work, it comes from me missing the challenge and labor of
painting observed imagery, because most of my work is about constructing, sewing, and augmenting shards of fabric into bigger things. The last few examples of when I painted like this were all animals. I use them as cultural symbols (in relation to family, defense, recreation, fashion), but they also possess unique abilities with showcasing emotion, which animals always express candidly and deliberately.
What is the exhibition of your works in which you felt satisfied and happy?
One that comes to mind is “The Day The Clown Cried”, a three-person show of myself,
Claudia Cortinez, and Charlotte Lagro at Bible Gallery in January 2019. The show came together very organically when Andre Yvon (the director and curator of Bible) visited my studio in Sunset Park right after visiting both Claudia and Charlotte in the same day. Bible was a gallery in a roughed out cellar space in Chinatown, painted all black, with the fluorescent lighting hung as a large crucifix. The show itself was very ominous, and explored fractured realities pertaining to the body, morality, and (as a whole) facade. The show had a dense air and underlying serious tone, and each work seemed to quietly confess more secrets the longer you stayed in the gallery. My piece “Glaciers of Ice” was a one-of-a-kind piece for me, and one that was sort of challenging to accept, but muscled a way in and held its own, I suppose. I was honored to show with that group, and have kept in contact with everyone involved since.
Tell us about the latest Of Ash and Ice project at Wick Gallery in Brooklyn, NY.
“Of Ash And Ice” was a solo show by Sidney Mullis we hosted at Wick Gallery back in
February. Wick is a project space run by myself, Christine Rebhuhn, Logan Myers, and Sol Erez in Bushwick, Brooklyn. A lot of Sidney’s work has to do with coming of age and reimagining/reinventing/rethinking the role of objects, especially in terms of ceremony, and how that evolves as one ages. “Ash” and “ice” imply changing states of matter, which metaphorically parallel a lot of the conceptual DNA of Sidney’s practice. At Wick, we always attempt to intervene and enhance the installation in the space somehow. In this case, it involved meticulously placing a multi-part piece to create a flow that partially barred and partially guided the viewer to the rest of the show, and then treating the floorspace near the sculptures with grave stone dust collected by Sidney. Working with Sidney was great, and we were so happy to install some magical and very laborious work from her in our modest space. Covid has temporarily halted Wick from proceeding, so I’d like to say how much I miss working with all of you, and how much working on all of those projects has meant to me.
The work examined the feeling of being stretched thin, reaching, maxing out, which is exactly how I felt at the time. The works hung as quasi-tapestries, with nylon appendages that shifted and pulled the work into distorted, and at times anthropomorphic, stances.
Is there a project you care a lot about?
My solo show “Splay” from September 2019 at the Art Academy of Cincinnati definitely
meant a lot to me. I had just moved to the Bronx after several years in Brooklyn, and was readjusting my life a bit. I really isolated myself at that time and created all of the work in the show over the course of that summer. The focus was to push the physical limit of the nylon material I have been obsessing over, and to get excited about creating new shapes. The Pearlman Gallery at the Art Academy was the biggest space I had ever had to myself, and I wanted to traverse corners and to hold down large sections of the gallery with single pieces. The work examined the feeling of being stretched thin, reaching, maxing out, which is exactly how I felt at the time. The works hung as quasi-tapestries, with nylon appendages that shifted and pulled the work into distorted, and at times anthropomorphic, stances. Recognizing the clothing and fabric that compose the surfaces ultimately grounded the work with a sense of familiarity, and the show felt very honest, and human, and fun.
How do you feel when you collaborate with other artists, what do you learn new
I recently collaborated on a single piece with Brooklyn-based artist Henry Swanson. I went to his studio, cut up a gigantic painting (oil and spray paint on canvas) he had, and remixed it with clothing and fabric I had collected. One session in the studio, we stretched the piece together, then got a beer. Other collabs brew longer and require a lot of planning. Some of my most memorable and longstanding collaborations have been with Christine Rebhuhn when we were curating shows together steadily at Wick Gallery. Each show was a new challenge, with organizing studio visits, selecting work, sharing references, writing press releases, constructing concepts around the artists work, and rethinking new ways to push the installations. Each time I learned the same things in different ways, which were “this was harder than I thought”, “there’s more to this work than initially meets the eye”, and “try to keep your cool when under pressure”. It was a lot to take on, was all paid for by the members of Wick out of pocket, and was done to build community and provide a platform for hard-working artists we admired. Every show was a fulfilling experience.
Would you like to exhibit your art in Europe? What do you think is different from
Sure, I’d love to. In paying attention to the Euro gallery scene over the years I’ve seen a lot of innovation, perhaps more so than America, but hard to definitively say. I’ve also heard there are a lot of grants and opportunities for public sculptures and installations in certain cities/countries, which allows for work to be pushed and observed in ways that otherwise would never be possible. As of now, I’m not the most qualified to answer that question as best as one could, but that’s my take.
Do you have any future projects ?
Actually, I’m moving to Europe! Right now I’m focused on relocating to Glasgow, Scotland in September, and continuing to progress my work into new territory. I’m anxious to see how the world adjusts over the next year, and am hoping for the best.
Follow Sam's work on Instagram.
Interview & Article by
Vivian di Lorenzo