The art of Kevin Blythe Sampson



Kevin Blythe Sampson photos of my work By John Foster Outside the Lines Design Observer

Kevin Blythe Sampson
Spawn of the South, 2014
Mixed Media
16 x 20 x 14 inches
Cavin-Morris Gallery

John Foster

Outside the Lines

This weekend marks the twenty-fourth showing of the Outsider Art Fair in New York, one of the world's most exciting art fairs if you are looking for art that is authentic, honest, and surprisingly fresh. It has taken nearly a quarter of a century for this fair to mature into what it is today, thanks in part to new ownership by Andrew Edlin, who has become one of the power players of the field. That said, you will never meet a more down-to-earth or friendlier person. The Outsider Fair began in 1993 as a celebration of art that had, for too long, been bypassed and largely misunderstood by the rest of the art world. This was art that did not fit neatly into defined boxes, and before 1993, struggled to find a market.

The fact is "outsider art" has always been an evolving form. If we go back to the early twentieth century, there were a few visionaries who did much to bring awareness to the genre. Sidney Janis (1896–1989) was one of the first American art dealers to champion the work of what was then called “primitive artists.” His book They Taught Themselves, published in 1942, was one of the first serious books to take on the notion that serious art could be made by everyday people. It took on the idea that artists could be self-taught. 

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this art was called “folk art” and was characterized by exhibitions and early publications showing Limner painters of colonial times, weather vanes, quilts, and cigar store Indians. It was quaint and charming, but nonetheless important for what it was. In his book, Janis pointed out that important art was still happening within that earlier context—but what he had discovered was decidedly different. Though he represented leading avant-garde European and American artists, it was Janis who introduced an array of self-taught masters such as Morris Hirshfield, John Kane, Joseph Pickett, Anna Mary Robertson (Grandma) Moses, and Horace Pippin. At that time, Janis had such influence in the art world he could promote just about anyone he wanted, and he used his clout by making others aware of art by the self-taught. 

Europe had its own recognition of this art, with Jean Dubuffet and André Breton collecting art within a genre they called Art Brut (quite literally “raw art”). The art they collected were by so-called psychotic individuals who existed almost totally outside of mainstream culture. This was, to these two artist/collectors, “unaffected art”—art that welled up and manifested itself from sources unknown. And while the term art brut is still used today—the meaning of that and the term outsider art is very close in definition. 

Aside from Janis, it would be a mistake not to mention Otto Kallir (1894–1978), who established Galerie St. Etienne in New York, in 1939. Kallir was Grandma Moses' dealer, and he promoted her (and others) throughout her life.

It would be more than thirty years, in the 1970s, before Janet Fleisher (1917–2010) and John Ollman began showing exciting new work by self-taught artists like Bill Traylor (his work sold for $100 apiece then) and Sister Gertrude Morgan, in Philadelphia. In Chicago, during that same period, it was now retired art maverick Phyllis Kind (b. 1933) who began showing some of the same artists, as well as work by the Chicago Imagists like Jim Nutt, Ray Yoshida, Roger Brown, and others. 

By the 1990s, the evolution of this art was in full swing, with many galleries and collectors from around the world exhibiting it, researching it, and art magazines devoted to it. 

So, as we celebrate the 2016 Art Fair, it’s good to look back at just how long it has taken for this art fair to fully develop. As longtime art dealer John Ollman told me for this article, “I’ve long been over calling this work by this name or that. It’s just art. We show art we that we like.” 

The 24th Annual Outsider Art Fair is being held now through Sunday at The Metropolitan Pavilion at 128 West 18th Street.

A Dialogue with Kevin Sampson

A Dialogue with Kevin Sampson

Kevin Sampson has an enormous talent for creating powerful works of art that are empowered and beloved by his community. Sampson, a self-taught artist, found an early penchant for drawing while he was a law enforcement officer in the City of Newark, New Jersey. His adeptness at drawing the human figure led him to become a police sketch artist, which was a very in demand position within the force. Later, Sampson’s skills at forensic sketching would be harnessed in Wanted, a project by artist and activist Dread Scott that created fake police wanted posters that expose the racial profiling used by law enforcement agencies.
Fruit of the Poisonous Tree. Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York.
Sampson’s work is largely connected to socially engaged themes including identity politics, war, and civil rights. A major motif in his work is the memorial. He creates intricate vessels from found objects that have personal significance to either Sampson or his subjects. These vessels become spiritual energy containing the collective consciousness of the community at large.
In 2013, Sampson’s epic installation An Ill Wind Blowing, encapsulated the frustration of a nation and the broken American dream. The ship’s three sections represent the glaring socio-economic divide of the United States.
The front of the ship represented the large corporations, the middle represented the social elite, while the rear symbolized class struggle and racial disparity. The vessel also featured a “basketball hoop” where visitors could write their own political frustrations on a sheet of paper, crumple it up, and throw it into the fishing net resembling a hoop.
In 2015, a giant mural called Fruit of the Poisonous Tree, which was painted on site at Andrew Edlin Gallery’s former space in Chelsea, took on a myriad of complex issues that concern both himself and his community at large. From his days serving and protecting as a police officer to his current work as an artist, Sampson has always been in tune with his community. Today, he’s well known in Newark for his public art as well as being a devoted teacher and involved with many neighborhood events.
Kevin is a busy artist these days with solo shows and projects across the country. I recently had a chance to ask Kevin a few questions about his work and what drives his inspiration and vision.

Do you consider yourself a Humanist artist?
As I understand Humanism, it’s about giving value to humanity by working in concert with human values, all the while understanding that all humans are to be treated with the same understanding and respect.
If this is the case,  then this does apply to how I live and work. I am a community based artist, one that feels a responsibility to that community and people in general. As an African American it is a natural fit, as I seek to highlight the hopes, dreams, and problems of the (world) community as a way of staying in the fight, for the rights of all.
The Madjet….The Kron-Printzen, a slave ship. Courtesy of Cavin-Morris Gallery, New York.
Do you consider the figure to have a vital role in your art? 
Rarely, most of my world uses other means to feature the human condition. I tend to construct vessels, which illustrate a political thought or a spiritual connection, to either this world or the world beyond.
What is your artistic studio process like?
I am not a studio based artist “I live with my work” meaning that I don’t have a set place to work (I work all over my house.). I don’t set aside time for the studio, instead I work outside, inside and all around the town.  I am a process orientated artist; I work by reading by my constant contact with the public. When I finally construct my work it is already done in my head. And I rarely have the need to see my 0wn work after it is done.
Do you feel that contemporary art should have a commitment to issues that affect our daily lives? 
I have been teaching for over 30 years one of the things that I do, is make my students read the news, to follow it religiously. To become acquainted with social issues and causes particularly if they are artists of color. I do feel as though the world is sorely in need of protest and commitment to the many issues that affect this world. But I don’t expect every artist to have this commitment. But I do like it when they do.
 You take on very direct issues in your work, what are some specific reasons that you’ve chosen to address and create a visual dialog for these issues? 
I am the son of a civil rights leader, my father Stephen Sampson who was a self taught historian drilled into my siblings and my head commitment to civil rights of all. So it’s in my DNA and my father haunts me daily and keeps whispering in my ear his desire that I continue to fight for African Americans in particular and all people in general. Its just how I roll, religion and politics are interlinked in my head through the history of the African American.
Your work often has a prophetic vision of the future. Can you describe how you react and interpret the current state of the world into your sculpture and drawings?
What I really try to do is to “spirit Necklaces of a vanquished peoples magic”, meaning that through my work, with out being obvious, I try to create objects of power that show the problems of the world, while offering artistic solutions that cause these problems to transcend their circumstances. I attempt to create beauty where this is none as well as retrieving objects discarded by my community in an effort to give this objects (which hold memory) a new life…a new voice.
The USS Mr. Imagination.  Photograph by Jeffrey Machtig. Courtesy of the John Michael Kohler Art Center.
What’s next on the horizon? Any new shows?
I show constantly, I am currently showing at the outsider art fair this weekend, at my gallery of 23 years, Cavin-Morris Gallery’s booth. I have another show at Cavin-Morris Gallery, NYC in March.
I am showing in Philly with Philadelphia Sculptors on board the USS Olympia docked at Philly’s sea port in June. I have been giving the ships chapel to create an installation inside of.
I am also working on a Major Public art piece, for the Power Company PSEG (McCARTER Switching station) a new building with a strong public art feature.
The city of Newark and its Mayor Ras Baraka are creating a wonderful Public space at this site, it is being administered by Danny Simmons of Corridor Gallery Brooklyn and Victor Davson, Director of Aljira Gallery in Newark. I will be creating a 14 foot sculpture (along with a group of artists) that will be permanently installed on this site at Fairmount Ave in Newark.

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Cesar Melgar Stalking Brick City by John Foster

John Foster

Stalking Brick City

As a lifetime resident of Newark, New Jersey, twenty-nine-year-old photographer Cesar Melgar grew up on its gritty streets in the company of skateboarders and graffiti artists. These early cultural influences are still very much a part of his life, as he continues to be a part of a positive creative scene in a city that has been known for its share of urban problems. 

One look at his photographs and you will see that Melgar has the ability to prowl his familiar Newark streets with the stealth of a cat, at ease in places outsiders may not want to tread. Whether it is a photograph of hardworking people waiting for a morning bus or walking the alleyways at night, Melgar delivers an inside look at the places he is most comfortable in, the places he considers home, and contrary to popular thinking, “home” is not an easy topic in the arts. Home has the ability to overwhelm one with nostalgia; to hide in plain sight the problems and dysfunctional parts you know all too well; and to veil itself as something more soft and palatable for outside eyes. Melgar falls for none of that. What he delivers as a photographer is an unvarnished look at his home—the city streets. 

Melgar says he now lives “practically in the shadow” of The Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils hockey team. “When construction started in 2005, hundreds of families were uprooted and displaced by the building of that arena. My neighborhood was flattened—bulldozed for a surface parking lot. Can you imagine? During those years my friends (the neighborhood skaters) and I banded together to survive. We squatted in an abandoned warehouse. We fully furnished it and sourced everything from nearby homes and used it as a space which we desperately needed (a skate park, a place away from our displaced homes.) This building was our ground zero and we held onto it for about two years. My documentary photography really started at this time, and while wandering through the buildings, I ran into a gentleman who later curated the first group show I was in at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2007. This time period was very special to me, and really informed what I love to photograph until this day. The photos I shoot today took root during this time.”

Melgar received his first camera more than ten years ago through a high school program, where students were given free instant cameras (with expired film) to go out and photograph what they wanted. “I used the free cameras to photograph my friends at the skateboard parks. It was that early teacher, Yoland Skeete—that provided the spark I needed as a visual artist.”

Today, Melgar belongs to a close-knit collective of artists and friends who lend support, people he considers extended family. But artists who find success, a word with many definitions—find it by pushing their own personal limits and working hard to give meaning to what they make. Melgar is on the right path—his own path—and appears to have always has been.

Bodega Cashier | May 2015

Untitled | May 2015

Untitled | July 2015

Cannibal City | July 2015

Untitled | October 2012

Untitled | November 2014

Untitled | November 2013

Untitled | July 2013

Untitled | August 2015

“They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” | July 2015

Untitled | October 2012

The Icee Lady | July 2015

“With FiOS you feel like you’re on the island being here.” | August 2015

Saturday, 6:50 am | August 2015

Untitled | May 2015

Untitled | September 2012

Untitled | September 2012

Untitled | May 2015

Tourists in Newark | July 2015

A mural for a young man’s passing gets covered by construction | July 2015

Self-portrait | 2007

All images © Cesar Melgar

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Hyperallergic ArtRx NYC by Jillian Steinhauer on August 11, 2015

Last Chance: Last Andrew Edlin Show in Chelsea
When: Closes Friday, August 14
Where: Andrew Edlin Gallery (134 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan)
Andrew Edlin’s space in Chelsea — and the Bellwether Gallery space before it — was always a little awkward: an entryway followed by a hallway, then the proper gallery (which is small). But by the sheer number of shows I’ve seen there, I’ve developed an admitted attachment to it, and Edlin’s final show there puts it one of its best uses. The exhibition features directly-on-the-wall murals by seven artists, including a gorgeously enigmatic installation by Saya Woolkfalk up front that stops you in your tracks on the street.
 But it’s Kevin Sampson’s piece in the back that swiftly steals the show; dense, frenetic, and razor sharp, the work is the most stunningly potent piece of political art I’ve seen in a long time.


Two Chelsea Galleries Go Wall Out for Summer

Chris Doyle, "Everhigher" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Chris Doyle, “Everhigher” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)
‘Tis the season of reduced hours and low-stakes group shows at most Manhattan galleries, but two spaces in Chelsea are bucking the trend with summer exhibitions of large-scale murals. Andrew Edlin Gallery, as a final hurrah at its Tenth Avenue space before relocating to the Bowery, has mounted Anthems for the Mother Earth Goddess, a show of seven site-specific murals and installations reflecting on environmental and political issues. Meanwhile, for Hello Walls, Gladstone Gallery‘s 21st Street and 24th Street spaces have been transformed with wall-filling paintings, drawings, collages, and text pieces by 16 artists. Though they have the mural format in common, the shows are aesthetically divergent, with many of the artists at Edlin taking an approach that’s more maximalist and overtly political (per the exhibition brief), while the works at Gladstone are, for the most part, subdued and supersized formal exercises. But a few more risqué or outright unhinged works in the Gladstone exhibition (I’m looking at you, Raymond Pettibon) make for some pleasantly surprising echoes and overlaps between these two summer affairs.
Saya Woolfalk, "ChimaTEK: Future Relic" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery
Saya Woolfalk, “ChimaTEK: Future Relic” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (click to enlarge)
At Edlin, the first work visitors will see — indeed, it’s such a gripping sight through the gallery’s glass façade that it probably compels countless passersby to come in — is Saya Woolfalk‘s sci-fi installation “ChimaTEK: Future Relic” (2015). But with no explanation on hand about the post-apocalyptic cosmology informing the artist’s aesthetic, the piece’s environmental message may not come across. Lining the gallery’s long hallway is Peter Fend‘s “Olya” (2015), a scale rendering of a submarine designed to convert the plastic particles floating in earth’s oceans into energy with text explaining how the sub will herald a new global economy based on recycling. It suffers from the opposite problem of Woolfalk’s work: too much explanation and too little to look at.
The gallery’s back room is the real draw here, especially the three enormous murals by Kevin Sampson, Brian Adam Douglas, and Chris Doyle. (A fourth, “Present Tense” by Rigo 23, is a capable infographic listing the eight countries that still don’t have mandatory paid maternity leave, the largest being the United States.) Douglas and Doyle both imagine epic flood scenes. The former’s piece, “The Rain Dogs” (2015), is characteristically surreal, rendered entirely in black, white, and gray, and reminiscent of the photos of devastation wrought by hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. Doyle’s polychrome painting, “Everhigher” (2015), features a sci-fi metropolis that is either a city-sized water park, or in the midst of a devastating flood. At the center of the composition, a statue resembling Vladimir Lenin stands atop a water slide in the shape of a coiled dragon.
Detail of Kevin Sampson, "Fruit of the Poisonus Tree" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery
Detail of Kevin Sampson, “Fruit of the Poisonus Tree” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (click to enlarge)
Both are fanciful and superbly executed renderings of engrossing alternate worlds, but neither can compete with the intensity of Sampson’s mural, “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” (2015), which seems to encompass nods to every contemporary environmental, political, social justice, and economic issue in the US. Four Klu Klux Klan knights at the bottom of the composition are branded with “Monsanto,” “Keystone,” “Fracking,” and “RNC” (for the Republican National Committee), while the ailing tree that stands at the center of the wall is marked with the sites of recent police murders of black people including Ferguson, Staten Island, and Baltimore. Swastikas, Confederate flags, and crucifix-shaped oil wells punctuate the mural, whose constellation of words and figures also includes a robotic bovine deity reminiscent of the sorts of creatures that inhabit Woolfalk’s videos. It is the most powerful and comprehensive portrayal of the state of things in the US circa 2015 that I have seen, and the prospect of its loss when Edlin’s building is demolished to make way for condos is alarming. (Perhaps the American Folk Art Museum will pursue an emergency acquisition.)
Raymond Pettibon, "No Title (Arts and letters...)" (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Raymond Pettibon, “No Title (Arts and letters…)” (2015) at Gladstone Gallery (click to enlarge)
Almost any mural would look safe and subdued by comparison, and the works at Gladstone are no exception. That said, a few pieces in Hello Walls do make a strong impression. Amid the summery fodder at the gallery’s 21st Street space — the sunny rings of Ugo Rondinone’s “vierterjunizweitausendundfünfzehn” (2015), the orange and blue splatter of Arturo Herrera’s “Come Again” (2015) — Raymond Pettibon’s  “No Title (Arts and letters…)” (2015) is full of manic energy and strange, disjointed imagery. At the core of the piece, which includes Johnny Rotten fellating a satanic unicorn and a father-son wrestler duo sparring, is a half-formed idea about the breeding of athletic talent and sporting dynasties. The enigmatic result is by far the most compelling piece in Gladstone’s 21st Street building.
On 24th Street, things are not much different, and it’s Wangechi Mutu‘s “A planet full of Snakes” (2015) that stands above the rest. (Although a Sol LeWitt wall drawing from 1980 unexpectedly emerges as Hello Walls‘s most seasonally appropriate work, its trapezoid of yellow lines on a blue and red backdrop looking alternately like a pier jutting into the ocean or a beach towel spread on the sand.) Even Kara Walker‘s wall piece “Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Civilians” (2013), though it’s the only explicitly political work on view at Gladstone, reads like a recap, or, true to its title, a sampler. Mutu’s mural, meanwhile, features an orb of collaged snake bodies with no heads — some of which seem to be spouting blood — and motorcycle parts. The rest of the wall is scattered with disembodied snake heads, their neck stumps marked with splatters of crimson paint. This scene of interstellar reptile genocide makes nearby murals by Daniel Buren, Jeff Elrod, Karl Holmqvist, Neil Campbell, and others look painfully dull. The only thing that could make Mutu’s contribution better is if she had given the piece the seemingly obvious pun title “Snakes on a Planet.”
The contrast between Hello Walls and Anthems for the Mother Earth Goddess may simply be the product of having been produced by two very different galleries. Nevertheless, it’s thrilling how politically engaged and elaborate the murals at Edlin are, while those at Gladstone offer a more purely visual kind of satisfaction from their formal experiments with color, texture, and imagery. The scant overlap between the two makes for interesting comparisons — or, at least, an enjoyable summer aesthetic fling.
Wangechi Mutu, "A planet full of Snakes" (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Wangechi Mutu, “A planet full of Snakes” (2015) at Gladstone Gallery (click to enlarge)
Detail of Chris Doyle, "Everhigher" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Detail of Chris Doyle, “Everhigher” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery
Brian Adam Douglas, "The Rain Dogs" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery
Brian Adam Douglas, “The Rain Dogs” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (click to enlarge)
Kevin Sampson, "Fruit of the Poisonus Tree" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery
Kevin Sampson, “Fruit of the Poisonus Tree” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (click to enlarge)
Rigo 23, "Present Tense" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery
Rigo 23, “Present Tense” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (click to enlarge)
Detail of Peter Fend, "Olya" (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery
Detail of Peter Fend, “Olya” (2015) at Andrew Edlin Gallery (click to enlarge)
Ugo Rondinone, "vierterjunizweitausendundfünfzehn" (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Ugo Rondinone, “vierterjunizweitausendundfünfzehn” (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Arturo Herrera, "Come Again" (2015, left) and Michael Craig-Martin, "To Go" (2015, right) at Gladstone Gallery
Arturo Herrera, “Come Again” (2015, left) and Michael Craig-Martin, “To Go” (2015, right) at Gladstone Gallery
Detail of Raymond Pettibon, "No Title (Arts and letters...)" (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Detail of Raymond Pettibon, “No Title (Arts and letters…)” (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Lawrence Weiner, "LANGUAGE + THE MATERIAL REFERRED TO" (2010, left), Kara Walker, "Auntie Walker's Wall Sampler for Civilians" (2013, right)
Lawrence Weiner, “LANGUAGE + THE MATERIAL REFERRED TO” (2010, left), Kara Walker, “Auntie Walker’s Wall Sampler for Civilians” (2013, right) at Gladstone Gallery (click to enlarge)
Detail of Wangechi Mutu, "A planet full of Snakes" (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Detail of Wangechi Mutu, “A planet full of Snakes” (2015) at Gladstone Gallery
Sol LeWitt, "#333: On a blue wall, red vertical parallel lines, and in the center of the wall, a trapezoid within which are yellow horizontal parallel lines. The vertical lines do not enter the figure" (May 1980) at Gladstone Gallery
Sol LeWitt, “#333: On a blue wall, red vertical parallel lines, and in the center of the wall, a trapezoid within which are yellow horizontal parallel lines. The vertical lines do not enter the figure” (May 1980) at Gladstone Gallery
Anthems for the Mother Earth Goddess continues at Andrew Edlin Gallery (134 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 14.
Hello Walls continues at Gladstone Gallery (530 West 21st Street and 515 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through July 31.