Interviews

Sam Roeck

Sam Roeck talks about his time-bending self-portraiture

Sam Roeck, bed2, 2001/2021, silver gelatin print, 11 x 14".

Sam Roeck’s second solo exhibition at New York’s OCDChinatown, “Sam Roeck, Sam Roeck.,” features a dozen black-and-white photographs of the artist at sixteen along with eighteen new graphite self-portraits the thirty-six-year-old completed during quarantine. The small gallery also houses two inverted sculptures of staircases replicated from Roeck’s childhood home in Chicago, emphasizing the cozy and claustrophobic work of exploring the self. The show gives an intimate look at the practice of an artist who splits his time between managing Nicole Eisenman’s studio and teaching drawing at Hunter College.

I TOOK THE PHOTOS in this show when I was sixteen. I had taken an intro to darkroom photography class in high school and then the summer after I was just playing with my dad’s Pentax camera. He was a photographer when he was younger, and we had some photos of his hanging in our house. We had this photography book that said there are three types of composition that you can use, and you have to have a bright white and a dark black, and a big range of grays. . . All of those things were still very present in my mind during the editing of these photos and also now in making anything. I had an art teacher in high school who told me this mathematical formula for how far back from a work of art you’re supposed to stand. It’s so deeply embedded in my mind: You take the diagonal and multiply it by three and then that’s where I stand. All the drawings that are in the show were hanging on the wall of my studio while I was working on them. I was doing Zoom therapy in that room as well. I would lay on my daybed and look at the drawings while I was doing therapy and figuring out what was wrong with me, both in my mind and in the drawings. That time was really helpful.

The photos themselves are completely rooted in 2001—the upstairs of my parent’s house, being sixteen and full of feelings and really thinking that these photos were going to express those feelings. I’m acting in them but behind that acting there is also something genuine. I’m acting melancholy or sad or pouty or pensive but I also know that I was those things. My nephew has a chart showing various facial expressions and I feel like that’s a lot of what being sixteen is about, like, I have this feeling, now what do I do with it? So much feeling in those images, not a lot of thinking. So that’s the thing: I get to add the thinking now.

I think having those portraits that I made when I was sixteen in the show makes me feel like I can be more vulnerable with what I’m making now. I also realize that that sixteen-year-old’s head would explode if he knew that he was having a show as an adult in Chinatown. I now have distance from this work, having lived twenty years after making it and now looking at it again. It stays where I made it. But I can now objectively edit those photos in a way that I could not have done at the time.

View of “Sam Roeck, Sam Roeck.,” 2021, OCDChinatown, New York.

There are oblique references to time in the show. Drawing in itself is a reference to time. It’s a compression of hours, days, months into a singular object. I have a working theory that the present doesn’t exist, that there is just the movement from the past into the future, and we can kind of throw these things down that link the two together. That’s the thing I really like about art: You get to connect with someone through time. You get to look at what X person was thinking 50, 200, 1,000 years ago, and you kind of feel like maybe you understand them a little.

I invented a new mindset that I’m calling pasture in which I envision my mind as a kind of pasture and my feelings are sheep. When a feeling comes up, like depression or anxiety, I imagine it as a little sheep that’s depressed or anxious and I’m like, It’s ok, go play with the other sheep. Sometimes the sheep needs to be cuddled or it needs to run and get its Ya-Ya’s out. Pasture is being present, at least in my own head. It also makes me a little not-present in the rest of the world. Pasture is just about giving thoughts and feelings space to bounce around and do what they want and need to do. That's a little bit of what's happening in the drawings: I let them do what they need to do and move in many different directions. 

The two staircase sculptures in the show make the gallery my childhood home, and they make the gallery feel like there’s something on top of it and next to it. I remember looking at the stairs in my parents’ home for hours; there was something really satisfying about running my eyes over them. The flipped ones are the ones you can sit on and they have outlets on them that you can plug things into. They have outlets because I was like, How do I return function to this form? It’s nice to stick an outlet on something.

View of “Sam Roeck, Sam Roeck.,” 2021, OCDChinatown, New York.

I have a tenderness for this work that I didn’t have for the work that I made before I got sober. It’s easier for me to engage with this work, both the pieces individually and the narrative of the show as a whole. I stopped making things difficult. When I intentionally think about narrative it always feels forced. Most of my thinking happens when I’m riding a bike. Riding a bike is kind of like flying on a broomstick. You’re hunched over this bar and zooming through space. It’s easy to think that way. Thinking when I’m walking always feels like it’s not me doing the thinking. Rock climbing is too mentally involved to be able to think while you’re doing it, which is why I like that, but it’s not good for ideas. It’s good for getting away from ideas.

I listen to audiobooks when I’m working and biking and certain sections of books will stick. There’s a drawing that’s attached to a Ted Chiang short story. I listened to The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson a lot while working on these because it’s my go-to comfort book. It’s not a comforting story in the least, but I’ve listened to it so many times that it is for me.

The way I imagine people write novels is that they come up with all of the things and they put them in a bowl and they shake it and see what happens. I don’t know if that's how it works, but that’s what I imagine. Every novel is a terrarium, you watch it and you take notes. That’s how I make work as well. . .I try this balancing game of connecting myself with that thing entirely and divorcing myself from it as much as I can, which turns out is extra hard to do when you make an entire show of self-portraits.

In looking back on why I began making things, the reasoning always seemed to be that it was the only thing to do. I was sixteen; I had access to a camera and knew how to do the technical stuff. The thing to do was to take photos of myself and the things to do it with were mirrors and a tripod. With the drawings, I was home, and the thing to draw was me. There wasn’t really another choice. Drawing anything else at that moment would have been a choice and that choice would have had too much meaning attached to it. I’m hesitant to bring meaning into work. That is a true statement: I’m hesitant to intentionally attach meaning to work.

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