Sam Roussi

Fay Gold Gallery

Sam Roussi’s recent work makes no reference to French post-Structuralist theory, but he shares with Jacques Derrida a fascination with marks that remain opaque and writing that refuses to coalesce into a single meaning. The simple loops and jagged lines that characterize paintings like Rough Begging Talk and Back Door Crusher, both 1986, are derived from “hobo language,” a series of marks used by hobos onwalls, doors, or fences to leave messages for other hobos regarding the relative merits of various towns and railroad stops. Roussi has worked and reworked the signs he has taken from this code until they have become a vocabulary of his own, which he manipulates in dense, complex patterns focused on a central motif. Even though the darkness of much of Roussi’s work in the last several years has in these pieces mostly given way to bright pastel greens, golds, and oranges, the crowded overlaying of nervous lines conveys an emotional darkness, a threatening presence.

Seven of the fourteen pieces in this show are on large sheets of paper attached directly to the gallery wall with pushpins that are painted over, becoming part of the work. Each of the other seven is on unstretched canvas hung over a single bar. The flatness that is emphasized by these tactics is contradicted by Roussi’s sculptural use of paint. Layers of acrylic mixed with powdered pigment are burnished, then overlaid with thick lines that look like welding scars. All illusion is abandoned: Roussi is simply making marks, inscribing a surface. He creates a visual space that has depth without perspective and a graphic system that forms a language without a meaning. The power of Roussi’s work is based on this use of contradiction. In each piece, the chaotic profusion of symbols is overcome by the strong central composition; the social and linguistic basis of the iconography is undermined by the opaqueness of the signs; and the flatness, rendered within the limits established by Clement Greenberg, is opposed by the depth of the surface. By refusing to settle into a unitary strategy or meaning, he gives the works a vivid sense of life.

Several of the works have titles that refer to Roussi’s children, and all of them have the directness of finger painting, of a new and tactile confrontation with the medium. But Roussi is never satisfied with making an easy statement; he refuses to reduce the practice of making art to either a decorative or a conceptual exercise.

Glenn Harper