Sam Messer

Nielsen Gallery

Sam Messer’s heavily painted canvases manage to evoke the mythical sensibilities of Jackson Pollock’s work of the early ’40s, and at the same time call attention to their contemporary self-conscious expressionism. The predominant colors in the artist’s recent paintings are red, black, yellow, and white: they are applied with fleshy bravura. The works show a maturing artist contributing to a revival of gestural painting with symbolic figuration. Messer’s sense of the macabre is balanced by a penetrating black humor. Look into the Future, 1988, depicts a very pregnant nude holding a mirror in one hand, her own disembodied head in the other. The detached head, with its red lipstick, black eyelashes, and black stringy hair, is both skull-like and frighteningly alive. This tortured parody of the vanitas figure (and of Picasso’s Girl with Mirror, 1932) makes a powerful comment on real-life female suffering in the final months of pregnancy. The ghostly figure is unable to look in the hand mirror and face the physical abuse that has stricken her swollen body. This self-mutilating image is painted with juicy white paint against a cherry red background. The black lines defining the subject’s delightful curves take on a life of their own. The playful calligraphic line that Messer has been developing over the last decade is at its best in the lines defining the breasts and belly. They balance the violence of the figure with an abstract and vehement elegance of form and style.

Over the past two years, Messer has translated his unique drawing ability into the three-dimensional realm through a series of carbon-steel sculptures. Although several of the sculptures appear to be little more than fanciful fetish images, combining shoes and petticoats with expressionistic renderings of vertebrae, The Wait, 1988, is a far better realized piece. This thin and graceful sculpture, composed of coils twisted like thin vines, carries a wooden board on its back, in the manner of Christ carrying the cross to Calvary. Messer’s subject is an anonymous walker wearing heavy boots, whose cross is a symbolic tablet covered with hand-painted numbers; it suggests the vast numbers of people who have been diagnosed with or died from AIDS. A thin piece of twine binds the tablet to the bent, spindly figure. Messer’s subjects are often gruesome, tattered, and heavily burdened, but like this modern Man of Sorrows, still surviving.

Francine A. Koslow