Sam Gilliam

Klein Art Works

Sam Gilliam creates lively, patchwork compositions by painting in acrylic on birch panels, then cutting the panels into smallish pieces and recombining them. He insistently shuffles and calls attention to what he perceives to be painting’s essential elements—especially liquified color, various methods of paint application, and the physical nature of the painting surface. Animated by subtle rhythms and an often surprising use of color, Gilliam’s churning, often vertiginous polyptychs replace the orderly patterns of altarpieces with something much more whimsical and open-ended.

Bits of a single panel often end up serving as components in several different pieces, whether right-side-up, upside-down or sideways. In a curious, cut-and-paste mixture of carpentry and collage, the paintings manifest irregular shapes and contours alongside small perforations or slots—sometimes even featuring hinged s that extend into space. Gilliam leaves portions of the panels unpainted, seeming to find in the swirling natural rhythms of the wood grain a foil for his own cursive and striated patterns. The thick, combed acrylic and other heavily impastoed techniques he used in his work of the early ’90s were less in evidence here; he has replaced them with something more wan and delicate, suggesting a return to the breathy staining and dyeing effects with which he experimented several decades ago. Here, however, he sometimes encases the paint in a thick, clear polymer gel. While Gilliam’s impressively rich and assured palette continues to yield sheer optical pleasure and his paintings are unfailingly dynamic, he doesn’t allow any single element to dominate: paint, gesture, and support all exist in harmony.

Gilliam has recently begun using a computer to transfer preexisting images onto the paintings, or as a means to tinker with his compositions. By incorporating maps, schematic illustrations of tools, bits of floor plans, and even images of fishing lures, he creates an imagistic and almost archaeological layering of information. In Cartography, 1997, for example, two small, pale maps are inserted upside-down on one of the panels, strengthening the work’s curvilinear rhythms. The lines, shapes, and colors of the raw birch panel and the painted passages, along with those in the collaged images, appear to spiral around the six pieces of wood, creating a sense of constant, seemingly inevitable ebb and flow. Adeptly juggling discrete components, Gilliam sets his compositions spinning.

James Yood