The boat was supposed to be five times this large. Kevin Blythe Sampson was slated to create an epic vessel for “Vision and Vernacular: Eight African American Artists in Venice,” an exhibition of African-American self-taught artists and graffiti muralists organized by the American Folk Art Museum in New York for the 2011 Venice Biennial. But as the troubled museum faced collapse, sponsor funding was pulled and the show canceled. A year later, the former executive director of Intuit, Cleo Wilson, who knew of the artist’s frustrated plans for the epic ship, began talking with Sampson about traveling from his hometown of Newark to Chicago to be the second artist in residence at the museum and create a site-specific sculpture related to his original plan in Venice. Sampson arrived on January 11th and has been putting together An Ill Wind Blowing for the two weeks since, using recycled material from previous work and found objects from the back rooms of Intuit. The result is a multimedia interactive installation with an aesthetic of contingency, vulnerability, and stratification that corresponds shrewdly to the thematic content of the show.
Now retired, Sampson worked for twenty years as a composite sketch artist while a police officer in New Jersey, after a superior in the department noticed the cartoons he doodled of everyone and sent him to sketch artist school. There, Sampson jokes, he discovered that he actually had to learn to draw, but when he enrolled at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Art, he was immediately recruited to teach airbrushing there and stayed for decades. Now focused on teaching younger students, Sampson collaborates extensively with graffiti artists and muralists and dismisses the label of “outsider,” dryly noting that the label tends to make contemporary African-American art more palatable to certain white collectors. Sampson has been focusing on sculpture, particularly movable memorials, since 2000 (he’s been struck in Chicago by the white painted bicycles of cyclists killed by cars); and his first vessels and ships, now a common theme, began as responses to family tragedies. But it’s Sampson’s background as a self-identified “ex-cop with lots of Tea Party friends” as well as a “civil rights baby” that helps to explain the surprising complexity and ironic humor that coexists with An Ill Wind Blowing’s deadpan directness about politics and history.
The conceit of the ship is a way of conceptualizing the brokenness of contemporary America. Divided into three sections, with space in between filled by rubber rats (“You think about rats jumping off a sinking ship, but I think of them as the waves floating the boat,” Sampson mused during a Q&A yesterday at Intuit), the prow of the ship is filled with artifacts of the “liberal elite,” including work by established artist friends, copies of The New Yorker, and other cultural superstructure signifiers. A fishing net repurposed as a basketball hoop stands as an homage to Obama, and visitors are encouraged to write their own political frustrations onto scraps of paper emblazoned with pictures of politicians, crumple them up, and try to make a shot. (Sampson, whom I spoke to during the installation process, originally wanted to create an analogous interactive “penny toss” for the poor at the back of the ship but couldn’t fit it in to the space). This kind of provocative, deceptively simple trope marks the piece as a whole; the middle section of the ship, representing the “nasty” contingent of politics and the “24 hour news cycle of insanity,” obstructs and separates the front of the ship from the stern, which is filled with debris and objects of the poor and working class, including a picnic basket of Cheetos and white bread, plastic coins, and chicken bones. Deeply textured and layered, even burdened, with physical symbols, the boat is the clear star of the exhibition; but related drawings that fill the gallery walls (including one of the best abstract portraits of Mitt Romney I’ve seen, depicting him as a tentacled alien driving a car with a shark-toothed grill) offer charged but more delicate, often humorous counterpoints. Earlier sculptures by Sampson, including an early ship, give a sense of the artist’s larger sensibility. And lyrics to folk songs (Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind” and the African-American ballad whose tune Dylan appropriated) face off from the walls on either side of the ship; Sampson is deeply interested in the history of folk music in America, and the opening of An Ill Wind Blowing at Intuit tonight will feature folk ballads by Mark Dvorak.
But the symbolism of each individual element in An Ill Wind Blowing matters less to Sampson than process, whether political protest or art-making. He collaborates as a rule, constantly recycles work, and considers most of the finished work disposable. “I never work alone, and I work listening to CNN instead of music,” he laughs.
An Ill Wind Blowing opens tonight at Intuit, the Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, and runs through April 20th.
[Monica Westin is a member of the collections and acquisitions committee at Intuit. She is not involved in the exhibitions committee, including any planning related to Sampson's residency, nor on the board of Intuit.]