Bill Sampson: Testing Rorschach - Art Collector

Issue 53, July - September 2010

Like Rorschach blots, Bill Sampson’s large-scale works feel out the very boundaries of our imagination writes Edward Colless.

Rorschach blots – those symmetrical butterfly silhouettes of black ink on white card – are used in psychotherapy as prompts for a patient to talk unwittingly about their anxieties, secret wishes or guilt. And what do we see? Usually something we don’t care to admit to. Leonardo da Vinci provided a similar trigger, not for neurotic confession but to jump-start a stalled artistic imagination, when he advised staring at a stain on a wall for inspiration. In both cases it’s crucial that the mark you’re looking at is manufactured randomly, so that while it might mean anything – it can also appear, perhaps miraculously or malevolently – to have a hidden meaning revealed exclusively to yourself.

To some extent, Bill Sampson’s swirling blobs, eddies, whorls, bubbles and gaseous blooms of ink and paint have the same semantic ambiguity as the splodges of Rorschach or da Vinci, although judging from his latest paintings Sampson’s creativity hardly needs therapeutic nudging. This work is lush, manic, urgent, febrile and in equal parts comic and sinister. And compared to the discrete insinuations or promptings of a crack in a wall that only gradually begins to resemble a mouth or an eye, Sampson’s abstractions are so maniacally suggestive and unforced they seem unstoppably garrulous and joyfully arrogant with the hallucinatory charge of optical aberration and even psychedelic auras. But like clouds resembling animals, Sampson’s imagery also seems to come out of thin air; at least, it manifests as emanations and waves of some indecipherable energy field, simultaneously spectral and tidal.

In fact, Sampson pulls these images out of a marbling bath, although it’s a bath on the scale of a pool and his technique requires breakneck pace and muscularity rather than the delicate dipping associated with marbling as a craft of decoration. Magnifying the dimensions and devices of traditional marbling, he turns the decorative into an indecorous clamour. But there’s skilled invention as well as distortion to his technique: concentric radiating bands, for instance, that can flutter nervously or vibrate with sensuous expectation, and that can solidify like geological deposits or a cross-section of tree rings. Yet even when they settle into sediments these striations seem still to be on the move: dribbling and trickling through hairline cleavages, wrinkling and undulating with seismic tremors or migrating and subsiding like the contour lines of sand dunes in a dust storm so that they resemble embryonic cell walls fluctuating and subdividing.

Because these globules and currents are formed on or just below the surface of the marbling bath, their horizon line is laid out flat across the entire skin of the image. It’s the perspective of viewing a wafer-thin slice of something liquid, squeezed out or smeared transparently across a microscope slide but at a macroscopic magnitude. Keep in mind too that these images are a sort of monoprint – momentary and indexical transcriptions at a one-to-one scale of something we cannot actually see: the pool’s point of view of the corpuscles dancing in its blood stream, or more accurately and technically the flotsam that churns around on its surface. It’s the pond’s-eye view of its own rippling reflective waves, and of the pond scum occluding its view. Directly stained by these flurries and currents, these images then are like thumbprints of a primordial soup, swampy and gelatinous and brimming with the stuff that can make life crawl out of it.

And what does emerge from the goop? These elusive and sexually allusive biomorphic shapes jiggle, pout, slide, ripple and shimmy with an animal or insect agility in loony, extravagant gesticulations – feelers prodding, waggling mandibles, phallic stingers and puckering orifices receptively opening, cyclopean eyes blinking on the end of penile stalks or on frenetic spermatozoa. It’s as if Sampson has turned the oversized marbling bath into a lens or mystically charged photographed plate on which we are seeing an otherwise invisible storm of mischievous sprites and spooks leaving their impressions. Just when you thought it was safe to go in the water.

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