The Rapidian

Unraveling the ambiguity of contemporary art

Steve Samson, UICA Director of Exhibitions and Facilities, offers suggestions to the novice on how to appreciate and evaluate contemporary art.
Myself and I

Myself and I /Steve Samson

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Lure/Wave, Beili Liu

Lure/Wave, Beili Liu /Tolga Savas

Some/One, Do Ho Suh

Some/One, Do Ho Suh /

Steve Samson, Director of Exhibition and Facilities at UICA, brings to mind a quote from the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau who inspired leaders during the French Revolution when he said, "Every man has the right to risk his own life in order to preserve it. Has it ever been said that a man who throws himself out the window to escape from a fire is guilty of suicide?" Samson, who experienced his own revolution, took a jump from his corporate career mid-life and plunged himself into his lifelong passion in art. “Money is not as important to you when you love your work,” he said.

As a young man, Samson heeded his father’s advice not to pursue fine art as a profession. He went on to pursue a B.A. in Spanish studies which opened up a rewarding global business career in sales and marketing. Samson opened new markets for Amway in South America and went on to establish Amway in South Africa, India, Philippines and Romania. His international travels afforded him opportunities to view the art of many cultures but his first love beckoned him. At age forty, Samson retired from this global business career that had allowed him to view the art of many cultures. He went on to earn his B.F.A. in sculpture at Kendall College of Art and Design and his M.F.A. in Painting in Boston.

Beginning his service with UICA as a volunteer in the early 1990’s, it is easy to appreciate why Samson is now the Director of Exhibitions; his enthusiasm is contagious and his love for the institute is evident. Samson defines the focus: "UICA supports the emerging and mid-career artist in the methods of contemporary art.”

He points out several tips for viewing and appreciating art, one of which is paying attention to how an artist uses materials. “Contemporary art is conceptual. It’s comprised of everyday materials in an innovative way or uses unusual materials in the design of everyday objects.” For example, this year the UICA is curator of Ghost of a Dream’. Artist duo Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom collected $70,000 worth of discarded lottery tickets to create the dream living room part of the ‘Dream Trilogy’. To these artists, these small papers symbolized dreams unfulfilled.

Samson goes on to state, "Contemporary art is controversial, but not necessarily in an offensive way, but rather it starts a conversation that is thought provoking. It makes you think about something a little differently than at first glance.” He illustrates this concept with a piece created by Do-Ho Suh entitled, Some/One"While visiting an art museum in Wisconsin," he says, "I was drawn to a piece that looked like a kimono, but it was huge! From afar it was beautiful, but when I went to take a closer look I changed my mind. I was taken aback by the realization that it was comprised solely of military dog tags." The realization that every tag represented a life cut short by war was sobering. Samson describes the impact of outstanding works like that of Do-Ho Suh as an "eye watering experience" [his version of goose-bumps], one that creates a sense of awe in the intricacy and beauty of the piece, and delivers a good, emotion-packed kick in the conscious; the core of great contemporary art.     

On the issue of judging contemporary art, Samson notes, “Many people just do not understand contemporary art or they feel inadequate because they don’t get it." He asks the average viewer, “Does contemporary art intimidate you?" And in response, he offers solutions to serve our understanding: "Approach the piece without judgment or preconceived ideas. Look closely at the colors used in the work. What might the colors represent? Consider the materials the artist has used and the setting; what might they convey?" And, of his own process he says, "After I consider the components of the content, then I read the artist statement.” 

As an example, Samson references Beili Liu’s use of color in her piece, Lure/Wave, which was awarded third place during ArtPrize 2010. “Everyone in China understands what the color red represents.” He summarizes the work as a literal expression of the Chinese legend of the “red thread of fate.” On Liu’s website she offers additional details about the tale: “From birth, lovers are connected by a red thread at their ankles. Legend holds that the thread may tangle or fray, but will never break.” Illustrating her methods Liu explains, “I crafted spools of red thread into thousands of coils, pairing each coil with a 'soul-mate.' Yet, in the mass of the installation the connection between the coils is obscured. Despite the intricacy of the piece, it never overwhelms, but rather invites close inspection by the viewer to discover the pairs." In the spirit of contemporary art, Liu used everyday materials in a conceptually innovative way that was reminiscent of her Chinese heritage.

As an artist, Samson has experienced success in his own right. During the 2003 Festival Regional Arts Competition, he was the grand prize recipient of the Curator's Choice Award for his piece "Myself and I." Two sides of the same chair represent Samson’s past and present, illustrated by a pin-striped suit of the corporate man and the more flamboyant side of the artist.

Samson admits not much of his time is spent on his own creative works. The last two years have been dedicated to and in preparation for ArtPrize. At the UICA, planning for ArtPrize begins in April, six months before most of us are thinking about the transformation that will overtake Grand Rapids.

If you are among those who do not understand contemporary art, Samson makes it a point to say, "You are in good company. My taste in art has evolved over time. In the past I loved the oils and acrylics used in traditional and figurative arts. Now I have learned to enjoy the process of contemporary creation; the idea of an artist being driven by the unveiling vision of where a piece is going to go."

Liu’s descriptions of her creative processes offer insight into Samson’s assertions. “By playing with the material—testing, manipulating, experimenting, and examining, even leaving it for months—I watch for the moment of surprise, when the material responds to one or a series of actions, and leads to an exciting physical or conceptual outcome. That outcome itself sometimes becomes the lead into a new project.”

Steve Samson hopes that as we take in ArtPrize 2011, we might gain an "appreciation for the reflection and effort that is put forth by artists in the contemporary world of art, as each strives to make a statement and achieve the ‘wow factor’ the novice anticipates.


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