Art in America

Sam Reveles at CRG
  — By Aruna D’Souza

The new work of Sam Reveles, which includes paintings as well as smaller drawings and gouaches (all 1998), offers one answer to the question of how gestural abstraction may convey meaning. In each of the works on view, Reveles establishes a representational “ground” which comprises sketchy bits and pieces of early Renaissance imagery (hermit saints, pageants, and hunting and landscape scenes) recombined in a way that seems to point to specific sources without actually copying any. Using turpentine and thinned paint, he then attacks the surface with an energetic flurry of calligraphic brushwork that coalesces into a hovering, muddy mass in the center of the canvas or paper. Seemingly artless strokes of red, blue, magenta and orange mix with the transparent, jewel-like colors of the illusionistic elements. The figurative components remain visible only in a fragmentary way at the perimeters of abstract, gestural passages. 

In Wilderness Descent, for example, a chaotic whorl of lines seems about to expand and swallow the last remnants of imagery, a hilly, verdant landscape with frolicking deer. But Reveles’s work is not an act of simple obliteration. Rather than just painting over his first efforts, Reveles unmakes them, so that each abstract gesture is born of the dissolution of the underlying, figurative ground. Take Journey, for example, in which the gestural passages do not mask the underlying image but emerge from it, formed of the same kind of liquid marks that compose the lush green landscape visible along the top of the canvas. 

On one level, Reveles’s attack on the very surface of representation may be read as a denial of the possibility of narrative coherence, which is consumed by abstract energy. Yet instead of cynicism or negativity, one senses a deep, almost reverent admiration for the old masters whom Reveles imitates (perhaps purposely) so naively and awkwardly in his underpaintings. In this light, the abstract gestures which occlude the imagery do not negate traditional representation but rather derive their meaning from the palimpsests below. IN this tempering of the grafittist’s destructive gesture by a careful and respectful study of an art-historical past, one comes to understand that Reveles’s actions may not be as purely iconoclastic as they initially seem.