Sam Wilson’s studio is almost a direct reflection of his paintings. Every corner of the space is covered with collectibles: key chains, figurines of various popes, art history books and old Nordstom mannequins covered in kitsch outfits. “I’m thinking of collage,” says Wilson, whose paintings feature portraits almost juxtaposed on top of each other in the same painting. Faces are often figures in the history of art, not necessarily the subjects, but the artists themselves. However, artists are featured in more modern outfits, with female action figures, such as Wonder Woman or pin-ups, on their T-shirts. The characteristic style of crowded portraits in the same painting with colorful patterns in the background is something Wilson attributes to his compulsions to fill all of his paintings. He refers to it as horror vacui, Latin term designating the fear of the great outdoors. Wilson plans to showcase some of these paintings in his upcoming exhibition at God hates robots in April. “What I’m doing now encompasses a lot of that stuff – ‘Geezers and Babes’, basically,” he says. “I used to do art history guys in a historical context. Now I make them like geezers in abbreviated herringbone suits, and they’re all me.
Wilson is best known around Salt Lake City for his commission of Way of the cross to Madeline Cathedral and his tenure as professor at the University of Utah for over 40 years. He continues to explore new topics upon retirement. “I’ve been an art student since 1961,” he says. “My philosophy is, whatever you do, don’t stop, it might not start again. In addition to the “Geezers and Babes” paintings that will be on display at the exhibit, which is still in the process of being named, Wilson plans to show a few self-portraits. Wilson plays with proportion and perception in these self-portraits, one of which depicts Wilson wearing a Che Guevara shirt through the reflection of a silver ladle, while another shows it through the chrome surface of a martini shaker, the one he named My self-portrait posing like a still life, or a still life reflecting my self-portrait, or whatever makes the cowboy tremble?
Although Wilson jokes that he could probably make more money painting landscapes, especially with the amount of wealthy sources and the public in Utah, his main concern with his own work, as well as when he criticizes others, is authenticity. “Art is the product of someone who does something for quite a long time,” he says. I don’t care what kind of art it is; I have to assume this is genuine and that they are genuine. For him, much of the art gets lost in meaning and subtext, rather than focusing on the craft and the actual process of the artwork itself. Wilson jokingly describes himself as a “Luddite” and claims he is still part of the 19th century. “The motives nowadays are not the journey but the destination. It is a rapid culture. And I’m doing it anyway, ”he says. “I’m just hiding in my paint shop.”
All of Wilson’s work in his studio has developed from his graduate studies projects. The visual appeal of the modernist aesthetic shines through the collection, although the subject changes. “The work I do is inevitable, and it started in 1961 when I was a bad art student,” he says. “Which means if I had to follow it, it was hijacked and made no sense, but it’s kind of like a train wreck, every car bumping into the future.” In an artistic community where landscapes are more of an expectation, Wilson remains faithful to his “art geezers” and to his self-portraits.
Wilson certainly has a unique voice in Salt Lake’s small but thriving arts community, which has made him stand out in shows of the past. While he believes eccentric art is still a quirk in the community, he appreciates that locals are so invested in art as a whole, and that art spaces like God hates robots to exist. “God hates robots: It’s a name you don’t want to tell your grandma about, but it’s a weird little place, and you can see anything there, ”he says. “It’s remarkable, I think there are people who have invested their time and money to support the arts. Although Wilson believes there aren’t enough galleries in Salt Lake City, he feels that being a relatively smaller city has helped produce some interesting works of art and talented artists. “For a small town on the edge of the desert, the artists here are remarkably good, and I think that’s because maybe they need to put in more effort,” he says. “[Big cities] are so good, they just don’t like it.
Sam Wilson’s work will be presented at God hates robots, opening April 21. For more information visit godhatesrobots.com.