Learn how Samantha Wall’s monochrome drawings offer highly personal explorations of identity, race, and interior life.
By John A. Parks
The drawings of Oregon-based artist Samantha Wall explore, expose, and strive to make sense of the artist’s place in the world as a woman of multiracial heritage and quite simply as a human being. Using traditional drawing techniques in charcoal, graphite, and ink, she deploys an accomplished language of chiaroscuro and line. Sometimes this is combined with less conventional handling, to make imagery that is provocative, imaginative, and highly charged.
An In-Between Space
Large in scale and stylishly presented, Wall’s work focuses on images of multiracial women rendered in ways that intimate the underlying tensions they experience in establishing personal identity in the face of competing cultural expectations. Meticulous rendering of parts of the figure are often combined with passages in which areas of the body are filled with swirls of ink or the rich patterning that occurs when ink dries on a resistant surface. The resulting images become the visual equivalents of the uneasy relationship of exterior and interior life.
“I draw what I know,” says the artist. “I’m a multiracial woman, and I’m interested in communicating the subjective experiences of women like myself. This is difficult because it’s not as simple as being part this and part that. We can’t split our identities. And at times the cultures and histories that we identify with are in conflict with one another. That is felt emotionally, psychologically, and physically.”
Wall was born in South Korea, where her mother had married an American military officer. The family left Korea when she was young and eventually settled in South Carolina. “I had to confront racial and ethnic challenges daily. I had to find a way to navigate through cultural histories and social boundaries without a guide,” she says. “It felt as if I was constantly running into walls. Eventually I found myself caught in a space between those two things. Over time I grew to enjoy that space and even found refuge in it. But it wasn’t until I left South Carolina that could I recognize the significance of it.”
A Large Body of Work
Wall moved to Portland, Oregon, where she studied art. “Living in Portland among other artists and creative folks, I found I could begin exploring this in-between space,” she says. “A way for me to do that was to find other women like myself who found themselves inhabiting the same space.”
Wall began to make images of these women, and a large body of work started to emerge. Far from uniform, the drawings are arranged into series. Each series takes a somewhat different approach in exploring Wall’s concerns.
One of Wall’s earlier series, “Shame on Me,” comprises images in which realistically rendered women interact with shadowy silhouetted figures. “It was an exploration into the relationship between shame and identity,” the artist says. “Growing up in the South and being racially ambiguous was a source of shame. This was the first time I explored my own cultural and racial background.”
The uneasy dynamic of competing identities are on view in Swallow It; a realistically drawn woman appears to exchange a strange ectoplasmic cloud of smoke with a featureless shadow figure. The mechanics of the drawing are complicated. The realistic figure is achieved in graphite, and the smoke is made with charcoal. The delicately textured shadow figure is executed with a buildup of single pen lines, a painstaking and lengthy technique. “It’s actually a sort of continuous line drawing,” says the artist. “I’m using hot-pressed paper, so there is no real texture, but the smooth surface readily accepts the marks.”
An Emotional Voyage
Wall says that the large investment of time needed to make a drawing like this is something she embraces. “It allows me access to a mind space that is part of the work,” she says. “The process of making it is a way for me to think through the drawing. I think through the emotions it evokes and explore how these are related to my conceptual concerns. It’s a psychological and emotional voyage that this repetition and tedium allows me entry into.”
Wall acknowledges that the extensive ambitions she has for her work are underpinned by a firm grasp on traditional draftsmanship. “It’s incredibly important to me to continue honing my drawing techniques; only then can I employ more improvisational strategies confidently,” she says. “I love the control and feel of graphite and the depth and suppleness of charcoal. But I also love working with ink. For me, ink is vital and encourages spontaneity. I think using ink successfully means having confidence and trust in one’s self. If there’s any hesitation, it’s immediately perceived in the work.”
Wall’s next body of work was titled “Partially Severed.” Several of the images in this series show meticulous close-up drawings of heads posed in active and powerful postures. Swirls of sumi ink interact with the head, flowing around and through it like some magical force.
“This work was influenced by East Asian horror films like Ju-On, Ring, Onibaba and Kuroneko,” explains the artist. “I became fascinated with the female protagonists in those films, especially the vengeful female ghost archetype. She’s a character that lives outside of conventional Asian female roles and as such was a source of inspiration.”
Wall found in these fictional characters role models that were not available in the patriarchal Asian societies from which they sprang; she found images of women acting willfully and exercising power. Here art offers new paradigms for behavior and identity.
It also presents opportunities to deploy highly charged theatrical imagery. In A Clarion Call (top of article), for instance, a young woman is shown with her mouth wide open and her tongue pushed upward behind her teeth while her eyes roll up and back. It’s the look of someone who seems about to enter a wild fit or seizure. Meanwhile the top of her head projects an improbable swirl of viscous smoke. The overall effect suggests some kind of supernatural transformation. The drawing also offers a striking contrast of technique. The head was achieved through painstaking realist drawing in graphite; the smoky addition made by wetting the paper and then adding sumi ink and allowing it to flood and swirl.
“First, I worked on the face and body,” recalls Wall. “Originally, I wasn’t planning on including ink in this way. I was thinking about the emotional transformation that happens to the female characters in those horror movies. I had played with ink before. But it’s such an intimidating medium for me — especially the way I want to use it, allowing it to bleed and blossom on the page. Surrendering to the process by using the ink freely makes me uneasy. But I need to do things like that in my work.”
Conveying One’s “Air”
Wall went on to do a series of more straightforward portraits in her series “Indivisible.” These drawings, such as Sigourney, comprise heads and parts of upper bodies rendered in a combination of graphite and charcoal. The drawings focus on the facial features, sometimes allowing the hair and upper body to fade into the white of the surrounding paper. This strategy bestows a slightly disembodied feel to the images, as though they might be materializing out of thin air.
“Most of the women that sit for me are friends,” says Wall, observing that she often takes several hundred photos of an individual in order to find exactly the right image. “At some point I recognized that these photo sessions with my multiracial friends had a profound effect on me. In this series, capturing a likeness was probably the easiest part of the portrait. What I found difficult was capturing the quality about an individual that makes her recognizable to the people who know her best, her ‘air.’”
Our Interior Selves
In the series “Let Your Eyes Adjust to the Dark,” which includes the drawing Queen, Wall dispensed with tightly finished rendering and instead explored the possibilities of making a kind of form and substance with swirls of ink. “The series is about being self-reflective even if it’s a source of discomfort,” says the artist. “No matter what medium I’m using, my drawings are about our interior selves. I’m interested in pulling out that interiority and exposing it in the light.”
Wall’s subject matter for these images remained women she knew; she retained her interest in communicating the “air” of each individual. “But what I’m beginning to question is the importance of likeness to communicate identity and whether the subject’s ‘air’ is more effectively conveyed without it,” she says.
First, an Outline
Wall began each of these drawings with an outline on soft watercolor paper. She then wet the interior shape of the heads and began to add sumi ink.
As the ink swirled and blossomed, the chance movements of the tone created forms that are somehow suggestive of the interior life of the figures. The final formations are not entirely due to chance, as the artist worked to manipulate edges, move the ink and occasionally lift some of it out. In Queen the head presents the outline of a pair of eyes under a swath of dark ink. To achieve this the artist first drew the eyes in graphite and then wet that area of the paper, knowing that the image would not wash out.
The series “Dark Side” includes a remarkable set of drawings titled Limbo (see Limbo I) in which a figure is shown directly facing the viewer. Head and shoulders are carefully rendered in soft tone built from layering lines of graphite, charcoal, and Conté crayon, but facial features have been removed and the space occupied by a dark shadow. The effect is deeply disquieting, as though the shadow has swallowed up the face and thereby the individuality of the sitter. The figure has been literally consigned to limbo, a spiritual space of waiting and powerlessness.
A semitransparent surface
Perhaps Wall’s most spectacular exploration of the relationship between external shape and internal forces takes place in her most recent series, “See Me See You.” In a group of drawings titled Undercurrent (see Undercurrent II) she renders large-scale single figures on Dura-Lar, a semitransparent plastic sheeting. This surface allows for an extraordinary array of effects as puddles of ink dry and reticulate to take on a range of formations locked within the clean outlines of a female figure. In a strange way these seem to suggest some sort of alternative biology, making a physical equivalent for the intense and complex emotional and psychological forces with which the artist is so fascinated.
Projecting the Figure
“For these large drawings I projected the figure on one side of the Dura-Lar and worked with ink on the other side,” Wall says. “Unlike cotton rag paper, Dura-Lar repels water, so I have to work with alcohol and mix small amounts of ink to get the mixture to adhere to the surface. Then before the water and alcohol evaporate I introduce more concentrated amounts of ink and finally allow the puddle to dry for 24 to 48 hours. This creates amazing reticulation and marks that I can’t replicate on rag paper.”
Wall works the images piece by piece, allowing a huge variety of forms and textures to develop over a number of days. Wall notes that the kinds of formations that occur with this method are also affected by the humidity. Drier days yield more shattered formations, whereas humid days allow the ink to flow for longer, making for smoother gradations.
The scale of these Dura-Lar drawings, exceeding seven feet in height, makes them challenging to present and exhibit. Wall has chosen to suspend them just a little in front of the gallery wall rather than to frame them. “I wanted to communicate the translucent, milky quality of the film.” she says. “Suspended that way, light passes through the drawings and casts shadows on the wall and ground. It’s stunning.”
Although Wall’s various series have covered considerable territory, they share a distinctly contemporary look with their stark monochrome images isolated against pristine white grounds. The artist acknowledges a debt to Robert Longo’s work from the late 1970s. “He has definitely been influential in my practice, his ‘Men in the Cities’ series in particular, because of the fact that they are large-scale drawings,” she says. “For years I felt I had to justify drawing as a finished piece of art, and I would hear comments like, ‘Do you also paint?’ So, as you can imagine, seeing his work had a profound effect on me. I also love artists like Wangechi Mutu, Kara Walker, Chloe Piene, Do Ho Suh and Lorna Simpson.”
The strength of Wall’s work is that she has mastered both traditional approaches to drawing and a very contemporary vernacular and has put both in the service of her highly personal quest to comprehend her place in the world. “It’s my hope that the viewer feels a connection to the women represented in my work and takes with them a small piece of understanding that might be nurtured into something larger, stronger, and more present in their lives.”
Learn more about Samantha Wall and see more of her work at samanthawall.com.
A version of this article originally appeared in Drawing magazine.
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