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Artists in Shirts in Studios: Sherman Mern Tat Sam

By Nathan Sharp

Jul 13, 2022

Artists in Shirts in Studios: Sherman Mern Tat Sam


A new series featuring - you guessed it - artists, wearing Drake's shirts, at work in their studios. Last year we visited the studios of some of our favourite artists, to chat about the creative process. First up, abstract painter, Sherman Mern Tat Sam.

Photography by James Harvey-Kelly.


Nathan Sharp: What’s guiding you when you’re painting? 


Sherman Sam: Let me tell you how I start. All of [the paintings] are oil paint on wood panel. I make the panels in the summer, mainly because it’s nice weather. First I cut them down, and glue battens on the sides. Before they’re primed, I cover them with rabbit skin glue - they have to die for a reason right? [laughs] - and then it’s an oil primer.  

What I want to say about their shape and their sizes is that they’re all relational. So, two years ago I did a show, and they were relatively small paintings that I was working on at the time. Then the next show I did was in a bigger space, and I sort of thought I would really like to have bigger paintings, just because you can ask for more money [laughs]. I know, very, very superficial.  


NS: It’s as good a reason as any! 


SS: I started to try and figure out how to make bigger [paintings]. There are some [panels] that have been sat there for more than a decade, because I made them ages ago, probably 12 years or so and I couldn’t figure out how to make work - they are big for me, but still less than a metre. By the time I did this show at Ceysson Benetiere in Luxembourg I had figured out how to finish a few of these larger pieces. What I learnt at the show, in this huge warehouse type space, was that actually the bigger works looked smaller, but the smaller works felt bigger. I realised that, ‘I don’t have to fucking make bigger works!’ [laughs]. It was for a show in 2007 at The Suburban in Chicago, where  I thought I would do the show [with] hand luggage sized work, since they weren’t paying transport. That’s when I figured out that, actually, I could do everything I wanted to do in that format.. So why bother making it so big? 

So, once I work through this current group of paintings , the work will get smaller. As I said, how I make them is in relation to the previous thinking. But every shape is, in a way, unique, and every shape is not perfect. Just ask the technicians who have to hang my pieces.  


NS: You’re not mathematical about this, then? 


SS: No, in fact some of them are even slightly bowed and the stretchers are not perfectly right angled. They all start in groups, say three, four, and there’ll be a first action that is consistent to the group. It will usually be a very light gesture, like a wash, or some of them have diagonal brushstrokes. There was a group of paintings which had blue splatters. The blue paint was given to me by my friend Clive [Hodgson]. We worked out that I didn’t paint with blue. When I first moved to London, I didn’t have a studio for nearly three years. When I came back to painting I want[ed] to rethink all this, so I reduced my palette, and at that point only painting in four, five colours. Over the years I’ve introduced a few more, but the palettes are still quite tight. Clive gave me some blue paint, and then it sat with me for some two years, cos I’m quite slow with all this shit. And he kept bugging me. One day I thought, ‘Okay, Clive has splatters in his paintings, so I’m going to do some, as a tribute, because he bought me the paint.’ But what I did was flick the paint on, and that’s when I realised that  what he does is drips the paint down.  

So, they each begin with a kind of action, then the painting begins. In one group for instance there are a bunch of zig zag lines. That was one beginning, and then, when you begin that, you sort of think, ‘Oh wait a minute, I can transfer this action to another painting.’ So, you move one to the other. That’s the beginning, how they finish I don’t fucking know [laughs]. I wish I did, because it would make my life so much easier. 

NS: Do you ever start a work and think, ‘I should have started in a different size,’ or that you need more space on the canvas? 


SS: Yes. But I also take the view that you should try and work through the problem you give yourself. so I just keep working at it. Occasionally there are drastic “solutions”: I’ll give you two examples. This painting, for the longest time, sat in my studio this way. This white bit is what I’ve just added, and before that it was the blue bit. But the time between the blue bit and the white bit [was] maybe two years [laughs]? But then I thought, ‘I’m gonna paint it flat white, just white it out.’ I turned it upside down, because in my studio it was easier to reach that bit that way. The moment I put the paintbrush down I thought, ‘Wait a minute, it looks good kind of half-assed painted.’ So, I left it half-assed. But then I thought, ‘It looks quite good upside down.’ Now I’m just gonna sit with it for maybe six months or so and think about it. Maybe this is the right solution, maybe I don’t need to do much more. 

Very, very occasionally I take more drastic steps. I realised that there was this painting that would be improved if I removed a part of it. So, I cut it, and it turned into two paintings. I have a couple of little paintings that I think look like they should be better if they were longer. I keep adding length in my imagination. All I think is, ‘Adding means woodwork. Woodwork means that’s a bad idea’ [laughs]! So, I’ve just decided to let them sit until maybe my sense of proportion changes.  


NS: When you look back on a finished work, has that taken on a different meaning? 


SS: Yeah, I think they do. I always tell people great artworks should give and give. You go and you look at them, and at different times in your life they give you different things, because you’re not the same person that looked at it the first time. But the problem with being the maker is, when I look at it, you see a whole bunch of different things – in a way you see yourself working, but eventually - I hope - you think, ‘Wow, I made that!’ And then you go, ‘Well, how did I make that? Why did I make that?’ Sometimes you go, ‘Oh, that’s interesting, I can gain something, I can remember something from that, something I used to know, that I can use now.’  


NS: Are you interested in making something that is beautiful at face value, aesthetically speaking? 


SS: Two different people in the last two months said to me they thought my work was very happy. I take that as a compliment. Beauty and happiness aren’t necessarily what I think about, I consider them byproducts of the work. I actually said this to my friend Clive. He had a pair of shows recently where he showed two groups of work that were ten years apart. It was interesting to see, because what I said to him was, ‘I think your work’s gotten happier.’ And he of course said the same thing that I’ve just said to you. He didn’t think about it that way. I’m interested in aesthetics, in a sense, if you consider aesthetics being about beauty. But I always tell people maybe it can be about ugliness as well. 


NS: Can I ask you about being an artist and an art writer? It strikes me that there aren’t a lot of people practicing both disciplines. 


SS: I think there are very few over here in Europe - while I can still say that. In New York City there are much more. What I always tell people is, we need many, many types of writers, many types of critics, because we all see the world differently. There are professional critics, there are art historians who are critics, there are curators who are critics, and everyone brings a slightly different agenda. There’s no such thing as a critic without an agenda, that’s like saying he’s a food critic with no taste buds. I mean, what’s the point? But I think it’s important, because we are the makers, so we should have our voice. And of course our voice is the most partisan! 


NS: A representative voice, then? 


SS: Yes. I mean I was talking to a critic friend, and he never trained as an artist, he’s actually a linguist. And he said, ‘I know some critics that can say, “Oh, he painted that first, then he painted that, then he painted that,” but I never quite see it that way.’ I sort of envy him, because I can sometimes see how a work is made and you can’t unsee it. I think it can be nice to just see it as a whole singularity.  Another friend who’s an artist and critic thinks it helped him think about his work better. I think it helped me talk about my art better, or talk my way out of my art better. It also made me go and see a lot of art, and think about a lot of art in different ways. For the record, I’m much harder on abstract artists than I am on any other kind of artist.  


NS: Because that’s your field. 


SS: Yeah. And I’m certainly harder on painters, than I am on other types of artists.  


NS: There is a bridge between the disciplines, then? 


SS: Yes, yes there is. I do think there is also a tradition in the American art world of poets being art critics. A lot of the critics I read are or were poets, and I actually think they make great art writers, because they can use the language well, but they also have a feeling for things that may not be rational, which I think a lot of artwork isn’t. It’s rational irrationality, or irrational rationality, however you want to see it. Unknown unknowns, known unknowns… That kind of thing, geddit?

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