Sherman Sam

Sherman Sam: "Over the Rainbow: some paintings and some drawings for Some Walls”

January 28, 2012 – March 18, 2012

Press Release | Images | Essay | Résumé


Some Walls is pleased to present its thirteenth exhibition, Sherman Sam: Over the Rainbow: some paintings and some drawings for Some Walls,” from January 28- March 18, 2012.

Sherman Sam is an artist, writer, and curator based in London and Singapore. His paintings and drawings contain tender imagery and a tough attitude.While his paintings and drawings reference nature and reverie, there is a contrary sense of longing and determination. The paintings, no taller than twelve inches, are painted on heavy, wood panels; the drawings, slightly larger with quavery, layered lines on irregularly shaped paper, are shown in the plastic sleeves in which they were shipped, taped to the wall. In all there is a searching, slow, offhanded quality used to assemble pictorial space, recover memory and experience, and realize an image as an incomplete ideal.

See images, an essay, and biography.

Recent solo exhibitions include: Guestroom, Brussels, Belgium; Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Ireland; One-Hour Gallery at The Hayward, London, UK; The Suburban, Chicago.

Recent group exhibitions include: Feature, Inc., New York; Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, Brooklyn; The Drawing Room, London; Sue Scott Gallery, New York; Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Ireland; Kunsthalle Centro Cultural Andratx, Majorca, Spain.

Sherman Sam is represented by Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Ireland. He has written extensively for the Brooklyn Rail.

Some Walls is a curatorial and writing art project founded in 2009 in a private home in Oakland, California. Some Walls is open by appointment only. View the exhibition online at To schedule a visit, or for more information, please contact Chris Ashley at

Previous exhibitions at Some Walls:





Sherman Sam: “Over the Rainbow”

While looking intently at Sherman Sam’s paintings and drawings hanging in a line on the wall and taking notes, observing color, line and space, and enjoying the surface but clearly sensing a roiling within or beneath the surface of each work, this English nursery rhyme, a memory of childhood readily recalled, suddenly sprang to mind:

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row.

This children’s poem may at first seem innocent, but among many explanations is the claim that it is a religious allegory of Catholicism: "bells" represent the sanctus bells; "cockleshells" are the badges of pilgrims en route to the shrine of Saint James in Spain (Santiago de Compostela); and "pretty maids" are nuns. Another explanation connects the poem to Mary, Queen of Scots: "how does your garden grow" references her reign; "silver bells" invoke Catholic cathedral bells; "cockle shells" insinuate a faithless husband; and "pretty maids all in a row" are her ladies-in-waiting.

Perhaps Sam’s delicately dappled and repeatedly limned images, which summon the intimacy of garden and path with bits of color and layered lines stacked and overlapped into skewed perspectives of alternating, brightly lit open and denser, closed spaces, triggered the memory of this poem. Maybe the painted and drawn sense of outdoors and flora connect to the shape and sound of "bells" and "shells." The rhythm of the poem is propelled by its sing-songy string of hard and soft sounding, one and two-syllable words, and the rhymes inside lines one and three that drive the reader on, and at the end of lines two and four that boldly punctuate; this music moves us as if walking along the edge of a planted flower bed. But finally, it seems that the word "contrary," the only three-syllable word in the stanza, might be the main target of identification: why is Mary contrary despite, apparently, the pretty things and attendants at her service? The order, abundance, and precision in the last three lines contrasts with Mary’s antipathy; despite the garden, Mary is unsettled, contradictory, and headstrong.

In the case of Sherman Sam’s art there is a contrariness, both the desire for the garden and an aversion to simple beauty. His dawdling line and slow daubs of painting are achingly thoughtful, yet he resists hard focus and conclusion; what remains is an impression of perception and apprehension, something seen and not quite known. He attempts to find or create order, but with a knowing hesitation and agitation, as if a painting, a picture that is only a narrow or thin slice of nature or experience, finds strength in adhering to the scale of its limitations: the painted, flat, non-projecting surface; abstract imagery that is hard to put a finger on; depicted rather than real space or light that is dependent on the viewers sensitivity, openness, and imagination; the viewer’s attention in a fast-paced, distracting world.. In images embodying presence and reticence, it as if Sherman’s anterior goals—strong will and doubt, search and equivocation, the complication of layers—force an introvert towards extroversion.

It seems natural to initially think of Sam’s awkwardly luscious and off-handedly beautiful imagery as the handmade, recovered visual memory of bucolic setting and experience. Two paintings, The Sound of a Gentle Word and Sealed With a Kiss evoke a hazy, unraveling tapestry of memory and sensation, a slightly psychedelic and skewed perspective, vaguely threatening yet deliciously inviting. These small, delectable paintings on heavy, obviously-carpentered wood panels, neither taller than twelve inches, hint at nature as a place of dance and worship, an organic, agrarian disco where the ripe strawberry or unfolding rose is the glistening mirror ball from which shards of colored, reflected light momentarily illuminate a personal and private reverie in shared, public spaces.

Sam’s drawings consist of a variety of lines: quavery, staccato, patterned, gestural or ruled, rubbed and erased, faint and wispy or dark and direct, arching and zigzagged, scribbled and hatched. Larger than the paintings and on irregularly shaped paper, the lines build and layer in a searching, slow, casual quality to assemble pictorial space, align memory and experience, and realize an image as an incomplete ideal. In SS-003-SWO, the buildup of lines on the right side suggest perspective, a road, railings, and stairs, while along the bottom a loping line tagged with circles functions as a decorative frame; to the left, a mass of erased lines, rather than creating absence or emptiness, suggest volume and open fullness, as if a field in contrast to its busy, neighboring structure. The two adjacent networks of misshapen diamonds in SS-002-SWO suggest lumpy hillocks and clumsy harlequins, a potentially homely image that is instead tender and, though childlike, firm and descriptive; in this drawing the volume and space become psychically real and tantalizingly near-tangible. The ruled, angled, cross-hatching lines in SS-001-SWO softly aggregate as a Cubist-like, angled, light-drenched inhabitance of object and void. With the barest of faint means, Sam asserts a something from near nothingness, insisting that nature is complex, sensation is fugitive, and art is something meaningful against all odds.

Sam’s title for this exhibition, Over the Rainbow, recalls, of course, the Harburg/Arlen song that Judy Garland, as Dorothy, sings in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy is trying to tell her aunt and uncle, too busy to listen, about her run-in with Miss Gulch (who, later in the film, is the Wicked Witch of the West), and Aunty Em tells her to, "find yourself a place where you won’t get into any trouble." Walking off, Dorothy wonders aloud to Toto, her dog, "Someplace where there isn’t any trouble. Do you suppose there is such a place, Toto? It’s not a place you can get to by a boat, or a train. It’s far, far away. Behind the moon, beyond the rain," and begins singing the now familiar lyrics about a place over the rainbow where, "Dreams that you dare to dream/Really do come true," "Where the clouds are far/Behind me," and "Where troubles melt like lemon drops," ending with the sadly knowing lines:

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can’t I?

While the lyrics allude to a gap between one’s aspirations and reality, the melody of the song and Garland’s delivery create a longing for an ideal place and a determination to find it, even if one doesn’t know how to get there. We witness Dorothy’s initial contrariness, but ultimately she reconciles with her real world circumstances.

But Sherman Sam’s contrariness is intact. We see in his small, delicate, even tentative art works that, given consideration and time, they exude toughness and tenacity. Existing in our world they remain, as do any difficult art work, a place to get in trouble, yet his aspiration, like the bluebird’s, is to seek. Rather than a place beyond the clouds, though, his art resides knowingly in the thick of foliage and weather, line and color, flatness and space, hand and material. One must be a contrarian to fight this fight.

Chris Ashley
Oakland, CA
February, 2012


Sherman Sam (see a complete biography at Rubicon Gallery)

  • Education
    • 1987 Foundation, Parson-in-Paris, Paris, France
    • 1988-90 Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design, Los Angeles, US
    • 1991 BFA, San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, US
    • 1997 Master of Letters in History of Art, University of Oxford, UK
  • Recent Exhibitions
    • Solo: Guestroom, Brussels, Belgium; Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Ireland; One-Hour Gallery at The Hayward, London, UK; The Suburban, Chicago, Illinois.
    • Group: Feature, Inc., New York; Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, Brooklyn, New York; The Drawing Room, London, UK; Sue Scott Gallery, New York; Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Ireland; Kunsthalle Centro Cultural Andratx, Majorca, Spain.
  • Representation
    • Rubicon Gallery, Dublin, Ireland.