*Note: Awhile back I was commissioned by a Magazine to do an interview and article on Artist Samara Shuter but before my piece on her could be published the magazine folded. It was a shame to just let the piece just rot away on my lap top so here it is.
Sammo: The Independent Art Scene, Suited Up!
Just over a year ago, I found myself in the basement of some hole-in-the-wall bar watching two guys figuratively “duke it out” for a championship during a Queen West art crawl paint-off. The premise was simple: several head-to-head, single elimination, ten minute “paint-offs” between Toronto's most promising young artists. It seemed like an interesting enough event, so I decided to check it out with a couple of friends.
Several Carling Black Labels later, the last two painters faced off while the crowd cheered... welcome to the championship bout. While I am by no means an art critic, to me the end result looked like Helen Keller took a paint brush to a canvas. Searching for a more credible artistic input, I turned to the girl standing next to me with the non-prescription eyeglasses, wearing the green neon tights and the inappropriately warm leather coat – if she didn't know art, no one in there did.
“So what do you think of their work?” I said, half sarcastically.
“It's absolutely amazing. The way Jason [the winner] combines his use of colour with his subject matter is just surreal. It's so indicative of how globalism was ended during the 9/11 conspiracy.”
... Huh? It looked like a bunch of lines drawn together at random. If these are the best creative young people our city had to offer, we were in some serious trouble.
“The 911 conspiracy? Seriously? ‘Cause to me, it's more indicative of how Jason lacks any talent”
“Ummm...You just don't get it,” she scoffed and walked away.
Art has always been a reflection of its time – since cavemen began drawing on cave walls with rocks. Each successive period has seen its art movement embody, challenge and express the triumphs and adversities of its respective society. The Renaissance saw the rebirth of classical culture while post-WWI gave rise to Surrealism and its exploration of the unconscious. Even Warhol's seemingly simple multi-coloured soup cans symbolized the effect of consumerism on art and popular culture. But can someone please explain to me the Zeitgeist behind random lines drawn together in a ten minute round of scribble-paint? I mean, just how is a hoard of skinny jeans-wearing, venti non-fat, no foam chai latte-sipping, part-time American Apparel employees going to shock the art world? They won’t - at least not in my opinion. Most of today's art is so focused on the superficiality of pseudo-depth, that it is unable to create anything genuinely relatable. We are a post-existential generation, where who we are is defined by how we appear to other people. There is no meaning beyond the image itself, and so today’s art expresses just that: nothing (except the meaninglessness of the façade itself).
Take a stroll down Queen West during Nuit Blanche, and what you'll discover is not a celebration of art but something akin to an intoxicated block party of fashion-conscious twenty-somethings. Their concern is to embody the image of a starving artist, rather than to represent current society with their work. There will be more discussion of whose after-party to attend than there will be of the art itself. Art parties are intended to showcase art, instead they've become more of a street-cred competition than anything else. But of course, there are exceptions – once in a while, someone stands out and they dissuade from the norm. Their work and what they embody challenges the status quo and when that happens, everyone begins to take notice.
A self-proclaimed perfectionist who is inspired by vibrant colours and symmetrical lines, Artist Samara Shuter has resurrected my faith in today's youth art movement. She deviates from the norm not only with her work, but also with her approach and attitude towards today's art scene. She (and, consequently, her work) represents something original and true.
Better known as Sammo, this Montreal-born, Toronto-raised artist is quickly gaining notoriety in both the art and fashion communities. You might say that Sammo is the creative artist that every fashion- obsessed, Instagram photo-taking, St. James occupying, wannabe artist pretends to be (behind their clear lens, black Ray Ban Wayfarers).
Living in Toronto for the past decade, I have met many self-proclaimed artists; the three things that most of them have in common are 1) an art diploma, 2) they are in dire need of a proper meal, and 3) there is a serious lack of authentic meaning behind their work. Sammo isn't your prototypical Toronto art school-graduate-slash-starving-artist. In fact, she is neither starving, nor is she an OCAD graduate. Although the twenty-six year old lacks a formal fine arts background, she has enjoyed a level of success and recognition over the past year that most artists would aspire to over a lifetime. One of the things that differentiates her from the rest of the artists still trying to establish exposure is what the theme of her work represents.
Her subject matter is unlike many of today's young artists’ – it doesn't pretend to depict a struggle that is clearly not our own. It doesn't hide behind clichés rooted in a show of sympathy towards third world struggles. Instead Sammo paints what she knows and what we all know – suits.
You might not want to admit it to yourself, but suits are relatable to most people in the western hemisphere... especially those born with access to universal health care. The suit is a North American staple and, regardless of how one might feel about the suit and what it embodies, most any North American has had a personal interaction with the “suit.”
When asked why she chose suits as her subject matter, Sammo responded, “Men's suits are just visually appealing to me. I'm drawn to the symmetry of a suit: the lines of the lapel, or a tie, or the way a man's shoulders sit. The look of a man's suit just makes me want to start sketching. I think my favourite part is always when I get to the lapel. I always get most excited to draw the lapel.”
A year ago, a writer quoted Sammo stating the reason behind her inspiration is seeing her father's daily corporate attire every morning growing up. Another writer suggested her sexuality had something to do with her subject matter. Sammo asserts that it has nothing to do with either. She says, “I think that was taken out of context. Although, there were some mornings when I saw my dad wear a suit to work, that's really not the reason why I paint them – and I'm not secretly trying to express my sexuality through my work. A lot of people have attempted to give deep meaning as to why I paint suits, but – for me – I just love the traditional elements of men's fashion. I've always been visually attracted to the image of a well-tailored suit, as well as what it represents.”
If you were to ask, Sammo would tell you that “it's not about the person wearing the suit, but what wearing the suit itself has signified in society for so long. The suit has represented something for decades: power, productivity, strength, economic prosperity, and hard work.” She will also tell you that she “love[s] how you can take any man, dress him in a suit, and automatically the world views him differently. [She] admire[s] how it expresses a certain quality of confidence.”
I just so happen to agree with her, and so do most art buyers and art critics. This is the reason she has gained so much notoriety in both the art and the fashion communities in such a short period of time. Similar to what her work embodies – hard work and productivity – her approach to art as a business has correlated to her success. She has spent the past year working on her first series: Introduction. During the last year, however, she hasn't locked herself away to create this series; a majority of her time has been dedicated to promoting her work and building her fan base. It takes a lot of work to become a career artist and this is something she understands - “people just think you’ll paint something and then sell it, but it’s so much more complex.”
The 26-year-old artist quit her five year career in the film industry just over a year ago to pursue her passion in fine arts. She equates a lot of her recent success to her experiences running a film production business. She understands that many aspects of business are involved with art – it's not just talent, it’s also a lot of hard work. She says, “it's a constant hustle. The social networking is a full-time job on its own. Not only do you have to produce your work, you also have to worry about marketing your work as well as yourself. I had no idea what it took to be a career artist.” It's this kind of attitude that is missing in most of today's young artists.
A few months ago, I was standing in a parking lot-turned-art show next to a sea of locked-up fixed-gear bikes, watching a writer from BlogTo snapping shots of empty PBR cans and stylish people. I turned to one of the said stylish dudes who was standing next to me. I've recently seen him frequenting art parties and catching the eye and cameras of art bloggers. By the all the attention he has recently garnered, I concluded he must be someone relevant to the art scene. On this particular night, he was wearing a pair of grey sweat pants with brown Florsheim Imperial Westhaven wing tip shoes, a bow tie and a straw hat; either he was mentally disabled or he was possibly the coolest fucking guy I will ever meet. I asked him what piece of art he liked best and why? He looked at me bewildered, laughed and said, “Truth be told, I don't know a thing about art. I just come here for the party.”
These are the people that are apparently relevant at art parties nowadays.
Later on, I searched for the piece on BlogTo about the art event. The article mentioned PBR multiple times and indirectly tied it to the success of the event. The article discussed how “cool” the party was more than it mentioned the art.
These are the reporters who discuss the relevance of art, nowadays.
Artist used to be defined by their work, but now it seems that they gain more credibility by their wardrobe choices and beer preferences. Art used to speak to something inherently true to the generation that produced it. What does it represent now? We have no great war and no great meaning. We are a post-existential generation no longer seeking to be defined by anything intrinsically genuine. But the truth is we don't have to look far for authenticity – we just don't like what we find. We don't like the fact that we are the middle children of history, that we lack a great struggle(and for some reason, meaningful art has always been equated to the amount of struggle a population has faced). The definition of our generation doesn't earn “street-cred”. We are defined by our vanity, so we drown ourselves in the causes that are not our own in order to feel a false sense of depth.
Samara Shuter refuses to fall inline with the masses. Her and her work are authentic and relatable to our generation. She paints suits and – at the end of the day – it really does embody what we know: negative and positive. What I envy most about Sammo is that everything about her deviates from a tireless cliché. Sure, painting suits doesn't earn “street cred,” but the whole idea of “street cred” being defined by a class of individuals who attempt to escape their own wealth and privilege by immersing themselves in the sympathy of a life that is totally foreign to them is absolutely absurd. I went to Occupy Toronto, and here's a news flash: by my estimate, at least ninety percent of the people there had no idea what it was even about. It was a bunch of bored hipsters congregated together regurgitating left-wing political catch phrases while they posted Twitter updates declaring how politically aware they were – being there somehow validated that... the Instagram and Facebook profile pics of them dressed in army-like attire was just a bonus.
I'm tired of these so-called art parties and the work being showcased. I used to be a regular art party connoisseur. I used to buy into the starving artist lifestyle. I used to claim the only reason I hadn't “made it” was because I refused to compromise. I hated what the “suit” embodied. So I kept it “real,” I surrounded myself with like-minded individuals and we collectively went to Bloor Street Cinema and watched Zeitgeist 3, pretending to be revolutionaries. But as I get older, I start to realize all that is nothing but bullshit. I hadn't made it because I didn't get it. The real world isn't evil corporations preventing the people from rising. The real world is what you make of it, and Sammo's work represents just that. The real world is “painting the suit” and working hard. Painting suits might not earn you much “street cred,” but you hang out with nine broke artists long enough, and you're bound to be the tenth.