Samantha Bias: Another New Leaf
In little more than the last year, Samantha Bias’s art has become ubiquitous around Cleveland, and has been seen frequently in shows elsewhere, too, thanks to her captivating practice of Photosynthesis Photography. The unusual medium uses light from the sun to print through a positive transparency onto a natural leaf. It’s a poetic embodiment of Marshall McLuhan’s well-worn phrase, “the medium is the message,” in that the medium itself deeply informs its content: photo prints made with light and chlorophyl will naturally fade, and so will their content, and so will we all. As she says, they are “compostable.” Since 2019, her photosynthesis prints have been in more than 30 group shows and a solo show, and won a slew of awards. Her work was featured in Scene in September, and then again in June.
Her new show, All that Remains, on view now at Shaker Historical Society’s Lissauer Gallery, turns over a new leaf. Not that finding the next thing is anything new: In 2017 she was making watercolors on canvas. In 2018 it was frescos, using watercolors on clay board. In 2019 she continued using watercolor and other media on clay board, but discovered chlorophyl process photo printing.
What she has on view at the Lissauer Gallery continues her use of leaves as a fragile and ecofriendly medium, but represents another a significant turn. Instead of analog printing via photosynthesis, these are digital prints directly onto bodhi, wax wood, and magnolia leaves—or at least what remains of them. For this series she has used what are known as “skeleton leaves.”
Skeleton leaves, apropos of the title of Bias’s current show, are “all that remains” of leaves, after some of their flesh has decayed. They are the lacey, leaf-shaped network of veins that fed the leaf while it was alive, denuded by decay, either natural or enabled intentionally. They are beautiful in and of themselves, but Bias takes her artistic evolution a step farther by using them as a surface for photo prints.
The series helped her break out of a period of stalled creativity that came over her during what she called “the Great Pause.” She was watching other artists embracing the COVID shutdown with a flurry of creativity, but found herself blocked. She took up reading, yoga, and cleaning.
“During my deep cleaning and purging, I stumbled upon a stack of old skeleton leaves I used to create silhouettes for my cyanotype prints,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘what if I printed a photograph on them?’”
After some research, she found a way to do that, using her 10-year-old laser jet. She’d print an image, at the size she wanted, on a sheet of paper. She’d place a skeleton leaf over the image, positioning it to compose the work within the leaf’s bounds, and taping it in place. Then she’d run it through the printer and pray for the best. She says she has frequent paper jams. The works that make it through the printer, though, are beautiful objects. They combine smart composition and powerful figures with the lacey natural beauty of the skeletal leaves.
The content of her Skeleton leaf series (and what’s on view at Lissauer Gallery is just a fraction of it) continues her exploration of women as lone figures in some vulnerable state. Bias has painted her own figure for years, and has served as subject of photos, too. The largest work in this show is a self portrait, Bias’s eyes gazing through the lace of two skeleton leaves. It’s also the first work you see upon entering the exhibit. She also appears in a small work, Curl, the seated form of a nude woman.
Her piece called Staring Into the Void shows a woman alone. The viewer’s perspective is from behind, over her left shoulder. Perhaps she turned her back. There’s a ghostly quality about these works. The intricate web of veins in the form of a heart shaped leaf supports the image airily, as if the figures are floating, or as if like ashes they could blow away.
Another, Something’s Missing, shows two arms embracing a hollow space at the center of the form, the space where someone isn’t, or isn’t anymore.
A piece called Entering The Void shows only the back half of a man’s walking figure. He seems to be moving with purpose. His front half has vanished behind a wall, or moved into another dimension, a place marked in a hard line by the spine that runs up the middle of the leaf. Is this a commentary on mankind, that all life will come to an end? Or political, as in the exit of men from the scene? Or is it just visual play with the leaf as medium? I think it is all those things.
Having seen Bias’s photos all over town shouldn’t be anyone’s reason for not checking out this show. It’s yet another twist of media that makes perfect sense in the way it enriches the artist’s output.
All That Remains
September 4 – November 7, 2020
Shaker Historical Society Lissauer Gallery
16740 South Park Blvd
Shaker Heights, OH 44120