Rule Breakers: Haley Jane Samuelson

“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break it, in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.

Rule Setter: Brian Paul Clamp, Director, ClampArt
Rule-Breaker: Haley Jane Samuelson

I never want to see another picture of an artist and her lover in bed—à la Nan Goldin and the cover image from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (Aperture, 1985). Goldin’s influence on younger generations of artists has been immense, and her diaristic approach to photography is often imitated. Nonetheless, Haley Jane Samuelson’s images tell the story of her life with her artist-husband, Michael, in an intimate, compelling, and truly original fashion. And it is the story (casually written passages which read like journal entries and bittersweet recollections) paired with the tender and atmospheric photographs themselves that jointly supply the power for the new series titled Year of the Beast.

Haley Jane Samuelson’s art paradoxically addresses her renouncement of art making—sort of. In a story far too common, Samuelson and her mate moved to “the outskirts of Brooklyn” with dreams of making it big in the art world. “At thirty,” she writes, “I was supposed to be a great artist.” Nonetheless, with the pressure of a brutally high cost of living in New York City’s trendiest borough, Samuelson’s time in the Big Apple was spent working a potentially mind-numbing job which left her too exhausted to develop and promote much new art. Bruised and battered by a cliché—a city which today often feels like a place built on cash rather than creativity—Samuelson and her partner eventually faced up to reality and decided to pack a U-Haul truck and moved back to Denver, Colorado to live in the basement of her parents’ home. In her catalogue of the same title, she opens with: “This is the last picture I ever took of you. Right before we stopped being artists living in New York and started being something else.” Of course, by documenting the journey through honest words and imagery, Samuelson’s art certainly continues—simply a half continent away from where she always thought it might be created.
—Brian Paul Clamp

In another life we are two old men. We sit together at night, drink whiskey from the bottle, play card games and talk shit. Mosquitoes buzz in unchanging flight patterns around our heads, landing only intermittently to feast on our calves or the back of our necks. Sometimes we are quick enough to swat them dead. Blood and guts spatter across our hands or on the kitchen table or high up on the wall, like tiny accidental Pollock paintings, or last night’s spaghetti nuked on high for too long in the microwave. And we just leave it there, because we are old men and old men don’t care.

It is nice not to care. Not about money. Or haircuts. Not about the war in Syria. It is nice not to worry about time; About the time you have left here on earth, or the tick-tick-ticking of some biological clock, the bomb in your brain or your heart or your ovaries. It is nice to sit in silence; To not talk about the weather, or about gentrification, the raise in rent, or the boy at work who eats his lunch too loudly in the cubicle behind yours. It is nice just to be; To not be post-grunge, or neo-punk, or bound by some feminist roots passed down to you by your mother’s, mother’s, mother. To be an old man. To cuss like sailors because we once were sailors and we’ve earned the right. Or maybe, to be a mosquito. To forsake all pretense and go straight for the blood. Knowing that someday, you too will die as art on someone else’s wall.

This is the last picture I ever took of you. Right before we stopped being artists living in New York and started being something else.

“I look weird,” you tell me.  
“Weird, how?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” you say, “I just don’t look like me.”
“Maybe its not you,” I tease. And then we laugh. Even though we both know it’s true. In our haste, we left almost everything.

Somewhere in Brooklyn, the old you sits on the side of the road. Along with our couch, a hand-me-down lamp, and a box of old magazines you use to tear through for reference. I know, because the old me sits there too. Our shapes cast shadows on the pavement.

At thirty, I was supposed to be a great artist. But here I am lying in bed until noon. Wasting my one day off, watching the sun move shadows across the ceiling. Somewhere in the city, a friend of a friend is feasting on brunch. There is marmalade and marmite, and enough cocktails for all the cocks and all the tails to get good and drunk. But I am in lying bed until noon. Half way across the country my sister is running a marathon, or maybe climbing a mountain, or running a marathon to raise awareness for the mountain. But I am lying in bed until noon.

I am looking at my phone. I am trolling all the pretty, and not so pretty people, who are out in the world doing things. There are weddings, and baby showers, and celebrity sightings. Someone I know, or at least kind of know, or once knew, is jumping out of a plane. They are snorkeling in Saint Martin. They are skiing in the Alps. They are picnicking in The Park near The Zoo where, I am told, it is all happening. They are having ball at a ball, or gala, or at an opening for an artist who isn’t me because I am lying in bed until noon. There are suicide bombings in the Middle East. An Ebola break out in Africa. Somewhere in the Ukraine, there are people who are putting their lives on the line for things they believe in. And I feel guilty and I feel useless, but today I’ll let them have it. It is nice in here without all that stuff. And so I am lying in bed until noon. At forty, I will be a great artist.

When Michael draws, he does so blindly, tracing the contour of his subject without looking down at the paper, nor lifting his pen. Not even once. “This is how you get the truth of matter,” he once told me. “This way, things don’t turn out how you want them to be, but how they really are.”

When I look at his drawings of me, I am horrified. I look ape like and disturbed. Like some forgotten Picasso painting of an aggressive looking prostitute, painted with distorted, angular forms. My face in bold outlines, as if influenced by an ancient tribal mask of a long forgotten beast.

Every so often, one of us will receive a promising email, and for about twenty-nine minutes everything will seem okay. There is potential for a job offer. An impending sale of a work of art. An invitation to participate in an exhibition, a showcase, a publication, a compilation. A request for an interview from some guy, who knows some guy who writes for a blog we happen to like. We get excited. WE WRITE IN ALL CAPS. We jump up and down to too loud music streaming from our Wifi network with the clever name and the not-so-clever password. We dance. We text each other exclamation points, and say things like:

“Finally, it’s all about to pay off!”
“Its just a matter of time now!“
“I told you so, didn’t I?!”

And then, we get back to work. Some days you get what you want. On others, you get what you need. Still, most days, you just do what you have to, pausing only to hit the refresh button, in hopes of another email and one more chance at relief.