Diego Samper is a complex person completely without pretension. The same can be said for his work, whether it is architecture, sculpture, painting, photography, book making or publishing. His complexity has its origin in both character and circumstances. He was born and grew up in Colombia and now is a Canadian citizen living in British Columbia. His work is always closely connected to his environment. Whether by happenstance, or not, he has moved from an Equatorial rain forest to a Northern one. Thus, to use current jargon, one can say that he makes cross-environmental connections. But whatever the differences he encounters they are unified by his concern for nature and the scrutiny he brings to bear at all times.
I am not in a position to set his work in the context of Colombian art, on the other hand it is crystal clear that he is deeply romantic in both his life and work. Before formally becoming an artist he studied Biology and Anthropology. So his romantic attachment to the natural world rests on a scientific foundation. This may sound strange but certainly not without precedent, for the same is true of the archetypical romantic poet Wordsworth, whose interest was in the geometry of Euclid. And, on reflection one can add the names of Ovid, Lucretius, and perhaps all of the pre-Socratics. What it amounts to is this: Diego Samper’s work lies in a tradition that celebrates and analyses nature alive and whole. This is paradoxically true even when he chooses bones, eroded sandstone, sunlit clouds or deadwood as his motif, for his concern is with form and the way formal structures run through the living world. His position is the polar opposite of positive science that requires the objects of nature to be isolated, anesthetized and spread upon the operating table before they can be understood.
Put another way, what is sought is the connection between things, recognizing the same in the different, the whole in the part. He rightly reminds us Morph is the Greek word for form, and that morphology, the science of form, reigns equally in the organic and inorganic realms. Symmetry operations, are important to the study of form. One can recognize operators in his choice of subject and his handling. Their names are self explanatory: Translation, Elastic distortion, Dilatation, Rotation, Reflection, Glide reflection, Inversion, Mirrored, Skewed etc.
While geometry is one branch of morphology, mechanics is another – by which I mean the effect of forces on forms. Gravity is certainly at play, as is surface tension. Stresses of all kinds such as compression, tension, torque and shear play their part in formation. Those of surface tension account for the form of cracks, fissures and the form of cells and bubbles.
Examples of these formative causes are displayed in the splendid black and white photographs in the Historia Naturae suite. By carefully selecting the scale and scope of the pictures the viewer is brought face to face with the delights of growth-form in the fragile calligraphy of a lacy and semi-transparent group of feather s where each element is translated along the stem branching from it at an angle of 120 degrees. This same angle of juncture governs the lattice of lines that divide the laminates of some lichens.
The Earth suite by contrast explores what could be called form-degeneration, the shape things take on their way out of existence. Here the forces are those of decay, erosion and breakdown. Clouds are swept apart and threaded by currents of air in the upper atmosphere. Clusters of stalactites record the passage of lime-loaded water in the memory of stone. The eroded sandstone of a foreshore is pocked by a thousand holes, and deeply divided by a chasm that runs down to the beach. The scale is uncertain, it can be read as a fine texture found on a sea shell; as a vast plane on the moon covered in craters; or a field of volcanoes in some undiscovered land.
While form and transformation is one aspect of Diego Samper’s work, another equally powerful concern runs through his complete oeuvre. He is image-obsessed. All the images are strongly evocative. Sometimes they are direct and immediate, making a clear and distinct impression. On other occasions they seem to be things we can only grasp on the very edge of consciousness. One of the most haunting images is the scan of an animal skull. It is an existential work. The light bathing the bone is almost occult inducing a luminous form from an absolute void. The void is ambivalent, it depicts the presence of nothing: we are being taught that nothing too is something.
The Maya suite contains a series of forty-eight photographs that are introduced by enlargements of the first twenty-four. As pictorial theatre they represent pure action set against a ground that establishes the mood: the ochre tinge of Indian red has been cut with a touch of cadmium red - the prevailing colour. The ground is non-tactile, one cannot touch it in the imagination. It has the quality that Adrian Stokes, the distinguished English painter and writer on art, once described as film colour. By concentrating on one frame at a time, the colour-field envelops and draws you into its unlimited depths. This a quality Rothko employed on canvasses large enough to fill the entire visual field. The Rothko effect produces a strange feeling of absorption as you become cloaked in colour. The Progressions series works in the same way.
The ostensible subject: a woman walking down a staircase is rendered in a series of fleeting, diaphanous images. The pictorial problem of depicting movement in a stationary medium is as long as art itself. Sometimes it has been resolved serially, as in comic strips or in the marble reliefs of the Parthenon. Sometimes aspects of a moving figure have been superimposed one on another: a solution often favoured by the Assyrian sculptors, and indeed by Marcel Duchamps’ iconic monochrome image of the same subject Nude Decending a Staircase, No.2. Interestingly, Duchamps’ and Samper’s images are the inverse of each other. Duchamps’ painted Nude has it’s antecedent in the Maybridge’s photographs while Diego Samper’s photographic images have the painterly economy of a Francis Bacon.
Form, nature, poetry and intimacy characterize all of Diego Samper’s work. There is a lyrical quality to the paintings in both the West Coast Seriesand Terra Incognita pieces. The titles have a cartographic ring: the known land is close at hand and the distant illusive world has yet to be discovered. This Colombian, unlike Columbus himself, sees the New World as the known world, and lying to the East is the Terra Incognita – the forgotten unknown land of beginnings, the ancient land of rust that awaits exploration.
Experience is subject of exploration, while scrutiny, the agent of intimacy and close reading gets to the root and meaning of things. T.S Eliot in Dry Salvages II wrote We had the experience but missed the meaning … Diego Samper, however, has had the experience and the meaning stays with him.
I cannot begin to imagine the quality of his experience in the jungle of the Colombian Amazon. After graduating he walked into that jungle equipped only with the basic survival tools. There he built a cabin - in which he lived for seven years. It was a phenomenological experiment and an invaluable investment in understanding. Day by day, and no doubt night after night, he came to know a part of the world that had been scarcely touched by our species. His tools were his hands, his eyes, his knife and machete - and his knowledge of biology. With them he came to know the substance of the natural, the really natural world - and a great deal about himself.
Experience is all: it is the source he draws upon to make his picture of things that we are privileged to share. His own notes say, more ably than I can, how he sees the continuity of patterns and connections between being, things and spirit. And how he sees a unity in the whole of this world.
Geoffrey Smedley, Gambier Island, British Columbia, 2008.