White ink grids on sheets of paper stained black: a basic description of Sam Messenger’s six “veils” at Davidson Contemporary immediately conjured the reductive recipes of Minimalism. Yet these large-scale drawings (65 by 64 inches each), all named for rivers in the mythical Greek underworld, such as Eridanos or Styx, have a mysterious presence. The drawings, with their meticulous, irregularly drawn grids, resemble embroidered patchwork quilts or homespun nets submerged in a rushing stream. The contours of the buckling paper are as erratic as the pattern of the overlying grid. To see the veils in person is to wonder how they were made.
In fact, their luminous white lattices and muddy black grounds combine precision with unpredictability. Messenger, a young British artist, created the six drawings during an extended trip to Chamonix, in the French Alps. He began each drawing by soaking large sheets of thick watercolor paper in a river. Then, at night, he laid the sheets directly on snow, pouring black ink washes over them and letting the ink seep in overnight. Eager to see how the ink and paper would react to the snow, he repeated this experiment over several evenings. As the snow froze and melted, it transformed the texture and saturation of the paper, making it as dark as a Vija Celmins sky, but with a bumpy surface more like the moon. Once the blacks were sufficiently deep, Messenger brought the sheets of paper indoors, where he then drew upon them wobbly grids of small, warped white rectangles that lean and tilt.
Messenger began this second phase by drawing a single white rectangle and then replicating it in increments, build- ing up sections as large as 55 by 55 rectangles in strict correspondence to the Fibonacci sequence (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, where 1+1=2, 1+2=3, 2+3=5, and on). While this rule-based approach to making art connects his method to that of Minimal and Conceptual artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt, Messenger revels in the inevitable imperfections of his hand and the capricious effects of natural forces. Black zones where the snow froze resemble crystals or intricate fossils. And if you look closely at the edges of the drawing, you can see small pieces of paper that detached in the snow and were later carefully glued back on; apparently the artist even initialed or signed them on the reverse side. Messenger’s process is extremely labor-intensive, and lush topographies are the reward of his perseverance.
Photo: Sam Messenger: Veil from Acheron, 2011, pen, ink, starch paste and river water, 65 by 64 inches; at Davidson Contemporary.