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Call and response

Abstract language in Eric Sall’s paintings

Tulsa Artist Fellow Eric Sall

Melissa Lukenbaugh

Tulsa Artist Fellow Eric Sall’s paintings are big, bright, many-colored, and abstract. Large patches of color lay over other patches; polygons, circles, and striations of paint dance on canvas; abstract figures hide in the thick textured layers of paint.

Sometimes, when Sall asks his six year-old son, Wyatt, what it is Wyatt has just painted, his son responds, “oh, that’s just a painting.”

So it is with Sall.

“It’s hard to ask, ‘what is this?’” said Sall of his work. “You understand it’s a formal kind of painting with shapes and colors, but it’s abstract because it’s hard to name it. It’s like asking what a tree is.”

His paintings, some oil and some acrylic, are jumbles of color and lines and shapes that look technical and playful, like an engaging conversation. They’re also big—some reach eight feet long and over five feet tall. 

“I like that relation to my body,” said Sall. “I like when they become objects. They start to affect your psyche that way.”

While working, Sall is constantly in conversation with his paintings, trying to determine when one is finished, or what needs to be added or changed next. The half a dozen or so that are being worked on in his Cameron Street studio at the moment are in dialogue together, too.

“I think of them as autonomous objects in their own right. There’s one idea of the painting like it’s a picture-plane—a place you go to discover a space or an experience. But I think when they’re objects, they kind of resonate as their own thing with its own life and they kind-of start talking to each other, they become like siblings in a weird way, a family of paintings.”

And like a family, there are things that look obvious, that tie the paintings to one another, such as a repetition of stripes and pulls and layers of paint. But there’s also a lot that gets covered up by those layers, by time, by different moods.

“Pulling the paint can cover layers underneath. Sometimes I scrape back in to reveal the under-painting that was there in the beginning … [but] I’m trying not to bury so much anymore. Because I’m always trying to get to something that feels kind of fresh, and was created in a moment, and captures that moment, but I work on them a long time … so it’s a little deceiving.”

I hadn’t thought about a painting as a collection of moments before, because often a painting of a scene, or still life, or portrait seems to capture one moment in time. But in looking at Sall’s paintings, with their many different little moments coming together as a whole, it’s apparent it doesn’t all happen at once, is not set in a certain time.

Sall calls himself an “intuitive painter,” and mentioned that a lot of his work is done by first putting something on the canvas and then responding to it. He may do something fast, then come back in and agitate it, or make a different move.

“There’s a lot of call and response,” he said. 

That also exists between the viewer and painting.

“I like that idea of how songs and food are really good at evoking a moment,” he said. “Can a painting do something like that? Be something that can be evocative of a memory. I don’t really pinpoint that memory, exactly, because I think there’s openness to the abstraction. You [the viewer] bring something to it that’s unique to you. It’s different than what I was thinking of when I made it. So it’s kind of like a shared dialogue—you have to complete some of it, too.” 

For more from Liz, read her profile of Tulsa Artist Fellow Chris Ramsey.

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