Inside the Bizarre, Dreamlike World of Artist Samual Weinberg’s Comic-Inspired Paintings

The young Minnesota-based painter is making his east coast debut this weekend at Detour Gallery in Red Bank, New Jersey.

Samual Weinberg, River-House Showdown (2016). Courtesy of the artist and Detour Gallery.

Describing the work of Samual Weinberg, a young Minnesota-based painter, is like describing a vivid dream to someone. Or perhaps, more accurately, a drug-induced vision: It sounds strange, illogical, and just not nearly as vibrant as the picture that played on the walls of your mind.

Look at his new show “Free Swim,” opening this weekend at Detour Gallery in Red Bank, New Jersey. Nearly a dozen paintings are on display in the massive gallery space, all of which feature a diverse group of characters, symbols, and settings. At first, the imagery seems random—a hodgepodge of visuals from who knows where—but hang around a second and you’ll notice that there’s actually an elaborate set of recurring references at play between the canvases.

A one-eyed man, for instance—he’s everywhere. There’s also some nondescript art historical heroines, a grip of creepy masks, and a particularly unsettling smiley face.

Samual Weinberg. Courtesy of the artist.

Indeed, if it looks like the imagery in Weinberg’s paintings is from another world, it’s because it is. It’s a world that the artist himself created, where a cast of otherworldly characters wage war in a painted environment that looks very much like our own. (Not surprisingly, comic books are a big influence for the artist, as is the writing of Phillip K. Dick, Jorge Luis Borges, and the postmodernists—in particular, the hyper-specific absurdity of Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace.)

Let’s start with the one-eyed man. That’s Pinkman, the series’ central figure. He’s salmon-colored, has a big mouth, and is depicted in a very flat, graphic manner. Whether or not Pinkman is a hero or a villain is unclear. The artist describes him as a neutral thing with chaos around him, even if, from an outside perspective, the Pinkman seems to be integral to much of the chaos himself.

“To me, he acts like a shell,” Weinberg tells artnet News. “I don’t know if he’s good or bad; he can be whatever. I think he’s a sweetheart, though. A lovable dumbass.”

Samual Weinberg, Knockout (2018). Courtesy of the artist and Detour Gallery.

Pinkman stands opposed to the Realies—those are the characters whose faces are based on unidentifiable old paintings. They look familiar, as if you’ve seen their likeness on a gallery wall before, but you just can’t quite place them. A long lost cousin to the Mona Lisa, perhaps. They were inspired by pictures the artists used to take old paintings in museums, but their sources have long since been forgotten. At this point, Weinberg himself doesn’t even know where they came from.

That goes for much of the imagery in his work, which, in true surrealist fashion, tends to come from a place of freewheeling intuition rather than one of calculated narrative design.

“I never try to add something on purpose,” he explains. “When I do, it’s not good. Occasionally, when I’m watching a movie or something and I see some interesting light, I’ll think, ‘What if I were to take out the character and put the Pinkman there?’ That’s the extent of the planning though.”

Installation view of
“Samual Weinberg: Free Swim,” 2018. Courtesy of Detour Gallery.

Look at one of the highlights of the show—a nine-foot-long triptych from 2016 titled River-House Showdown. The painting depicts a scene by a backyard pool. One Pinkman lies sickly in the water while another, emerging from a small house, seemingly offers him a hand. Realies are all around. Some have masks, some don’t. One brandishes a knife, another emerges from the pool. What’s actually happening here? It’s like the climactic scene from a comic book, yet we don’t have access to any of the other pages.

“The complexity of Samual’s world is his own, but his work invites us to decipher its curiosities,” says Rune Egenes, the director of Detour. “Every person I’ve brought in front of Samual’s paintings has reacted with a ‘Wow! I’ve never seen anything like this.’

Egenes first discovered Weinberg the way many galleries discover new work today: on Instagram. Another artist posted about Weinberg’s work, calling the Minnesotan one of his favorite new artists.

“Naturally, I checked out Samual’s profile. Within a minute I had written him a message introducing the idea of working together,” recalls Egenes. “I love art, but I always thought I was an apathetic person until I saw Samual’s work. I had an immediate emotional response.”

Samual Weinberg at work in his studio. Courtesy of the artist.

And the smiley face? Appropriately enough, that came from a recent experience Weinberg had doing LSD.

“My friend brought it over. The tabs that had a little smiley face on them. I said, ‘Man, these don’t look good. I don’t think the good stuff is supposed to have a smiley face on it.’”

He took it anyway and had, as he puts it, a “terrifying experience.”

Samual Weinberg, A Pink Man Reflects (2017). Courtesy of the artist and Detour Gallery.

“Samual Weinberg: Free Swim” will be on view September 8 through October 13, 2018, at Detour Gallery.

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