Approaching his practice with an innate understanding of the urban landscape, Sam Belisle works to create documentary images that speak to both the realities of city life and to the history of painting. Originally from a working-class neighborhood in inner-city Columbus, Ohio, Belisle’s early exposure to fine art included lessons downtown at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Recalling being 10 years old and dropped off for these art lessons, Belisle notes being interested in the grime and graffiti unique to the city. While attending Denison University, Belisle’s approach to art-making shifted to accommodate his interest in expressing class dynamics and highlighting the inequitable allocation of wealth and resources throughout the country. He was drawn to oil painting as he felt as though the subject matter he was pursuing was tied to history, as was the medium he was working in. In this way, painting felt like the most appropriate medium as it allowed him to communicate with and comment on history.
In this way, Belisle’s decision to work in oil paint was deliberate, as both oil painting and portraiture are historically tied to high-culture. Working with the history of the medium, Belisle asks himself key questions when thinking about his body of work. Who has access to fine art? Where is fine art viewed? Who can afford to participate in the art market? Thinking about these questions when making his work, Belisle works to implement his own experiences into the narrative. He also notes that these moments become political when looking at who is viewing the artwork, as his subject matter often involves subjects and objects not typically seen by the classes who are viewing the work. With this knowledge, Belisle works within oil painting to subvert the inherent expectations for the medium. He undermines painting norms both by working on found and repurposed materials and by revisiting the American tradition of Social Realism through his painting practice.
Belisle’s attention to detail is also a key tenet of his painting practice as specific objects prevalent in daily life take precedence in the composition. These moments are defined by Belisle as being “religious to the working-class experience” and are intended to reflect in the viewer both a sense of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Deeply interested in how the viewer’s experiences inform their interaction with his paintings, Belisle urges the viewer to hone in on the details of his work. This focus reflects on the development of Belisle’s work throughout the last five years, where he has worked on adding narrative to his paintings and augmenting his strength in traditional portraiture. With experience in a range of mediums from charcoal and mixed media to oil painting, Belisle has become a storyteller that recognizes the importance of his own experiences and perspective.
Following the custom of Social Realism, Belisle tries to highlight the deficiencies of a capitalist society. His most recent series, featured in Beacon Gallery’s Urban Landscapes, directs a spotlight to behavior of the media during the international civil rights movement of Black Lives Matter amidst a global pandemic. Belisle’s painting series documents moments from two protests in Franklin Park and Cambridge Commons following the death of George Floyd in May 2020. Each painting is done on Oriented Strand Board (OSB) to reference how businesses closed and boarded up their establishments in preparation for protests where the boards then became a place for folk art and social messaging.
In this body of work, Belisle draws our attention to people recording or photographing the protests, showcasing the importance of recognizing the impact that media has on the consciousness of the American people. For those not living in a city or participating in this social movement, it is the media that is defining the “urban landscape.” Whether the person documenting is employed by a news outlet, blog, or is documenting the moment for personal use, each individual, as well as the company they represent, has the capability to frame the image they are presenting to the public. This has proven problematic, especially during a presidency and election wrought with misinformation. When Fox News, for example, refers to protestors synonymously as “looters” they are influencing the consciousness of their viewers by reframing reality to reinforce bias and division. Belisle draws our attention to these issues in the works on view in Urban Landscapes, as figures with cameras become the dominant subject matter within his images.
Urban Landscapes focuses on how four artists translate the urban landscape into their own unique vision, and Sam Belisle’s perspective within the show is rooted in social justice and a commitment to equity. Seeing the urban landscape as an expression of authenticity, energy, and movement inherent to city life, Belisle comments on how “there’s something real about the urban landscape when you’re within it, but it’s almost like a character to someone who doesn’t live within it.” This then leaves room for the urban landscape to be misunderstood or misinterpreted. Belisle’s approach to his painting practice is also deeply rooted in the idea of the “grind” inherent to living in the city, where hard work in the face of the difficulty of making it is part of city life, particularly for those not from a wealthy background. Belisle pulls on his sentiment of the “grind” through a very tactile and hands-on approach to painting, through building his canvases and frames and transporting his work himself. He remains personally committed to supporting the arts and art education in his personal life and is currently working on opening an artist-owned and operated gallery in Newton Center to give opportunity to young artists and providing accessible art education to the community.