The human brain is primed from birth to preferentially perceive faces – the survival drive to orientate towards the people that might keep us alive. 

Later, when literacy is achieved, we have a similar impulse to read. Once you can decipher meaning from a collection of abstract symbols, you can’t not try. 

The paintings of Samuel James Savage, on show at CAN until 9 June, exploit both these deep-seated executive functions of the mind to produce work that is at once deceptively simple and as deep as those who perceive it. 

Savage’s signature script will be familiar from his host of public works, from urban murals to pub floors. But his paintings offer a unique opportunity to make a piece of his singular style part of your home. Rooted in the swoops and curls of Germanic gothic blackwork, he takes lettering as his basis. Executed in bold, confident brushwork he typically writes in whites and greys, yellows and golds, on a black background in a curvilinear form. 

But this script is asemic – devoid of literal meaning. Herein lies the beauty of the work. 

As humans we are infected with the drive to ascribe significance to the meaningless, to project understanding onto that which cannot be understood. Our eyes are drawn around the lines of characters searching for something to hold onto. When nothing is explicitly given by the artist we are forced to fill in the blanks from the vaults of our own minds. 

This is the gift that Savage gives in these pieces. They are not static artworks, frozen in time from the moment the artist puts down his brush. Rather they are a dynamic conversation, challenging the viewer to do the work, forcing their gaze inwards. “The communication part for me is very minimal,” says Savage, “People get drawn to stare at the work because they are trying to ask themselves what it says.”

Building on his script work, in this exhibition Savage unveils his Queen series. He begins with a figurative pencil sketch portrait, displaying his considerable representative skill outside the realms of writing. The pieces progress, bringing in elements of script until the contours of the face are rendered in lettering, his subject undergoing a slow process of objectification from reality to abstraction. 

The effect, playing on our deep human need to read writing and to perceive faces, is both deeply soothing and transcendental. It’s a comment on the nature of reality itself – how we navigate our own image and the images of others in an increasingly digitised landscape where nothing is really as it seems and everything is ascribed meaning after the fact. It’s gratifying to see an artist such as Savage play with ideas such as these and challenge himself to progress and evolve.

‘Love Letters’ is both Savage’s first solo show and will be his last, at least on our shores. He’s preparing to emigrate – our loss is Canada’s gain. As the plethora of red dots at the opening show, those ‘in the know’ know this may be their last chance to snap up one of these unique pieces. But the exhibition is a moveable feast. As pieces sell they are replaced by more. 

As with the individual works, the show you see today will not be the one you see tomorrow. And soon they, as Savage himself, will be gone. See it before it goes.

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