Fire: Paint with me

The strange and frightening genius of Dan Samborski, who once wrote about art in these pages

Portrait of the Artist in a “genius” T-shirt: Dan Samborski.

Portrait of the Artist in a “genius” T-shirt: Dan Samborski.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Good god, it’s Dan Samborski on the answering machine again, for the third time today, seeking an update on the preview I’m writing—right now!—about his upcoming show at Barton Gallery.


They’re so goddamned insecure.

“Don’t forget to tell them about my genius,” he says to the machine. My genius. Jesus Christ. How the hell did I get myself into this?

Never write about your friends, I was taught back in journalism school. The results, socially and ethically, are just too unpredictable, even in the nepotistic realm of a struggling local art scene such as Sacramento’s.

I’ve known Samborski, a painter, art instructor and former SN&R arts critic, for roughly 10 years. And, until now, I’ve been able to stick to that teaching despite considerable pressure from such luminaries as the artist himself.

“In a perfect world,” he has explained to me more than once, “you would awaken each morning and ask, ‘What can I do for Dan Samborski today?’ “

That’s because in a perfect world, I’d recognize that Samborski’s self-professed genius was not just his gift, but all of humanity’s, and I would dedicate myself to helping him share it with said horde. Fat chance, I thought every time he tried this lame spiel on me, there’s no way I’m doing an article on you.

But then a strange thing happened: I recognized Dan’s genius.

It happened at his last show, three years ago at Barton Gallery. It only took one piece. The painting, roughly 4 feet long by 3 feet wide, whimsically was titled “Iberian Ingres.” A shameless misappropriator, Samborski had excerpted one of the nudes from Picasso’s famed “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the 1907 masterpiece that introduced the world to cubism, and had juxtaposed the nude with a neoclassic nude by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867). The two styles couldn’t be more different, yet the resulting figure, rendered in globular, creamy flesh tones and formally balanced against a Caribbean blue background, achieved a level of synergy and cohesiveness heretofore unseen in Samborski’s work. It was perfect, as if it was meant to be, as if it always had been. Pure genius.

I knew right then and there that despite my misgivings about postmodernism’s endless propensity for recycling the same old shit, Dan was on to something and that one morning I would wake up with the answer to the inevitable question: What can I do for Dan Samborski today?

That was this morning, and this preview is the answer.

That’s how the hell I got myself into this.

When I first met Samborski in the early 1990s, he was known locally as the Squiggle King. That’s because he likes to take these giant syringes he buys from medical-supply warehouses, load the syringes with acrylic paint and jizz all over the canvas with them. He’ll add layer upon layer, like in the title piece for the current show at Barton Gallery, “It’s All Academic Now … .”

The painting’s dominant image is a woman’s head lifted from an obscure Picasso sketch. Thick, modulating pools of white, flesh and pink acrylic raise robust cheekbones. Her long, swept-back hair is a tight gnarl of burnt sienna, umber and toffee squiggles, woven together like coarse hemp. “This damned thing must weigh 75 pounds, it has so much paint on it,” the artist boasts.

“Are you saying it’s a heavy painting?” I ask.

“Yeah, smart-ass, it’s a heavy painting,” he says.

I meant to ask if it was heavy for a painting, but fuck him. He has a temper, Samborski. He knows anger, and he can be a prick. “That guy’s an asshole,” one of his leading contemporaries told me recently. Back when he was known as the Squiggle King, Samborski used to paint fire a lot. He’d load up the syringe with nuclear paint and squirt liquid flame onto the canvas. A jetliner goes down in flames as a man loses his erection. A volcano erupts as a white cop kills a black kid. A cheating spouse spontaneously combusts. Even in the new show, in the painting “9/11,” a home explodes in front of a skyscraper and behind the purple, melted skull of an Iraqi soldier, orange and yellow and red squiggles like tentacles of some strange monster drawing us in.

“Why do you like to paint fire?” I ask.

“Why do I paint fire?” he asks.

He pauses for effect.

“Because it’s pretty.”

Another pause.

“Because it’s scary.”

Once a week or so, Samborski meets with his best friend Ken Magri for a game of chess. Both teach art at American River College, Magri full time and Samborski part time. Samborski is a viciously logical chess player who actually studies the game; his play is to Spock’s as Magri’s is to Capt. Kirk’s. Despite Samborski’s studiousness, Magri occasionally gets the best of him, but this isn’t the only thing irking Samborski.

Like a lot of so-called adjunct professors, Samborski’s part-time status gets to him occasionally, and he resents American River College for not giving him a real job. That’s the way it is for a lot of artists in Sacramento, not to mention America. The ironic truth, though, is that if Samborski had a real job, he might not have the time it takes to crank out the dozen or so large pieces required for the average gallery opening, or to create a masterpiece like “Iberian Ingres,” a fact to which he freely admits.

So, really, he has nothing to complain about, except for Magri occasionally beating his sorry logical ass in chess.

In the second message he left today, Samborski asked me not to mention Magri because most people in the local art community tend to view the pair as joined at the hip. This stems from the days when they served as sort of the wrestling tag-team equivalent of art critics for SN&R. The arrangement worked fairly well because, when it comes to small-town art criticism, most people follow the rule that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. Because most local art sucks really badly, there wasn’t too much to say until Samborski and Magri came along. When Samborski got tired of saying mean and nasty things, Magri would take over. During their tenure, they pissed one local artist off so bad, she instigated a letter-writing campaign—using false names to make it look like she had a groundswell of support—to have them removed. The truth was that she sucked, but the campaign worked. They were removed, and they didn’t talk to me for two years.

I was SN&R’s arts editor at the time they were hired. I was supposedly in charge of keeping the boys in rein and watching their backs—duties in which I must sadly report I failed miserably, no thanks to them. They had me bamboozled from the beginning, talking about this 60 Minutes piece on contemporary art in which a New York City gallery owner, when asked what a certain abstract expressionist painting might mean, responded by saying, “It has this potential multiplicity of meanings. It could mean anything. It could mean nothing at all.”

“Can you believe this shit?” they asked me, not bothering to tell me that they believed it hook, line and sinker, when it suited them. They’re still pulling this kind of crap on me, which is the only reason I mention it.

On the first message Samborski left for me today, he had the audacity to ask if I was still doing this preview. He’s already sold a number of the paintings that will be in the upcoming show—one went for $4,000—yet what I think and what I will write still matter to him.

What I think is that genius is an overused word. But I have been watching Samborski for many years now. I once thought he was kidding when he proclaimed himself a genius. I still think he has his tongue planted firmly in cheek when he makes such utterances. But, at the same time, I’ve watched him progress as a painter, watched him follow his instincts and teachings to their inevitable conclusion: Greatness, if not genius.

It’s all there in “Colorized Cubist Composite,” a neat little pseudo still life of a violin sitting on a table between a pipe; a clear, glass bottle; and two pieces of fruit. The piece originally was the title piece for the upcoming show. The violin and the table have been ripped from Georges Braque, a Picasso contemporary. The bottle and pipe have been taken from yet another obscure Picasso drawing. The stem of the pipe is broken by the refracting power of the glass, in much the same way that Brauque’s violin has been drawn and quartered by the power of synthetic cubism. Could both images be the result of the same unintended gesture? A trick of the quantum galactic light?

I honestly don’t think Samborski consciously knows the answer to those questions. He sees things, and he paints them. He knows what he likes. Yet, I have watched him work on “Colorized Cubist Composite” for two years. I have watched him fuck the painting up and then bring it back to life by incorporating the table with the violin, only to fuck it up again by adding a strange piece of fruit and then resurrect it again. As it stands now, it’s the show’s signature piece, not “It’s All Academic Now …,” if he hasn’t changed “Colorized Cubist Composite” yet again.

Why would anyone put himself through this? The only reason I can figure is that the guy can’t help it. That may be the true genius of Dan Samborski: He just can’t help it.