Material World
Samantha Combs at Good Children

When I enter a studio, gallery, or museum, the first thing I do is inhale deeply. I love the smell of art. I know the smell of certain galleries enough to identify changes in the air from show to show. Last month, Good Children Gallery smelled like oil paint; this month it smells like soap. Samantha Combs’ solo show Down the Drain got me thinking, not only about the way art materials smell—great—but how medium (or media, plural) is labeled.

The ”medium” line of a wall label, or list of works, is an underutilized opportunity for an artist to communicate essential information about their work, especially in artist-run galleries like Good Children, where labeling isn’t usually under the gallerists’ jurisdiction. Details about process or the history of the materials that often get over-explained in artist statements can fit effectively in the label, leaving interpretation up to the viewer. I generally don’t read artist statements, in part because I want to approach the work on its own terms. Some of these terms—materials of origin—can be listed in the label, leaving the viewer free to interpret their meaning.

Knowing the media can tell a viewer whether to “read into” the material or take it at face value. When it’s straightforward, “acrylic on canvas” for example, a viewer knows that there’s not much concept there (other than the decision to use synthetic rather than organic paint). “Mixed-media” can read a little cagey and is no longer used as the catch-all term it once was; but if an artist wants to keep materials a secret, this would do. If cultural, historical, physical properties are relevant, if a special process was used, the work is served by a detailed notation of medium. The “support”—or what a two-dimensional work is made on—is usually included in labeling, especially with paintings. If a painting is made on steel, we know it’s heavier than it looks and that there may be associations with industry or manufacturing. If a work is made of sugar, we reflexively consider its properties, such as sweetness and fragility, as part of the piece.

The media listed on the wall label next to Shower Excavation: A Collection of Painfully Slow, Fast Feelings is “Soap, self-help book paper.” The framed, two-dimensional work has an intricate, colorful surface that looked like it could be wax before I read the label. The surface is glossy, like the transparent glaze on a French fruit tart. Resin? I wondered—up close it smells like it. The artist confirmed that she used resin for preservation, soap being an unstable material. If the work were unvarnished, I’d consider its vulnerability to the elements. I’d consider the piece more focused on process than the object’s permanence. Also left out of the label is the fact that the soap was hand-made by the artist, though it can be inferred by other works in the show. Knowing the artist makes the soap herself compounds the amount of time and labor encapsulated in each piece. Self-made soap also resonates with the term and notion of “self-help.”

 Artist Janine Antoni famously used soap in her 1993 work Lick and Lather, made of 14 busts, seven cast in soap, seven cast in chocolate, situated on white pedestals. In an Art21 interview, Antoni said, “It’s interesting to think about cleaning and purity and just washing as a kind of ritual and its bigger meaning.” And yet, that meaning isn’t fixed. The 1978 “Calgon take me away” commercial equated bath soap with relaxation and escape. Most recently, soap was believed by some to be a matter of life and death during the COVID-19 pandemic. Soap has been around since Babylon, so it’s certainly acquired some mixed baggage.

The meaning and the phrasing of “self-help” has evolved, but Webster’s current definition is, “the action or process of bettering oneself or overcoming one’s problems without the aid of others.” The oxymoronic thing about self-help books is the authors are administering aid to the reader. Creating art with the pages of those books is a truly solitary endeavor. The two materials, soap and self-help, create a third thing, like a German compound word that results in a fused meaning. Handmade soap is a kind of self-help for the body and metaphorically, the whole person.

 As an undergrad, Combs majored in psychology and art. Then, pursuing an MFA in painting, the artist explained to me when we spoke at the gallery, she found a conceptual limitation in paint. “A paint stroke was just that, but that same stroke made out of soap or some other alt material points to a richer meaning.” It’s a kind of bilingualism. The artist uses the language of painting and the language of soap. The challenge for artists using an unconventional medium is to find the desired balance between the material and its associations without letting it drown out what the work is about.

Trying to Because _______ is a small installation of scraps of the soap-paper material in a pile on the floor next to a shovel leaning on the wall. The shovel has been whitewashed but I’m not sure what to make of that. The material, dry-looking and raw without the resin, is undeniably enticing and I would have been thrilled to encounter the remnants in the artist’s studio. But in the gallery it felt like a tipped hand, showing us how the sausage was made but not holding its own as an artwork.

The two large “paintings” find harmony between unconventional material and a traditional format. The 29” x 35” Subterranean Shower Excavation: All Those Times You Remembered that Thing and then Forgot About it, is just about perfect. At first it presents like an abstract painting, large enough so the viewer’s fixed gaze rests within the edges, allowing visual immersion without being so large that it becomes about labor or its own scale. The title suggests this work is about a mindstate, possibly shower-thinking. The mille-feuille pieces of soap and paper are arranged by color to create the illusion of a downward vortex, like a drain. The prettiness of the surface keeps me engaged while considering the overlapping noun-verbs soap and help. The point of focusing on the medium (or media label) of an artwork is not to overthink the thing, but to bring what you already know into your direct experience of the work toward a more profound encounter.

Samantha Combs: Down the Drain will be on view at Good Children Gallery until July 7. For more info, check out

Top photo (Emily Farranto): Detail, Subterranean Shower Excavation: All Those Times You Remembered that Thing and then Forgot About it

Verified by MonsterInsights