Jonah Samson Paints a Fictional Town’s Dark History


A noted photographer, Vancouverian Jonah Samson can also weild a paintbrush, and gives brightly-colored new life to old photos in his latest exhibit, Paintings from the Archives of the Pleasantville Historical Society, opening tonight at the G. Gibson Gallery. The images are equal parts sexual, violent and humorous, imbuing Samson’s Ebay finds with a dark side. He responded to the following questions via e-mail, in the midst of packing for this evening’s reception.

The show is centered around Pleasantville, a fictionalized town that has appeared in your photographic work in the past. How did the concept of this place develop?

I’ve always had a very dark sensibility and sense of humor. A few years ago, as I began to build and photograph the original dioramas for the Pleasantville series of photos, a story began to develop. I started to imagine this normal looking town in which sex and violence ran rampant. Each image became a staged secret moment. There was a wonderful irony in having toys and models depict very adult situations like axe murders and porn sets, and I wanted the body of work to have a title that was equally ironic. When I began to work on the series of paintings, I wanted to maintain the dark and whimsical quality that was found in the photographs. The strange cast of characters that appeared in the paintings started to give Pleasantville a past-as though this town had been shrouded by a dark cloud throughout its entire history.

The name is intentionally, err, pleasant, while the subject matter is a jarring contrast. What should transplants to Pleasantville know?

Words of advice: watch your back and wear a condom.

What’s your method for creating one of these paintings?

I literally look at thousands of old pictures before buying a handful. Sometimes the photo speaks to me immediately and I know what I want to do with it. Sometimes I just know it will be a good picture to work with and the inspiration will come later. I paint using gouache, which is so incredibly beautiful in color and texture. Gouache also gives the image a look that is illustrative and cartoony, which infuses an otherwise dark image with a touch of comedy. The title of each painting is a crucial part of the final piece. It’s another way to infuse the image with a sense of whimsy, and frequently holds a poignant message.

Is this an ongoing project?

Absolutely. I’m in love with the characters that have come out of the paintings. Bagman, Germ-phobia, Octopus, Deep Sea Diver, Hangman…I want to keep bringing them back. I’ve recently become obsessed with nosebleeds and tattoos, so I want to see where that goes, too.

Image: Despite their initial misgivings, Dan and Sarah went on to have 12 children, most of whom were conceived consensually

Introduction by the artist at 5:30 p.m.; gallery open until 8 p.m.

G. Gibson Gallery, 300 South Washington St.