Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery is pleased to present Deep Springs, Sam Contis’s first solo exhibition in New York City. In this series of photographs, Contis engages with the mythology and iconography of the American West, a subject with a historic connection to the medium. The images in the show were made in the remote Deep Springs Valley of California, home to one of the last remaining all-male colleges in the United States.
Founded in 1917 by the industrialist and educational visionary L.L. Nunn, Deep Springs College is a small, profoundly idiosyncratic liberal arts institution. Nunn sought to create a new type of educational community amid the wilderness of the high desert, emphasizing the value of self-governance and manual labor. In addition to academic study, the students work the school’s alfalfa farm and cattle ranch.
The American West has traditionally been associated with ideals of freedom and self-determination, but also with a rough and often aggressive model of masculinity. Contis’s photographs show the young men of the college performing the role of the iconic cowboy, branding cattle and riding on horseback through the infinite desert landscape of the eastern Sierra. At the same time, she alludes to an experience of gender that is more nuanced and open to ambiguity, presenting intimate, tactile studies of the earth and the body. A soft, Cytherean torso, a painted blue thumbnail, a hand cradling a pair of ivory eggs, flowers hung to dry in a greenhouse, laundry scattered in the grass—these details become powerful signifiers of the passing of time and of identities in flux. Throughout the Deep Springs series, Contis invites us to reimagine the Western landscape as a site of possibility and transformation, and to reflect on photography’s role in the construction of place and self.
The show coincides with Contis’s first American museum exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), as part of its MATRIX Program for Contemporary Art. Her first monograph, Deep Springs, was recently published by MACK, and will be available at the gallery.
Sam Contis (Pittsburgh, PA, 1982) lives and works in Oakland, CA. She holds an MFA from Yale University and a BFA from New York University. Her work is in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. She has exhibited recently in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and London. She is the recipient of a 2017 Nancy Graves Foundation Artist Grant.