Back in the blissful naivety of January 2020, Billy Fraser began the year with one resolution, to fall back in love with painting. Having mastered the medium during his time at Chelsea College of Art, Fraser had spent the subsequent three years devoted to his Devonian series, a suite of photo-realistic depictions of the first ferns, flora and foliage to mass-populate the planet, pre-the dawn of humanity. He had also somewhat neglected his own art practice in the pursuit of promoting others, through curatorial projects such as the Extended Call and ABSINTHE exhibition trilogies, and the co-founding of Collective Ending HQ in Deptford, an ongoing artist-led initiative and collectively-run studio/gallery complex in South East London. Therefore, acutely aware that he had been out of art school education for the same length of time as he had been in it, Fraser conceived of a conceptual conceit that would allow him to finally address the festering ideas that occupied the overlooked sketchbooks burdening his studio shelves, to scratch years-old itches and to metaphorically, and literally, let his hair down. He committed to completing four paintings per month, each thirty-one by forty-one centimetres in size, fifty-two in total.
The Sample paintings, as they came to be known, were an exercise in experimentation. Following regimented durational rules, and yet free of the constricting confines of the labour and time-intensive Devonian artworks, ideas could evolve organically and each painting could influence and inform the next. Revisiting, reviving and realising three years' worth of neglected notes and stale sketches, their volume acted as the only control variable, a painterly parameter requiring sustained production in order to satiate the project’s predetermined apex. Of course, with the advent of lingering lockdowns in March 2020, it is hard not to view the Sample series within its inherent Covid-19 context. Suddenly devoid of any and all commitments, and actively told to remain indoors indefinitely, what initially began as a fun folly into unexplored ideas, became a lifeline for Fraser. A much-needed regime in an otherwise rudderless existence, with schedules suspended and work out of the window, the Samples provided certainty amidst unprecedented times.
Language forms and functions are investigated as Ed Ruschian textual constructions, whispering or shouting ‘Softly’, ‘Sorry’, ‘Smooth’ or ‘Synaesthesia’. Others resemble the reflective results of rigorous Rorschach testing. Figuration fluctuates, with source material scoured from Gustave Doré’s 19th-century lithographs or Henry Justice Ford illustrations within The Langs' Fairy Books. The first footprint left on the moon’s surface is rendered in sculptural relief, while one shaped canvas takes its form from the Head of Polyphemus, a c. 150 B.C. Greco-Roman cyclopean statue. Throughout, styles wax and wane at Fraser’s will, as an array of techniques are introduced, employed and overturned. Select Samples are bequeathed bevelled edges or impasto oils, others are airbrushed into super-flat surfaces or set with a layer of resin varnish. Contemporary camouflage recurs in creme brulee or peaches and cream colourways, as tie dye staining recalls preeminent colour field painters. Elsewhere, inception is approached as some were used as a palette during the painting process, producing samples within samples.
‘Sample’ as a unifying nomenclature is an apt description of not only the painting's intention - to act as an educational tool, teaser or taster - but also their aesthetic and attitude. Together they present as a variety pack, a pick-and-mix selection with something for everyone. Ultimately, they formed the foundation for larger compositions and even spinoff series, as Fraser also produced one Focus painting per month, informed by its preceding set of samples. Their importance within his wider practice is unparalleled, as they continue to underpin much of his output. In the two years since the completion of the project, Fraser still finds himself enamoured with their scale, regularly producing paintings at the sample size as an accompaniment to larger bodies of work.