Fresco: The Golden Time

An interview with Skowhegan Fresco Instructor Sean Glover (A'03)

Participants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 2013.

Participants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 2013.

Fresco has been part of Skowhegan since its founding in 1946. Campus remains one of the few places in the United States where this technique is still taught and practiced by contemporary artists. In this interview, Fresco Instructor Sean Glover (A '03) gives a history of the medium at Skowhegan and a provides a glimpse into the practice on campus today.


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What is the history of fresco at Skowhegan?

Skowhegan was founded by four artists  (Bill Cummings, Henry Varnum Poor, Sidney Simon and Charles Cutler) who came together after  World War II, at the end of an era in which social realism and mural painting were very popular. They wanted to create a space not only for artists to go and practice and reflect and learn from one and other, but also pick up practical skills. Because fresco was still a part of the broader artistic conversation of that moment, people could learn fresco at the school and use that skill to get commissions for major jobs. Henry Varnum Poor had worked on frescoes with Diego Rivera, and we still use some of his techniques at Skowhegan today.

Since then, the culture has shifted. There are different materials, different approaches to making art— post-studio practice, conceptualism, time-based media like video—all of these things have come into the fold and fresco has moved to the periphery. So when I talk about fresco at Skowhegan, I try to emphasize that by participating in it, you're contributing to the history of the school and coming into contact with its foundation.

Fresco is a unique process that has emerged in many different cultures, often ones that  have had little or no contact with each other. When you work with fresco, you’re interacting with something really ancient, but also something very immediate. You're touching base with different sites and architectures, different cultures, and of course a broad range of subject matters. I describe it as a kind of "meta-process," or "meta-material." It's loaded just by participating in it. Fresco is unique in that way.
 

Sean Glover (A ‘03) and participants preparing pigments for fresco, 2015.

Sean Glover (A ‘03) and participants preparing pigments for fresco, 2015.

What is fresco?

Fresco is the process of painting into wet plaster. The plaster is made of calcium hydroxide, or lime. When you paint into the plaster, you're participating in what is called a "fresco cycle," where the material begins as a rock, is processed and aged, and then is applied to a wall. When the plaster is applied to the wall, it wants to return to its initial rock state, so your time painting is actually the very end of that cycle. As the plaster dries, a calcium carbonate crystal forms over the paint and retains the pigment, which is what sets fresco apart from other mural painting: the painting is physically a part of the wall, physically set into the architecture. It's not laid on top; it's fused with it.

Working with fresco requires negotiation with the surface. A newly formed, newly wet wall—what I call a “young” wall—does not completely absorb paint, forcing you to temper yourself and slow down. Then as the wall begins to dry, it becomes important to approach the painting holistically, hydrating the wall by adding water to the entirety of the surface as you work. This process extends the painting and forms stronger crystals.

The Fresco Shop is an interesting dovetail to the time-based work done in the Media Lab, where you can go back and edit your work. You can go back in time in a certain way. In fresco, it's not as easy: if you try to go back and lift up or erase, you compromise the surface in a way that actually dampens the color. So there's this kind of balance you have to strike with the surface.

At the end of the fresco cycle, a shift occurs where you are able to start employing the traditional conventions of blending and moving paint on the surface, techniques that you initially have to put aside. This stage is what the Italians call the “tempo doro” or the golden time.

There is the romantic idea of the artist working alone in their studio and having this kind of intimacy with the image. Tempo doro is a rare moment where the romantic image of the artist and the chemical reality actually coincide. By spending your time working with the wall, you actually earn that moment. It's a transformation that you bear witness to which can only happen if you're working with the wall constantly, with sensitivity to the character of that material.

What impact does fresco have on the participants?

I trust the participants to make their own image. I don’t give them input on the image during the workshops, but I do hold them accountable to the wall. In addition to participating in the history, and having that moment where it’s just the artist and the wall, I want them to understand that the labor put into the surface is inherited by next year’s class. Participants work with the wall for roughly three hours. This can be a revelatory experience where they start to confront labor and really begin to understand the intensity of having to refine themselves and respect the craft. Often people remark that this experience really shapes them and makes an impression on their practice.

In the painting process, the inability to edit as you go has sparked conversations with participants about accepting mistakes and then actually integrating them into the work, as well as the concept of “perfection.” Putting aside some of the preconceptions of what painting is lets new gestures—new ways of working and thinking about the wall—emerge. This is generally how things shift: by offering flexibility, you end up with some surprises. I find it really exciting to hear different approaches of working with the material. As I've taught over the years, the conversations have shifted toward thinking about working with something other than ourselves, and exploring how that translates to more than just painting.
 

During the summer of  2017, artists at Skowhegan created a 25 ft. x 15 ft. Fresco Grotto, linking the history of meditative sites of refuge to the experience at Skowhegan as space of creative practice and reflection.


How did this project come into being?

The Fresco Grotto began with resident faculty artist Angela Dufrense saying, "Why don't we try doing a fresco that is off-site, away from the barn?” She started with this theme of “the grotto.” With Angela Dufresne's aesthetic, it aligned with not only the way she paints, but also the way she thinks of the world, or some of her interests in the world. People became really energized and excited about that possibility, and the class’s openness and willingness to contribute is really where it began.

We took some risks with the Fresco Grotto, because we had limitations regarding the installation—we couldn't attach a permanent fresco inside the building without having to dismantle it or figure out a tricky way to attach to the wall, so it needed to be temporary. We found an underutilized space and created this system of splicing together foam, which, with respect to the broad history of fresco, is a brand new approach. The participants organized themselves to build this in phases over the course of the summer.

All together, I believe there were 20 to 25 people involved in the creation of the Fresco Grotto. Not everyone was interested in painting and instead simply wanted to participate, contribute, and help others realize it. They wanted to see what they could do, and how they could collaborate to make a unique presentation of fresco on campus. There was a spirit of curiosity and a willingness to do some hard work. They pulled it together and made it happen. It was really remarkable and I couldn't be more pleased with it.

After the 2017 session ended, a group of alumni with advanced fresco expertise participated in a 10-day fresco intensive on campus with Fresco Master Renato Giangualano who traveled from Italy to lead the workshop. The group took a deep dive into materials and techniques that expanded their knowledge of the medium, passing the tradition of this material from one generation to the next, and ensuring that Skowhegan will continue to hold knowledge of this increasingly rare practice.


A second workshop was held in August 2018. This session also concerned the conservation of an outdoor fresco from 1955 by Annie Poor commemorating Skowhegan’s Founding Families and located at Sap House, next to Red Farm. Preserving this part of Skowhegan’s history and recognizing Poor’s critical role  in the first three decades of the school are meaningful in setting the stage for Skowhegan’s future.


What are the next steps of this restoration?

The wall on which Annie Poor’s fresco is mounted is a little unstable, in part because it is wicking up moisture and salt through the cement. Currently, we're in the process of creating alternate vents so that the wall no longer draws in salts from the ground, which is damaging to the fresco. This process began with Bill Holmes, Grounds and Maintenance Manager, and his crew excavating underneath Sap House and putting mechanisms in place to ensure that not too much water comes up. We're doing the final parts of that process, slowly going in and reinforcing the back of the wall and coating it with materials that allow it to breathe, but not draw in water.  

The other part is the restoration of the face of the fresco. Fresco Master Renato Giangualano, who led the workshop, helped us devise the restoration plan. He is lending his expertise for all aspects of the restoration, but with regard to working on the face of the fresco itself, he will actually come in and have his hands on it.


Each participant in the fresco intensive came from a different background. Was Renato Giangualano surprised by the diversity of experience?

He was excited by it, while also bringing his own traditional knowledge and perspective. When people would share their own methods, he might say, "You can do it that way, but here’s the way it is traditionally done." He's very well versed and intimate with the process, but he understands that he's just one voice in the tradition. It’s more important to him that people are invested in learning and exploring.

In my case, I am a sculptor. My first encounter with fresco was when I signed up to be a fresco monitor during my summer as a participant just to hang out with Daniel Bozhkov, A '90, F '11, and longtime fresco instructor. I am not really trained as a painter, but that has never waivered Renato’s interest in sharing his knowledge with me. I'm really grateful for that, and that's something I know Oscar [Rene Cornejo A ’14, Program Coordinator and Fresco Assistant] and I try to provide to participants as well. We want to engender a kind of openness and push things toward that spirit of curiosity.

What Renato appreciates and what he loves about Skowhegan is that investment in exploration. People here are very committed to searching through material and art with real sincerity. They let down their guard and they can show that sincerity in a way that’s not always possible outside of this place. And it’s that tendency toward openness which begins here at Skowhegan that can often resonate beyond the summer.

 

An Oral History of Fresco

From the Archive

Pariticipants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 1947.

Pariticipants in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 1947.

Over the course of Skowhegan’s history, fresco has been taught by a small group distinguished fresco artists, including founder Henry Varnum Poor, Anne Poor, Stoney Conley, Walter O’Neil, and Daniel Bozhkov. These knowledgeable and dedicated artists have added to Skowhegan’s rich catalog of recorded lectures with their presentations on the history and technique of fresco.


Presented below are excerpts from the lectures of Stoney Conley, Walter O’Neil, and Daniel Bozhkov. These lectures are included among the over 650 lectures in Skowhegan’s Lecture Archive. Dating from from 1952 to the present, the Skowhegan Lecture Archive comprises recorded talks delivered by visual artists, poets, architects, philosophers, journalists, curators, historians, and choreographers to artists-in-residence during the School's annual summer program. 


To view our complete holdings or to schedule a visit to the Skowhegan archives, researchers may see here. For questions or more information, please contact Paige Laino at plaino@skowheganart.org


Anne Poor

The Italian Tradition of Fresco, 1972

Anne Poor on the steps of the Old Dominion Fresco Barn, 1957.

A lot of the things that you’ll see when you look at the Italian High Renaissance, and all the frescos done in Italy, are the insistence on architectural detail. This was something that is also part of their way of life. If they didn’t have windows where they wanted them, they painted them there. They used the most primitive means to achieve a kind of elegance. And they painted marble surfaces, they painted every kind of surface they wanted to have. The houses are almost all masonry in Italy, so you have this kind of rich, decorative finish to every wall, and the way it was finished, the thing at that time, was fresco. Of course [now], we’re in another situation.

The point about tradition is that it gives you freedom. And I think that nothing changed very much, basically, through all these years in Italy (I’m just going to talk about Italy). Things were developed and they were repeated over and over again by different artists. It was sort of a competitive thing, to see whether you could make a better man than the next person. And if you see, there are two—there’s a Michelangelo of a man holding another man, a dying man. He did that in his Sistine Chapel; Signorelli did exactly the same thing. This was a fascination and, I think, is sort of what you call a tradition.

The fact that we don’t have any tradition makes us isolated. We depend on ourselves and we are kind of—there’s a word for that, when your energy is kind of absorbed, enervated by this. I feel that everybody is aware of it. It’s what Paul Jorges was talking about, and I feel that this is why when you go to a museum and you see a white canvas on a white wall, it means something; it means that this person is making a statement about the world he lives in.

So you’ll see in these pictures that there was something they wanted to say. They were telling stories and they made everything as real as they possibly could. They were explicit. If they wanted to show that God was there, they stuck him there, up in the sky. And if Eve was coming out of Adam’s rib, she came out—great, big, fat woman—and floated through the air. They had devils, and they had torture, and they had every kind of violence they portrayed in their paintings from the very beginning, in all the churches. They’re pictures! It’s like a picture book. They did the grandiose and the extravagant, but they also did the unexpected. And I think everybody did a little bit of it.

 

Stoney Conley

Preparing the fresco surface, 1984

Participants in the fresco shop, 1984.

Participants in the fresco shop, 1984.

Okay. Now in the next process we're applying thin layers of the prepared mortar, with the trowel. The idea is to cut slices and press it into this layer, at about an eighth of an inch, between an eighth and a quarter, consistently in depth, because you want it to dry at the same period.

Now this is the hardest part for Americans to learn, because we didn't grow up in a culture that had a lot of lime stucco houses, and none of us have done a lot of troweling. If you go to the Mediterranean, everybody does it. Every time they have a crack in the wall they slap some up, and the Italians are the best plasterers in the world. They're usually the people who do this.

I'm hoping you'll be able to see over my shoulder. It's a process of cutting thin slices, forcing it onto the wall, pressing in, and pulling down a little bit. You can see how a team of plasterers would be considerably faster, which is why this is usually done, especially in the old days—Every painter had a workshop where you went to apprentice, and learn the trade from them.

The other part about this is that you get a surface—if you press this in, and every time you trowel across it you pull off a certain amount of lime, out of the sand, it sticks on the trowel and you want to get rid of it, you want to wipe it on anything available—if you glop that into the surface, that's where your cracks appear, because you get high concentrations of lime without any sand. So as it dries, that part dries quicker or slower, depending on the temperature. [Sounds of rubbing and troweling].

So in the old days—assuming that we're talking about a Renaissance workshop—the painter—say, Ghirlandaio, would be up here with a trowel, with a couple people throwing water on the wall (including the young Michelangelo), and he'd have somebody else behind him doing the second part, where you're doing a finishing trowel, getting it all smooth and making sure the seams disappear. If you can imagine—Michelangelo frescoed the Sistine Chapel without any help. He had some help from Florence but he didn't go on with them, and he fired them. He didn't spend a lot of time in Ghirlandaio’s studio, and he considered himself a sculptor. But when the Pope summoned him, you don't turn down the Pope, so he agreed to do it, and he spent two, three, four years doing this. [Laughter].

 

Daniel Bozhkov

Mexican Mural Painting, 2006

Daniel Bozhkov and participant in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn.

Daniel Bozhkov and participant in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn.

Mexican mural movement was so powerful, and also time-wise fit, and somehow historically captured such a vast amount of that cultural imagination of that time that it’s too difficult to—I spoke recently to a curator in Austin who is like one of the foremost curators of Latin American art in the States. And he was still complaining about—it’s difficult to see other artists of that time working with, in a completely different kind of like vein, like a conceptual artist and other, because these things were so kind of dominant in some ways, in terms of how art was kind of like understood and what art is for and all that. Of course now we’re slowly getting out of that, but it was a very particular period. As you know, a number of so-called New York School painters, through the WPA and…many of them were actually quite connected to the Mexican muralists, being assistants and, directly, I mean Jackson Pollock was very involved.

So there is this kind of strange kind of heritage there that has to be rejected to come again, formally as well.

In the history of Skowhegan itself, one of the four very closely involved in the beginning of the school, in the founding of the school was Ben Shahn, who was himself an assistant of Diego Rivera and participated in the scandal of Rockefeller Center frescoes that, Diego Rivera painted and then Rockefeller wanted to remove because he painted a portrait of Lenin in the center of Rockefeller Center.

[...] And it’s very interesting to me how we, contemporary now, currently, what is our view of type of work as well, that particular art that has a very specific agenda, that has a very particular kind of political position. It’s unapologetic in what it’s trying to teach you, almost like didactic stuff that many of us now would completely, stay away from or not  be interested in at all. But it’s interesting the angle we have here, and what this particular kind of work comes down to and what it does. Almost like what is it for in a way.

 

Walter O’Neil

Fresco At Skowhegan, 1990

And just in closing, why is fresco done in Skowhegan? It seems like a really weird place—you have contemporary artists coming to Skowhegan every summer, you people from all over the country and all over the world coming here and there’s fresco going on.

Fresco is part of Skowhegan because [one of the founders], Willard Cummings, loved fresco and did fresco as well as Henry Varnum Poor, and Cummings starting the school in the Forties, sort of out of that tradition of WPA people doing frescos; and... it’s continued ever since. This is an example of a fresco by Joel King—that far back wall—that was done in 1954, well—along with six other artists, in the South Solon Meetinghouse, which is six miles down the East Madison Road; that the Skowhegan School arranged for them, took plaster—and it’s really—to paint it in true fresco; and it’s really wonderful to see... I mean, it’s sort of... the Sistine Chapel of Maine, in a sense. (laughter) And there’s a wide range of techniques that are used there as well, so it would be interesting for you to go see sometime. We might have a class trip sometime in July to go visit it as well.

Walter O’Neil with participant in the Fresco Shop.

Walter O’Neil with participant in the Fresco Shop.

 

Helen Frankenthaler at Skowhegan

From the Archive


Helen Frankenthaler came to Skowhegan during the summer of 1986 as a visiting faculty artist. In addition to conducting studio visits with participants, she gave a lecture on campus in the Old Dominion Fresco Barn. This talk, excerpts of which can be explored below, is preserved in Skowhegan’s Lecture Archive, a trove of lectures by faculty and other artists who spoke at Skowhegan dating back to 1952.

On October 5th, 2017, Skowhegan announced that it has received a $250,000 gift from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation. The funds will provide for a new studio building which will be named in Frankenthaler’s honor, acknowledging her deep commitment to studio practice, and will accommodate discrete workspaces for three visual artists. When complete, the Frankenthaler Studio will be the 15th studio building on Skowhegan’s 350-acre campus, joining those named for other artists who taught at Skowhegan, including founder Willard “Bill” Cummings and Jacob Lawrence.

Read the full release to learn more about the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation's gift.

TRANSCRIPT


Helen Frankenthaler:  “Okay. New work. I wrote this in the middle of the night, in quite a panic, one night, feeling I'd been looking at all this new work and very alone for about a year and a half. I had this body of work, and I felt, I don't know if it means anything. Then I felt, well, what about my past, and other artists' pasts, and everything else. So for a few nights, on and off, I would just make some notes about new work. These are some of them, in no particular order.

New work: People often go up to an artist and say, ‘Are you doing any new work?’ Or, ‘I hear you have a body of new work.’ The artist is usually taken aback by such a confrontation. Recently, after many such inquiries, I literally sat down and gave some thought to what, really, new work means.

  1. What does it mean when an artist presents new work? Recent work? Or fresh work, the beginning of a new phase, or spirit? A new direction or the hint of one?

  2. Does the artist fully realize what he's accomplished, what he's doing, what he's up to?

  3. How does it look different?

  4. How has it developed? Does it make a new statement? Hopefully, does it enlarge one's truth? Are we shocked or puzzled by it in a fresh way? And are we shocked in a way that goes beyond initial shock? That is, beyond entertainment, but, instead, a shock that eases us into seeing and enjoying, and growing with beauty?

  5. Is the new work a minor departure or a significant breakthrough? A new way ‘to see’? A magic that combines a repetition of the past within a new vision, within the context of the artist's whole aesthetic gestalt — the eye, the mind, the wrist, the leap of heart that physically places the mark.

When an artist is developing a departure within his aesthetic, there is an initial shock, or surprise, of a first picture. For myself, I can think of how I felt first looking at Mountains and Sea, 1952; or Sesame, 1970; Roulette, 1978; or the blue one [Out of the Blue], 1985; the one I said I'd painted just about a year ago, the first of a series.

Then a body of work usually follows those pivotal pictures and grows within the context of that initial shock. Eventually that core of work enhances and restates and explains, that first surprise picture. Nothing comes out of the blue. Mountains and Sea, for example, was followed by many years of soaked, stained work, placed on unsized, unprimed cotton duck. Which really isn't true. It wasn't many years. It was maybe one of the first, but many years of pictures that led up to it. Also, what I forgot to write was that I'd spent a summer of doing nothing but landscapes in Nova Scotia that year and suddenly did Mountains and Sea after many, many small landscapes. I'd already been an abstract painter, but I spent the summer just doing what I call ‘verbatim landscapes’ — the tree that looked just like the tree.

Small’s Paradise, 1964, and Buddha’s Court, 1964, reinforce the format of the square and also began what later, much later, became tinted ground, tinted ground rather than merely leaving the duck the color it is, naturally.

The blue one painted in June 1985 spawned many pictures. I would guess about one third of those I destroyed in the process, right or wrong, out of doubt.

The following new body of work, what you saw, hopefully continues to resolve that first surprise picture, which seemed awkward, inevitable, and at the same time to have the sense of rightness, the certainty of the mark. A new painting has the authority of saying, in effect, ‘I had to be made!’ It has the sudden look to it, and to the artist himself. But when we look at that one, seemingly simple gesture of the new work, of a new picture, all the effort, search, failure, confusion, and often depression that preceded it seems to show not at all.

That is one side of the coin — it doesn't show at all. [From the other,] you know that, in order to do this, the artist must have felt certain ways — and I think the older you get the more you appreciate that — even if it's the most sunlit, primary-colored, left-handed dream of a picture. Well, that's one reason you can tell the difference, in a flash, between a kid's picture and a grownup's. Very often people say to you, ‘Who made this?’ And I'll say, ‘A very free, wonderful four-year-old who has no guilt yet, just an angel, but a kid.’ And they'll say, ‘Gee, I would have sworn it was a Matisse.’ I feel [like saying], You dope! [Audience laughter] It’s another trip.

Where was I?

It's only a lucky moment, all things combined, that the artist and the picture itself, together, say ‘give’.

And then I just have some other notes, such as space and light: The shapes and forms that one first puts down are the need and excuses for putting down the right colors, exactly where they belong, in a given space. There should be a constant dialogue between color and line, and all within the perfect scale and light. And you have an intuitive sense of placing within that scale.

And that's it on new work. So. Speak. Or don't.”

#05: Martin Kersels

Skowhegan Interview Project


For the fifth edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Becky Sellinger (A '12) spoke with 2010 resident faculty member Martin Kersels outside a bowling alley in Yonkers, NY. This interview was coordinated and edited by Don Edler ('12). 

Skowhegan Class of 2010

Skowhegan Class of 2010

Becky Sellinger: If you could just start by maybe introducing yourself and talking a little bit about your upbringing, I’d be curious to hear about how you arrived at making art.

Martin Kersels: Ok, yeah, I grew up in Los Angeles and had lived in Los Angeles continuously for fifty-two years. When I took the job at Yale, I spent a year going back and forth between Los Angeles and New Haven and since 2013 I have basically been living in the New Haven area. It is a very strange thing, given the kind of continuousness of Los Angeles and what Los Angeles sort of has to offer in terms of a landscape, a rhythm of a city, of literally a light in view, like how things are seen, vistas versus sort of the flatness I feel, at least around here. Mountains, real mountains, you know, twelve thousand foot mountains, which you sort of don’t see here. It’s been very interesting.

Early on I was interested in film and filmmaking and wanted to go to film school at UCLA, but I didn’t get in. So I wound up taking some sort of courses in video, with a woman named Shirley Clarke, who was a great independent, experimental filmmaker. She made Portrait of Jason, and she started working with video, working with Sam Shepard, and Joe Chaikin, and I was able to take a class with her, and she was not highly theoretical, but instead had this attitude of “you have this idea, well you should just go out, just go and do that. Don’t talk about it, just go ahead and do that.”

I had an interesting mix of influences and experiences, because I also knew a lot of dancers, and Rudy Perez, through a friend of mine who was part of the Judson Church back in the day. She performed there with Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown, and so I had this sort of, you know, knowledge of dance, and experimental video. Visual Art wasn’t necessarily the thing I was most ground in. I was more interested in art that had dynamic motion to it.

BS: So did the making come later, was that––

MK: Making came – I went to art school, I eventually wound up, after not getting into film school, I started taking some art classes, and I started making things, and I thought it was great fun. Isn’t it fun making things?

BS: Yeah, yeah!

MK: When you can be in the kind of the groove of the project at hand, and the materials are working for you; and so as an undergrad I enjoyed making things. Painting wasn’t what I did, I always, when I took painting classes, I always turned paintings into projection screens or into sculpture or sculptural things, and I realized that sculpture was more interesting to me, but I didn’t really start making sculptures seriously until I went to grad school.

I was inspired by certain people like Tim Hawkinson, a close friend of mine, and I really loved his work, I would look in his studio and think ‘This is so good. I want to make work this good someday.’ So, that was an inspiration to me to really work, it sparked an interest in me to make sculpture. But that wasn’t until I was in grad school, which was, I was already in my thirties.

Martin Kersels, Craig Drennen, Arthur Simms on Skowhegan Campus, 2010

Martin Kersels, Craig Drennen, Arthur Simms on Skowhegan Campus, 2010

BS: So did you and Tim go to school together?

MK: No, Tim went to school with my wife Mary earlier, in the ‘80s, and I went to grad school in the ‘90s. I met Tim through Mary, and we were friends, Tim’s wife Patty and Mary and I and Tim would go out to dinner and we’d hang out, and that’s how I saw him.

I don’t know, it just was—I think for me, this sort of background of being involved with dance, and having worked in video and some film and taking photographs, these things all seemed like really interesting ways of approaching the making of an object; to be able to sort of try to use those different forms to, in order to infuse an object, a sculptural object, a three-dimensional object, with the qualities that I found interesting myself: movement, a great kind of graphic visuality, sometimes sound, sometimes, how shall I say, a sensibility of, an understanding of placement within space, and I’m not saying I had any kind of formula for this, but it just seemed like that these were the things that I wanted to incorporate into my sculpture.

BS: Cool.

MK: Does that make sense?

BS: Yeah.

MK: I think, I hope.

BS: Yeah, no, it makes perfect sense; I think that the fusion of, or all of the – the dance thing is really interesting to me - I mean, one of my other questions is how that collaborative process works.

MK: You mean in dance?

BS: When you work with dancers, what does that --

MK: Well - have you collaborated?

BS: I have, but I find it to be kind of difficult, so I’m impressed with the amount of collaborations that you’ve done that are really successful.

Marin Kersels,  Tossing a Friend (Melinda #2)  (1996), Fujiflex print, 27x39"

Marin Kersels, Tossing a Friend (Melinda #2) (1996), Fujiflex print, 27x39"

MK: Mmhmm. Well, collaboration for me started in undergrad, when I collaborated with a couple of different people on a project. And those are my first collaborations. But when I graduated undergrad, I started doing performance with a collaborative group. And to me, it wasn’t that I want a collaboration because of X, Y, and Z. I was not so trained and knowledgeable, and I thought collaboration was an opportunity to work with people and continue learning. A collaboration’s a way for me to learn from others how something is done. Sort of like mentorship or what, what do they call it, internship or something like that, right? And as I got more confident within it, collaboration then changed from that feeling of learning to being open to having your own ideas questioned, or interrogated and also to let your ego go, give your ego a break, because someone may have something that works a little better for this aspect of it. Or to do the opposite and say ‘No, my experience tells me that this aspect will work better.’ And so it becomes an interesting interpersonal situation. It’s not just about art, it’s about this interpersonal situation. That can be highly emotional, and highly inflamed, potentially inflamed, people, I’ve seen so many collaborations blow up, because people are hurt, that, not because of the work, but because of just how you might go about approaching the work. I like having close, personal relationships with a few people, and working with a group of collaborators is a really close relationship. Not to say it was always easy. I usually collaborate with people that I know, I have collaborated with people I know less, and that’s harder.

BS: Have you ever taken dance classes?

MK: Yeah, yeah, I’ve taken dance classes.

BS: Oh, you have.

MK: But I never had the level of training dancers have. I was not committed enough, nor did I feel I ever had the body for that, or the desire. But I was interested in the pedestrian aspects of movement, and the everyday aspects of movement, and how you take that and turn that up a notch. And then you have these situations that point out our generosity or patheticness, or our heroism, or our failings, or our potential for failure. If I was going to be serious about dance, I think it would have been a different thing; I would have been more interested in my body as an instrument rather than my body just as this sort of carrier of these other emotional situations of being an every person.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with choreographers and I think now the situation is not so much about the movement for me, but about what I can do, or how I can work with the choreographer to make something to dance with, or against. So I make a space that’s activated, or something that is activated by their space of movement, and that’s interesting. I’m less interested in dancing.

BS: Yeah. Kind of like some of like what Allan Kaprow was talking about people walking around grocery stores pushing carts being modern dance.

MK: It’s funny, I mean, I think the grocery cart thing is an interesting analogy of the interaction of your body with an object, within a space, right? And how that thing is an extension of your body, and it’s there for ease, but it also blocks people, right, you block aisles and you hit other things, so it’s a cumbersome thing too.

BS: Like MarioKart. [laughter] Donkey Kong.

MK: Yeah, I think I’m interested in the sort of every day, because I don’t have that facility to be so focused to become an expert at one thing.

BS: Yeah. I think that that’s something that probably most people can relate to, and just talking about that in itself is interesting, equating the everyday to modern dance.

Martin Kersels,  Flotsam (Tables Skeleton)  (2010), colored pencil on paper, 30x22"

Martin Kersels, Flotsam (Tables Skeleton) (2010), colored pencil on paper, 30x22"

Speaking of the object and the body, I was really interested in the drawing, the flotsam drawings that you were doing and specifically the table, Table Skeleton

I just saw a talk by this philosopher Timothy Norton, and he was talking about anthropomorphizing, and he used this word called ‘tablepomorphizing,’ and I thought of that drawing that you did. Is there any part – because you’re always thinking about the body and the object, do you think that a table could tablepomorphize us [Kersels laughs] in the same way that we anthropomorphize a table?

MK: [laughs] Like have it work the other way around? Well, what I was interested in with furniture and the body is that furniture is sort of this index about the body. There are these books of standards for furniture, like what the height of a table should be, or within what range a coffee table would be. I’m not saying that all those standards are paid attention to by everybody, but when you see a table that is thirty-two inches high and thirty-eight inches long and twenty-four inches wide, you go ‘that’s a specific sort of table.’ These measurements often reflect where our bodies bend, and what the table would be used for, or what our expectations of the table would be, so it’s sort of this index.

Now, thinking about it back the other way, the furniture does – it’s made by us to do something, but it also makes us do something. Say a coffee table for example, you don’t pull up a bar stool to eat dinner at a coffee table. The table makes us do something specific, meaning sit low.

It’s something for me to think about in general, but I think the drawings were about the comparison of how something is made and what our bodies do with it. And in Western culture we eat at a dinner table while in Japan you might sit on tatami, you don’t sit in chairs. Why does that happen? And not that I have any answers for that, and not that I’m necessarily trying to answer to that, but I am sort of interested in my experience with furniture. Like being a big person, when I go and sit, I think about, is this chair sturdy enough? Right? Is this chair too low or too high for me to sit at a table? Is this position of this table within this room, is there enough room for people to walk around me if I sit here. I’m constantly negotiating these things when I enter a space. First thing when I went into this space, I looked ‘if I sit here, am I gonna be in the way of this person?’ So, there’s a little bit of that, too, this kind of anxiety around knocking things over, breakage, being too big to live in this world. [laughs]

BS: Yeah, that kind of sets up a pretty, I would say, acute awareness of those sorts of things that you’re dealing with.

MK: Yeah! Yeah, body boundaries! The boundary of the body with, its interaction with the world.

BS: I want to lead into questions about the body and the history of the use of the body in comic language, and your relationship to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin – are those people that you relate to at all?

MK: Oh yeah, Keaton over Chaplin for me, because I think Keaton seemed like a sadder sack. I related to that. His physicality was amazing to watch, some of the things that he did, and his timing and deadpan, you know, deadpan reactions really hold me to the screen. But certainly physical comedy, I mean even something like The Three Stooges. I remember, the first time I saw a Three Stooges I had strep throat and I was in bed, a friend came over, and he said, ‘Well, let’s watch TV,’ and The Three Stooges were on so he turned it on and I laughed so hard I think it set me back on my healing for a few days.

I haven’t figured it out completely for myself, but, there definitely is a connection for me between humor and not necessarily physical pain, but something psychological or emotional. It certainly is there for me and it certainly runs deep, and I think not just with myself.

BS: Yeah, no, totally.

MK: And I think that’s where, for me, when I think I’ve made my best work, it gets a response from people. I think that’s where it’s touching people.

Martin Kersels,  Fat Iggy 1  (2008), black and white C-print, ed. of 6, 13x19"

Martin Kersels, Fat Iggy 1 (2008), black and white C-print, ed. of 6, 13x19"

BS: One thing I thought was interesting about Chaplin, I just recently heard this thing where he was quoted as having said that he was afraid of the cartoon because cartoons don’t need time to breathe, so they could do his tricks better than him? I sensed a kind of sadness in that, and now thinking about new technologies and how they’re kind of displacing our bodies [Kersels laughs] I’m wondering if maybe that’s part of a psychic sadness?

MK: Well, so it’s sort of a sense of loss. Like a loss or an inability to live up to something?

BS: Yeah, there’s like a lack or something, because we’re not, we’re being——

MK: We’re superseded by technology in some way——

BS: Yeah.

MK: Or some aspect of our lives, say, the idea to create laughter——

BS: Yeah!

MK: ——is now, is easier to usurp with a cartoon.

BS: Yeah, or with a meme. It is easier to create laughter with an Internet meme, than it is with your physical body.

MK: Well, I think that might be true, but I’ve realized what I want to do is to become more personal, rather than broader. A meme on the Internet can be enjoyed by fifteen million people, right? Well I’ve begun to realize I have no interest in competing with that. I want to be happy with a kind of slowing down, a narrowing, becoming one with what I do and be happy with the people that I do reach, and do effect. And not try to go, well, if I’m effecting this group of people, I could expand that if I do this, and if I can, then maybe get an Internet presence, then I can expand even further, and further. I’m not trying to salve the pain of the fact that a cartoon can do something I can’t do, it’s just then, what can I do that the cartoon can’t do?

Martin Kersels,  Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling At It  (1996), Glass, wood, CD player, underwater speaker, recording thermometer, cables, audio recording, Dimensions variable

Martin Kersels, Attempt to Raise the Temperature of a Container of Water by Yelling At It (1996), Glass, wood, CD player, underwater speaker, recording thermometer, cables, audio recording, Dimensions variable

BS: Yeah. So what is that?

MK: I think relate to people personally. And respond. And try to understand people as individuals, and not as demographics.

BS: Yeah, that --

MK: Sorry, that was a really long-winded way.

BS: No, I don’t even remember what the question is at this point [laughter] but your response was great! I was also sort of hoping that’s how you’d feel. Can you talk a little about the spectacle? Does that come up in your work? Do you ever feel what you’re doing is creating this spectacle around yourself?

MK: I think there was a moment when it kind of was heading that way, or the potential for it could have been that way. But I don’t think I ever—I was a neophyte compared to when others started to do that. In terms of creating a spectacle, I realized that that wasn’t something that I was interested in pursuing. And this was in a moment, when I was making big sculptures because I could, or making loud sculptures because I could. I’m not saying I’m not still interested in doing some of that, but not as a way of building, like that would be the thing I’d be known for, right? Building bigger and bigger things, and working my way up to fill the Park Avenue Armory or something, that’s not me. I reached a limit and realized; well, I didn’t realize what I wanted, I realized what I didn’t want. Now I realize what I want, and that is about having a more intimate relationship with an audience. As opposed to the audience of the spectacle.

BS: Mmhmm.

MK: Because it’s two different things. And there’s nothing wrong with spectacle. I enjoy seeing spectacle sometimes. But a lot of times it doesn’t feed my personal interests. It’s ‘wowee zowee’—that’s a horrible thing to say—but it doesn’t always feed my interests.

BS: Yeah. I’m curious about that relationship, because there is something about your work where sometimes that content will come in, like the use of the clown imagery, or I don’t know, there’s something there that feels like it’s not part of the function, but it’s part of the content? Do you think about the idea of the spectacle, even if it’s in relationship to society?

MK: How do you define spectacle for yourself? What makes a spectacle?

BS: Something that you can’t take your eyes off, or maybe appeals to some kind of craze. Maybe this is a far reach or something, but I’m even just thinking about the older works—in the piece that you’re yelling at the water [Kersels laughs] or something. It just made me think about the kind of spectacle of - or how politics is often referred to as a circus or this kind of magic trick that could be used to gain power. So maybe that’s not a clear question. But then there’s also like this feeling of futility, or belief.

MK: I think that’s a nice way of putting it, of putting yourself out there with the idea that it’s maybe futile. [laughs] Like, the idea of yelling at the water is an example of that. I guess when I think of spectacle I think of so much going on that assaults the senses that it’s maybe considered ‘total art’ or something, or we can call spectacle total art, that it’s just everything hitting at you, you don’t know where to look, you don’t know where to respond to. One bit of information is sort of overriding and blending with another bit of information, is how I guess I was thinking about spectacle.

Maybe that is just me sticking to a more strict definition or something for myself or what I built. If in terms of talking about something that you can’t take your eyes off of, or that draws you in, I don’t know if I see that. I see that less as spectacular, but more seductive. But seduction doesn’t necessarily take the form of soft whispers. We are seduced by any number of kind of stimuli, and it can be light and it can be a good beat, it can be something shiny, it can be a good aroma. Maybe when you’re talking about when it draws you in, that it doesn’t necessarily lead you, it maybe frustrates you. Because it’s drawing you in, but making you think of futility. Or it’s drawing you in and making you think of something painful, as opposed to drawing you in and pleasing you in this way that soothes you. But it draws you and makes you in some way conflicted. Maybe that’s spectacle!

BS: Mmhmm.

MK: I think for me, I’m sort of more interested in creating situations that are sort of almost like dynamic binaries, where something that is attractive in some way, whatever that is, leaves a sense of uncertainty within it. It’s not on the nose. It has no sense of closure. And therein lies the dynamic creates the tension in a work.

BS: Yeah, questioning a perception or something.

Martin Kersels,  Tumble Room  (2001), installation view at Deitch Projects, New York

Martin Kersels, Tumble Room (2001), installation view at Deitch Projects, New York

MK: Yeah, something like ‘this is so funny, but wait a minute, it also seems so sad!’ And I love that, because it just is such a reflection of, you know, so many of our experiences in life. An example is the happiness of seeing somebody you like and then, hearing them talk about something awful that’s happening to them, like when you find out their relationship is falling apart. It is ‘like oh, I was just happy a little while ago with you, not a care in the world – now, this is happening to you.’ And to be able to do that within an assemblage of materials that aren’t sentient and don’t have experience, if you can do that. That’s kind of amazing. But it maybe can only be amazing to .1% of the people who see it——

BS: Yeah, but that’s the most important audience. [laughs]

MK: Well, I mean, yes——

BS: [laughing] I was kidding.

MK: But yes, as an artist, right? As the maker of that. But as a person in the world, as the artist in the world, there are other things are important also, and so, I’m not trying to say ‘This is the only way to do it,’ because I know that there are these other pressures, and ideas, and issues, and that artists have to contend with, all the time. That’s what makes artists’ jobs hard. Because they have to contend with this idea of communication and usually in a kind of non-verbal, non-interactive, non-, usually, in an intimate way, but with their materials at hand. And they have to struggle and figure out how to do that; at the same time they have to struggle and figure out how to, you know, live. And——

BS: Do their laundry.

MK: And do their laundry; have relationships; and also probably how to do ok at work, because you probably have something else you gotta do. And all those things. For Artists, we pay for our pleasure. That’s for sure. In ways that aren’t just counted in denominations of ones, tens, twenties and fifties.

#04: Sarah Cain

SKOWHEGAN INTERVIEW PROJECT

For the fourth edition of the Skowhegan Interview Project, Jamie Felton (A '14) spoke with 2006 participant Sarah Cain at her studio in Los Angeles. This interview was coordinated and edited by Don Edler ('12). 

Skowhegan Class of 2006

JF: Can you talk a little bit about your experience at Skowhegan in the class of 2006?

SC: Yeah, it’s weird, I haven’t thought about it in a while, but I’ve been thinking about it since you guys got in touch. I’m actually going to go see Andrea Zittel this weekend. Andrea Zittel and George Herms are two people that I became really good friends with and am still close with. It’s interesting to think, ten years later, who you’re still friends with.

And I didn’t know either of them before, so that was great, and I don’t know, I think I’d be much better now, as a faculty, than I was as a student. I would do it again, but it was really painful for me. I do not really thrive in communal settings without alone time. And it was kind of terrible. Take the room I had: I only had like a foot and a half between me and the other woman who I shared the room with. I only did two nights there, and I was like, fuck this, and I had brought a tent with me, so I slept in a tent for two months in the upper field.

I also slept in my studio a little, but I kind of had a nightmare time. My studio got infested with mites, and I fought really, really hard to have that studio, because it was the only private one that you could close yourself out. But mites overtook this bird’s nest outside of the studio and they were everywhere, and they eat paper! It was disgusting, there were hundreds of bugs crawling on my body, and I went to the dean. They were like, ok, city girl. And I grew up on a dirt road!

I felt like I was gonna lose my mind, and once they realized that I wasn’t crazy, I was able to switch studios, and then also I had my first really big commercial and museums showsright after, so I came from grad school into that——

JF: UC Berkeley?

SC: Yeah, and UC Berkeley paid for Skowhegan, too, which was nice. It was one of those things. But I had a tremendous amount of pressure on me that I had to produce, so I couldn’t–I mean, I’m not really a big partier anyway, but I couldn’t do that.

So, I mean, it was kind of brutal, but I did make some really great work. And I’m still friends with Donna Huanca and Gretchen Scherer.

Remembering my routine, I would wake up and drive to get breakfast at this diner where their WiFi code was NASCAR? [laughter] And that was my morning. Then there was a sports bar where I’d go and get iced tea in the afternoon, I would go to this health food store, and——

JF: Wow, you escaped a lot?

SC: I did, I was a total escapist.

JF: Oh my gosh, the way I handled that was I just picked the studio that was furthest away. I was just way up by the cow fields——

SC: I went up there.

Gretchen Scherer, Julia Brown and Sarah Cain in Sarah’s Skowhegan studio, Image Credit: Steve Locke, 2006

JF: Yeah, and the cows would always eat up all my drawings. [laughs]

SC: Oh, oh, that cow field! Yeah, that’s where Gretchen was. Oh yeah, that was intense! I thought you meant up by the upper field.

JF: Oh yeah, no, I was just by the cows.

SC: Oh yeah. Yeah. [Felton laughs] That was cool up there, I liked it up there.

JF: Because I still got my alone time in. It’s hard.

SC:—being on a schedule to eat—at the same time——

JF: With like seventy people?

SC: It’s fucked up. I mean, it’s really good for people—because I went to school in San Francisco, mostly. It’s a really good way to meet more of the art world and stuff, but at the same time, like the bullshit of going to Columbia or Yale, it extends onto Skowhegan, and that kind of bums me out. The prestige around it—even though it is, it’s amazing, there’s really nothing else like it—although really, it’s really a crap shoot who gets in. I think I applied four times.

JF: Yeah, me too. Where are you from originally? You mentioned that you [laughing] grew up on a dirt road.

SC: Oh, upstate New York. I grew up in Columbia County. It’s by Hudson.

JF: Oh, ok. That area’s kind of booming.

SC: It’s crazy, people I know live there now, from my own world, cause I grew up poor there, and it’s really strange to see the art world there, and just——

JF: Yeah, a lot of my friends are moving there, if they can’t handle the city, it’s like, “well, I guess we’ll move to Hudson.”

SC: Well, I don’t know how long that’s gonna last, I mean, it’s beautiful, but the energy there is really dark, I think.

JF: Mmhmm. Does it influence your work at all, or do you think about that space?

SC: Probably but I honestly have lived much longer in California now. I left when I was fifteen, so I don’t know.

I’ve come to talk with you again, produced at Skowhegan, 2006

I was also thinking about the time at Skowhegan being about class, and it was the first time that the environment kind of helped me start to push through a class barrier that I think held me back a long time because of how I grew up. It makes me think of wealth and how much your economic class can influence your opportunities. The thing about the art world is there’s so many different ways that you’ll get in. You get in because you’re a great artist; you get in because you have great social skills; you get in because you have a shitload of money, or because your parents know someone, so when you move to New York they introduce you to someone.

JF: I feel like you come from a lineage of women, from Mary Heilmann to Isa Genzken to Dana DeGiulio to Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. Can you talk about where——

SC: I don’t know the third one. I looked her up once, and yeah, she made sense as a reference, but I didn’t know about her until someone mentioned her in an essay about my work.

JF: I didn’t think of Molly, either, until I read that, and I was like, “Oh, that makes so much sense!” because of the way Molly rips up everything and puts it together, uses collage, but you’re like a lot cleaner, and designed, or something, compared to her, or something.

SC: It’s funny, people say things about my design, and I think my work is formal, but there’s nothing to do with design in my work. I don’t think, at least. I always think people say “you are good at design” as an insult.

JF: Well, I guess design has been—because we think of like, maybe, like, Mondrian, like grids——

SC: Yeah, to me, that’s all about form.

JF: Yeah, and then design, I don’t know, design came in that——

SC: Design to me, means, I don’t know, Andrea Zittel’s someone I associate with art and design, and that’s a positive thing: she is reinventing and expanding it. The other thing with design is it’s so precise; like, you might look at my work and think there’s a geometric logic, but thererarely is. It’s this sort of visually faked sense of holding itself together.

JF: Yeah.

SC: Yeah, I mean, I love Heilmann. She also went to Berkeley, and also almost got kicked out [Felton laughs] because of her attitude. I had a great—I’ve told this story too many times, but I had a great like sort of “oh, I get it” moment, where Amy Sillman invited me and Rebecca Morris, Mary all to have dinner with her, and it was like just seeing, ten years apart, seeing the possibilities. And I feel like Mary is permission, just in her, spunk and ‘fuck you-ness’ and same with Isa, it’s the total fuck you that I love in her earlier work.

Like the beach hut series? Or beach house? They’re these little shacks made out of paper and stuff. They weren’t in that show that just – where was it, was it MoMA? Whoever just did that show of her, they were missing. But I think it’s phenomenal.          

love seat, 2015. Collection of San Antonio Museum of Art. Image Credit: Josh White Photography, 2015

But also – there’s definitely men in my lineage. I mean, but I’m hyper-aware of being a woman all the time, and also kicking harder, I feel like we have to kick harder.

JF: Yeah, I feel like we have to kick harder.

SC: Yeah.

JF: Especially being a woman abstract painter, or something.

SC: Yeah.

JF: Because we have, like, a long history of masculinity or something.

SC: Yeah. I just read – I don’t know who writes these, but somehow I read my bio, I think it’s on Artsy, and the last paragraph says that my mission is to overthrow the male lineage of AbEx, and I was just like [laughs], but it’s an even crazier sentence, I was like, whoa, that’s so nuts, I should maybe write to them, but also, eh, it’s true, so [laughs]. Why not?

JF: Yeah, it’s true, might as well own it!

SC: Yeah, and also, whose bio ends with that? So [laughs] it’s amusing. And if you actually read to the end of someone’s bio, you deserve a laugh, or something. [laughter]

JF: Yeah, when I think of LA women painters, I think of Laura Owens and Rebecca Morris and you.

SC: Yeah, they used to be my Google search images, and then when I started dating my boyfriend now, it’s – it’s all his ex wives! It’s him and his ex wives! It happened the day after he announced he was dating me. Which, if that’s not patriarchy at its fucking fullest. It’s like, how could a Google search of a fifteen year career be wiped out because someone says they’re dating me, you know? Yeah, but I mean, the good thing is, I’m madly in love, so it doesn’t bother me.

JF: That’s good.

SC: Yeah, and he’s a very – he’s actually the first supportive boyfriend I have ever had. He loves painting. He really believes in what I’m doing. I mean, it’s mind-blowing, I can’t believe I’ve had so many boyfriends and never had anybody who was supportive before.

JF: Yeah. I feel like I’m just always dating painters, and it’s more like a competitive relationship instead of like, “just go, go for it.”

SC: Yeah, even your own achievements, they’re like, “great, how can I get that?” It’s just such a toxic, weird—yeah. I never, I mean I hope I never date anyone else, but I’m never, ever dating an artist again. [laughter]

JF: Yeah, I’m like, I don’t really care what you have to say about my work. [laughter]

SC: That’s good. That was my whole attitude in grad school. It sort of still is my attitude; I feel like it’s just the way, in order to make great work, you have to be like, “Eh, I don’t care.” I don’t care what you think; I care about the work.

JF: Yeah, and I don’t think all my pieces are the best piece, either. I weed through it - it seems like you too just make a lot of work, and you just have to figure out which one – I don’t know how you work——

SC: No, I do, I edit.

JF:—I imagine you with tons of stretchers and you just have to go for it, and then you’re like, ok, now, how do I use this in an installation, or what’s the next step to the life of this painting, or does it just get re-stretched and cut up, or something?

SC: Yeah. Yeah, there’s a lot of recycling. I really love Ree Morton’s work, and she was one of the first artists that I saw early on that was like, “oh, she does that.” All her installations, you can see parts of it, and I like that there’s levels of the paintings. I’m actually consciously trying to make a little less work, I’m trying to do something that I don’t really know exactly how to say it, but I’m trying to hold, I’m trying to zone into the paintings so that they’re like a fuller punch or something, and then not show the ones that don’t fully arrive, which, I’m always very specific about what I show, but I make so much fucking work, and there’s really, I don’t know if there’s a need to make seventy-five paintings a year. You know?

JF: I don’t either. I actually just started this thing—I don’t want to make this about myself—but just making like five thirty-by-thirty stretchers, and then that is all I have for four months. And I am trying to research about what I want to paint more, and slow down the production. I usually just make a whole bunch of fast painting, and I’m not sure what I get out of that anymore.

SC: Do you research normally?

JF: No. This is a new thing where I think, because I need more, I’m putting source material in there, it’s not just like, what do I paint? or something, or where, like what do I do with abstraction? Do I need to go away from it? Do I need to paint things? Do I need to research someone else’s drawings to quote them, or——

SC: I don’t think so. I think that—I mean, you’ll find out——

JF: [laughs] Find out! [laughter] Keep going.

SC: Keep going, yeah—but also know that you can—well, know that you can break your own rules at any moment. I mean, that’s the best part.

JF: Yeah.

SC: Because I do feel like people put too much emphasis on research. There’s a, I’m not even naming this person, but there’s a painter that people associate me with all the time, and I was just talking to the curator yesterday about how dumb it is, and they were saying, “Yeah, it makes no sense and they actually research and plan their paintings for months in advance,” and that, there’s no way it could be the same thing—I don’t believe in planning, and that’s——

JF: Is it more, like, intuitive when you just start going?

Sarah Cain’s Los Angeles Studio, 2016

SC: Yeah, it’s all about quieting my mind. It’s about, editing out words and thought, too, and just emptying everything out, and painting it out. But I was thinking, too, because I listened to the podcast called The Conversation of Zak Smith, because someone asked me if I wanted to do one. And he was really smart and articulate, but said how he thought artists were the biggest podcast listeners, which I don’t think is true, but a lot of them do listen, and they get really obsessed with it. Painters and drawers, listening while they work, but I don’t understand that, I can’t, I listen to music obsessively, but it’s music that I know, and sometimes a new album will fuel a whole body of work, but it’s listening to the point where I know every single thing on it, and then it’s like the same thing as editing out my own thoughts. I couldn’t focus on someone’s conversation and make a painting and have the painting be present.

JF: Yeah, that feels like a different mind, or a different part of my mind——

SC: Yeah.

JF:— that’s more like a critical, not like I’m being critical when I’m paint, but it feels more bodily when I paint, or something?

SC: Yeah.

JF: And it just comes out naturally, or maybe like, rehearsed, choreographed moves.

SC: I think it comes out new or like that’s how you figure out shit you don’t know, cause you’re open to it. And I mean, there’s so many different ways of making art, but I feel like that’s important to how I make art, and then after the fact, the mind comes into it.

Even though I do work towards, ideas and themes. There usually is an overarching group of thoughts that’s happening within a body, but if I know too much then it’s like, ok, I don’t even need to do it.

JF: Or to figure out, what——

SC: What’s the point.

JF: That reminds me of Hal Foster’s The Expressive Fallacy, and about how expressionism is a sort of empty gesture, and I’ve been thinking about what a gesture means - does it still hold the weight of emotion or feelings or are these at this point, just marks, or——

SC: Well, that’s definitely not true for me. They hold emotions and feelings, but I think I’m outside of the large – I think I’m outside of, a couple of movements that are happening in contemporary art with abstraction, whatever that whole thing, zombie——

JF: Zombie abstraction?

SC: Yeah, it has nothing to do with me, and it actually probably is largely related to designers and the market. But that, to me, is people painting the aesthetic of abstract painting, and I don’t think there’s much talent needed to do that.

I used to do paintings that were a lot lighter but I moved through it. It’s not really easy to put me in a movement or categorize what I’m doing because I’m moving through shit really fast.

JF: I feel like you also hit so many other things, I couldn’t just place you in that genre because there is installation involved, and physicality and sculpture——

SC: Yeah. I think it was sort of a conscious decision but also it's necessary for me to feel satisfied. To me, if something’s already defined, then it’s defined and you don’t need to——

JF: You don’t have to add to it.

SC:—do it. Yeah, what’s the point.

JF: Art history, they’ve already added to it and they picked who’s doing it right now.

SC: Yeah

JF: What does your studio sound like when you work?

SC: It’s funny, I listen to a lot of hip-hop, but now that I’m here it’s quieter.

JF: It’s really quiet here! It’s like, I feel like we’re in the woods——

SC: Yeah.

JF:—when I look out the window.

SC: I know, it feels like the country. It’s really great. The guy before me set the house up as a retreat, so it has this total retreat vibe. I like my neighbors a lot, and they are moving which is sad but I’m kind of excited because she’s very sensitive to noise, and she just told me that in passing, but I felt like it was telling me, so, so I’ve been better about——

JF: [laughing] Your rap music’s too loud!

Who are some of your influences?

SC: I fucking hate that question—

JF: Me too.

SC: For me it’s not other artists, and I think that’s kind of important to say. It’s not artists, it’s what I see, it’s plants, it’s what I’m listening to, what I’m reading, my relationships with people; it really has nothing to do with other art. I barely look at art magazines or it’s hard to get me to go see art, but I will for friends.

BOW DOWN, installed at Honor Fraser Los Angeles, 2015. photo credit Josh White Photography, 2015

JF: How do you accumulate your sources? Do you draw a lot? Do you collect things?

SC: I collect things. I don’t draw. I mean, I don’t know, maybe the paintings on paper are like drawings, but I don’t think of them like drawings.

JF: They feel really physical.

SC: Yeah, they are, even in the surface. But to me they’re like painting in the vein of Indian miniaturism or illuminated manuscripts or something like that, where this is just bigger, bodily abstract painting, even though those are abstract too, but the difference between using a tiny brush and gold leaf and throwing, you know, acrylic latex paint is super different.

JF: Yeah. Do you just work with anything? Are you like, oil, acrylics, and anything that you find or collect, or do you have like a——

SC: All water base. I spray paint, but I don’t use spray paint. And the objects mixed in, a lot of them, I acquire. People give me shit a lot, which is a little bit of an annoyance, and I always say, “No, no, I don’t want it,” and they’re always like, “No, no, you should make a painting.” It’s this weird thing that happens, that I’m like, fuck, now I have more crap! For example, my father is so sweet, he sends me feathers, cause his friends have three Macaw parrots that shed——

JF: Whoa!

SC:—every year, and they’re so beautiful, but I’m like, I do not want a thousand more feathers, but it’s also very sweet.

JF: Yeah.

SC: And I have made some really cool paintings with them, but I would never buy feathers, you know?

JF: Mmhmm. You kind of just find things. They kind of just enter your life.

SC: Yeah.

JF: Do you have any upcoming shows or big projects that you have in the works?

SC: I have a solo booth at a Dallas art fair with Honor Fraser in April which I’m almost done with, but then I’m working towards a September show with Galerie Lelong in New York. I’m gonna do a work on site, and paintings, and a small room of work on papers. I also just had my second book come out in conjunction with a huge recent work on site called The Imaginary Architecture of Love, it covers the past 3 years and 10 works on site, it’s being distributed by DAP.

JF: For your work on sites, do you draw, or do you have anything planned out, or you just know like, you have four walls and this painting’s going on one of these walls, or——

SC: Yeah, I don’t plan at all, ever, but this time I actually am thinking, because I want it to be fully a floor piece, and there’s a lot of things about having people walk on it, and sealing it, and the toxic nature of that, that I’ve considered making it in advance, though probably won’t.

It’s probably an extension to being a homeowner for the first time, cause I’ve been thinking about floors all the time [laughter] and I have complicated floors.

JF: Wow, a floor?

SC: Yeah, I think I’m gonna do it in pieces.

JF: That’s cool. So it’ll be floor and wall? Or just floor?

SC: Well, it’ll be floor and it will go up, a little bit up the wall, but then the paintings will be hung on top, so I like the idea that you’re just walking over the painting. And the thing with my works on site is you can’t walk on them, and it’s like, people always walk on them, and it drives me fucking crazy, and they never guard them correctly, so I want to just give in to it——

JF: Yeah, go walk on it.

SC: Do it! [laughs] Yeah.

JF: I’m wondering about your thoughts on the migration of New York to LA. Or like everyone is moving here.

SC: Yeah. It annoys the shit out of me. But, I don’t know, I mean I guess it’s good for LA; the galleries are probably good. I can’t even keep track of everybody that’s here. But I don’t like that downtown LA thing. It’s so douchey to me. And to me that’s like–when someone says design, I think of the designers in downtown LA, and I’m like, oh no! [laughs] It is so different!

JF: I think you like kind of walk this line, though, that’s like, it could be bad, but it’s not. It’s like a bad idea, but then it’s still, something makes it a good painting. But I can’t figure out what that is, or something.

SC: Yeah. Well, I strive to do that. I mean, I figured out, kind of about ten years ago, or rightafter Skowhegan, I figured out about not putting yourself in crazy turmoil to get to a conflict to make painting out of, and how to just start with an idea or something that’s so bad, and pull it through to be a good painting.

 Yeah, but it’s also, it’s interesting, because I don’t know, I feel like people can’t dismiss my work that easily anymore, but in the beginning it was hard to get people to really see it as serious painting, because I am so fucking serious, [laughing] you know—

JF: Have you always done, installations, or did you start with just doing paintings, or how did it move off the wall into painting huge, crazy-big painting?

SC: Yeah. I’ve always done both. I actually did the works on site way before I ever did the canvases; I was against, like [points to wall], this size, I never would guess – sixty by forty-eight, I never would think I would do that, but then it became the challenge. To make a living room size painting and still have it be, you know, like a risk and a challenge and a fuck you and a celebration, all in one.

The Imaginary Architecture of Love, 2015 Contemporary Art Museum Raleigh, photo credit Nick Pironio 2016

JF: Mmhmm.

SC: But I mean, this is a long time ago, like fifteen years ago, after undergrad, I didn’t want to pay rent, or have a job——

JF: Me neither. [laughs]

SC: It’s really hard, so I had to figure out ways, so I found squats, or empty buildings, and I started making works on site in them.

JF: Oh!

SC: And that’s how I was doing it. And back then, you could fly with three bags, so I limited myself to that, and I would work, install at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, make nine hundred dollars, have enough to live—I mean, it’s like pathetic.

I was thinking about how little money I used to live off of, I mean, but also, there was times when I literally didn’t have food. [laughs] Or, we took, my undergrad boyfriend and me, we took a mattress out of a dumpster in Brooklyn. It’s disgusting.

JF: Yeah, that’s so disgusting. Was this like, because it was New York in the early 2000’s, like ’90——

SC: It was before Williamsburg was Williamsburg. It was still weird then. He found somebody—he’s a musician, and he found somebody who had keys to an old salsa club. So there was a speed freak in the back, but that was also like an extension of the 90’s, people did that. People probably still do that, but I don’t think they do that in Williamsburg. [laughs]

JF: Did you have any support during this time, like from a gallery or curator, or did you just go in and do it and document it all for yourself?

SC: No, I didn’t. I was really naïve. I had an older painter woman and her husband who let me live with them off and on when I’d run out of money. They had a big schoolhouse that they converted in upstate NY, and she went to Bard and stuff, so she knew about art, and she would show me art books, but my family doesn’t know much about art. I knew the art that I loved—and weirdly, I knew the gallery I wanted, and then I got that gallery in San Francisco, but like five or six years later, and even when that happened, it was amazing, because he had never worked with anybody that young.

I’ve always been super precocious, but the work’s always been like five years ahead. I’ll make it, and then five years later people catch up to it and they understand it, but right now, there’s not that lag time, people are actually getting the work in almost real time, which is very strange. I hope that’s not a bad thing [laughs] but it’s been, like the past two years have been anew transition, to see that happen.

JF: How’s that, like because there’s been so many shows, or so many——

SC: I’ve been doing a lot of shows for a while but now I just get so much press, and people actually understand it, and people—I mean, maybe because there’s more exposure, and because I’m in a major city, I’m just around people, so—but I think there is just more openness, or something. I don’t know, I don’t really understand why.

JF: Or maybe we, I don’t know, like are trying to push abstraction forward, in that dialogue, you’re, of course, asking those questions of how we do this.

SC: Yeah, timeliness.

JF: Where do we go with abstraction from here? What do we do with it?

SC: I don’t know.

JF: I don’t know.