#04: Sarah Cain


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.