Sunday, November 21, 2010

Artist Interview - Sara Klar

I met painter, Sara Klar, several years ago when we were both exhibiting at the same Brooklyn gallery. As a lover of color, I was blown away when I first saw her work. They were like no other canvases I had ever seen- three-dimensional, visceral, raw. It was expression coming from the depths of some unknown place through explosive color. Somehow I understood her work with emotions of my own. Sara is a painter's painter and to enjoy her work is to see it at a normal viewing distance, and then up close. Very close.

Over the years, Sara has thoughtfully kept me on her mailing list, and I've been treated to seeing her work several times at various venues. I recently paid a visit to her gorgeous Greenpoint studio to ask her some questions, and get acquainted with some of her latest pieces in person.

How long have you been painting? When did you know that you wanted to pursue art?
The question that is more relevant is how long have I been making art. I moved into Manhattan in the early 1980s and made my first art pieces then. They were conceptual, but of that I had no idea. I created them in response to the stimuli of living in Manhattan where I began to notice that without my cognizance I was under the influence of the advertising industry. I hated this lack of control and decided to see how much external buzz I could filter out by removing items such as television and magazines from my home- vehicles where information putting forth its own message for its own gain, was sneaking into my domain. One of the last places left for me to filter was my bathroom medicine cabinet. In the morning when I was hardly awake, and in a most vulnerable state, I would open the cabinet and be bombarded by marketing logos. I decided to neutralize this experience. I selected three different color yellows to correspond with the three shelves in the cabinet. I painted each bottle entirely (label and all) with the yellow of the particular shelf it sat on. I called this piece, Yellow Fever. What resulted was some rather funny late night fumblings trying to figure out what pill exactly was in which bottle.

Can you generally describe your artistic progression over the years?
It was a gradual, organic evolution. I was definitely walking down a particular path only I didn’t know it. As I mentioned, I was already making these conceptual pieces. I was living in SoHo at the time. On my way to pick up milk I would stop by galleries like Mary Boone, Castelli, and later, Gagosian on Wooster Street. I went continously to museums- the people I was drawn to were artists. There was no one moment in time when I said, “Yes, I shall pursue art!” but there was a very particular moment when I began to paint. At a very low ebb emotionally, I picked up a bottle of paint (the kind children use in Kindergarden) and squeezed hard, pushing the paint out onto paper. The feeling of release was thrilling. This was the start of my first series of paintings, what I call my Fuck Off Paintings.
We spoke about how the Y2K era was the catalyst for a whole new body of work. Can you explain that more? Does this concept still play into your current pieces now in 2010?
The runup to Y2K engendered a period of critical self analysis as the art frontier shifted to new media- the video and digital world. I felt I should be exploring this arena, making digital art. The only problem was that working on a computer for artmaking purposes held zero appeal. I was a painter delving in a medium of communication that reached back to pre-historic time. I was conflicted with the possibility and idea of now being forced to use computers, the newest form of communication. This led to a chain of self-questioning: “What does it mean to be an artist? What does it mean to be a contemporary artist? Do I consider myself a contemporary artist? Is this important? Why am I an artist? Why is my media paint?" This interior dialogue went on for well over a year during which time I did not paint. It finally led to my concluding that artmaking was my way of coming to understand the world I was inhabiting and my way into the artmaking process was through the tactile, sensual quality of paint. So I determined that I was going to see how far I could explore the materiality of paint and I would make paintings that could never be replicated or duplicated by the computer. The troubling side to this latter decision that only later reared its head was that it would prove very difficult to really capture my paintings on the computer screen.

(left) detail of Warrior, 2010; and
(right) detail of Thrust, 2006 - 2009, acrylic and tape on canvas (84”h x 60”w x 3”d)

The paintings I recently exhibited at Sideshow Gallery in Williamsburg Brooklyn this past March, from my series, “Geography Of The Mind For Locations Of The Soul” demonstrate fully the vocabulary I developed from this inquiry - my layering of paintings on top of paintings on a single canvas, each new painting layer obliterating the painting that came before, building paint up to several inches in thickness on the canvas, cutting into this thickness with single edged razor blades and exposing parts of past paintings, peeling this paint like fruit, forming it like clay, adding paper, affixing tape, tearing these materials off. All of this wrestling resulted in paintings that are extremely multi-dimensional and take eight months to four years to complete.

How did you become interested in integrating narrative into your paintings? Do you want the viewer to know what the narrative is, or would you rather keep that private and have people just accept each painting as an absract piece?
I’ve never considered my pieces to be totally abstract. I’ve alway considered the forms in my paintings to be my own personal lexicon illustrating specific events in my life. At the same time, I love the experience of complexity, multiple meanings, and perspectives that are offered in abstraction. Abstraction allows space and the very strong rebel in me hates to feel locked in. With regard to whether I prefer to keep the narrative private, there is a part of me that thrills when someone sees the narrative which means essentially they are seeing me. At the same time, I greatly fear the exposure.
(left) Warrior, 2010, acrylic, paper, tape, marker, and pastel on canvas (96”h x 73”w x 2½”d); and
(right) detail from Swarm, 2005 - 2009

Your work is fairly big. Are you more comfortable working in a format with a large scale?
These paintings, (8 feet by 6 feet and 7 feet by 5 feet) are not only quite large but heavy! They weigh close to 100 lbs. I love the feel of great power I have when I’m working on them. I understand well why the big boys of abstract art painted huge canvases. But my large scale paintings take a tremendous amount of energy both mental and physical. When my energy is in a quieter place, my very small paintings (11 inches by 11 inches) are perfect. I start off thinking these will be easier because they are small, and in this way I fool myself into thinking that the process of making these painting will be less arduous. Hah!

What three words would you use to describe your work overall?
I wouldn’t. I can give you one though - "impossible!"

Helium Head, 2007 -2009, acrylic, paper, tape on canvas (84”h x 60”w x 4”d) (left)
Swarm, 2005 -2009 acrylic, marker, tape, ink on canvas (84”h x 60”w x 3½d) (right)

Can you describe your favorite piece of all time that you've created?
No, each painting comes into being out of a need to delve deep into a matter to gain understanding of myself in relation to an external event. A painting is not finished until I’ve come not only to a place of full comprehension but also taken the work to a place that is beyond my comprehension.

Do you listen to music or have any odd practices while you're working in your studio?
Sometimes I listen to music, sometimes not. When I find an album that I like, I listen to it over and over and over, sometimes for months. Inevitably there comes the moment in time when I never want to hear the album again.
Detail from Helium Head, 2007 -2009

Where do you like to go for inspiration or sanctuary?
It takes a long time to really see a painting and an art environment should provide a venue for thoughtful contemplation. My favorite museum which fulfills this criteria has always been the Metropolitan Museum. The new MOMA most annoyingly provides the antithetical museum art viewing experience. Not in terms of their art program, but what they’ve achieved with their new renovation is a building that excels as a hub of activity. While the architecture is stellar, it is difficult to get far from the crowd. Of course, my own studio is quiet. At my leisure, I read critical essays and study monographs of artists.

(left) detail from Lined, Plumbed, 2005 - 2009;  and (right) detail from Swarm, 2005-2009

Do you have a particular time of day that you like to work?
Early in the morning when it’s very quiet when I’ve just woken up, and I haven’t begun reacting with the exterior world. 5:30 a.m. is usually a very good time for me before the annoyances of everyday life have intruded.

Your website mentions that you left Orthodox Judaism. Would you mind expanding on that decision?
I come from an Orthodox Jewish background, which I equate with the Fundamentalist practice of any religion. The shorthand version of events is that I was married off at 19, sought to divorce at 20½ , and faced the reality that if my husband decided not to grant me a divorce, a “get”, I would be what is called in Hebrew, an Aguna, "a halachic term for a Jewish woman who is 'chained' to her marriage."* Many aguna cases arise as a result of a husband withholding a get in order to extort money or extract a more favorable divorce settlement or to get even with his wife.   (* term as described further in Wikipedia)

Detail from Lined, Plumbed, 2005 - 2009

I had encountered subjugation before but in milder forms, and my protest in those situations was circumscribed. Raised in privileged circumstances, I had not wanted to see the degree to which men dominated women in my world, for admitting this reality would have necessitated leaving my a cushioned existence. But with the authority to grant the “get” in my husband’s hands, the scale tipped. Just out of my teens, my entire future life was at stake and I refused to continue to follow a religion that rendered me powerless to control my destiny.

Who or what is your work influenced by? Do you have any particular favorite artists?
The first artist that I studied in depth was Matisse followed by Van Gogh and Rothko. Subsequently, it was Pollock, and then I was on to Early Renaissance art. Now, Guston continues to be one of my all-time favorites. In his later figurative works, his genuis comes together; the beauty of his paint passages, the brilliant massed compositions, his pictorial descriptions of what it means to be human and vulnerable. It takes great courage to see oneself so directly. Rembrandt’s self portraits have this honesty too. I return time and time again to see them. Bruce Nauman I respect, also Kara Walker- her work is so blatant, and Ursula Von Rydingsvard.

What do you think it takes to be an artist today whether in New York or anywhere?
You are born an artist. To be a practicing artist in the New York art world takes stamina. There are fashions and flavors operative here as in other industries and pressures both subtle and overt to conform either by creating a certain type of art or by taking on a certain type of persona. The "art world" is a very closed system that operates without transparency and is governed by unspoken codes and alliances. It takes effort to understand this playing field. It requires much strategic networking to gain access to the powers who can help bring an artist’s career to ascendant.

(left) detail from Thrust, 2006 - 2009; and (right) detail from Endow, 2006 - 2010

Where do you see your work gong in the future (stylistically)? Do you have any specific projects or exhibitions coming up in 2010-2011?
I experience burnout for about a year following every show. I’m just coming out of a period of dormancy and have made two small new paintings. I’m also at the infancy stage of a new direction - working in video to explore the relationship of home and loss.

And finally, as a painter who uses such bold color, this should be a difficult one, do you have a favorite color?
Red is my favorite color. It’s my emotional connection. But in painting, it’s not my go-to color. I’m very careful not to use it too easily.

A portrait of the artist relaxing in her studio along with gorgeously-colored paint detail from Warrior, 2010.

For more information about Sara and to see more of her work, please consult her website.

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