LOS ANGELES – Last summer, painter Sarah Cain pondered the biggest project of her career: a 14-meter-long painting for the East Building atrium of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC Cain, 42, has been making horribly colorful, improvised abstractions since the mid-2000s and was hired to hide structural walls during the renovation of the atrium skylight. Nearby sculptures by Max Ernst, Isamu Noguchi, and Richard Serra that were too big to move were protected by wooden boxes. Cain was also tasked with painting the boxes – each larger than her studio. (And she needed a title.)
Not long after, on a hot afternoon, I visited the artist in the hilly Los Angeles neighborhood of Garvanza. Cain handed me a cup of iced mint tea. Next to it was the title in lively font, borrowed from a meme she discovered on Instagram that made her laugh: “My favorite season is the fall of patriarchy.”
The critic Quinn Latimer once commented on Cain’s compulsion to seemingly “bad ideas”, such as attaching feathers or doilies to the surface of her paintings and drawings. “And I do a lot of crazy titles,” Cain admitted. “But I just felt that I would never get this chance again. Why should I shy away from one of the greatest problems in the art world? “
Cain’s painting problems gave ideas of what serious art looks like. Almost everything about them – their speed, their boldness, their pasta compositions, their splashes and sprayed doodles, their sticky accessories, their sense of absurdity – seems to undermine the gravity that large-format painting traditionally exudes.
Spend time in the many exhibitions around the country and it becomes clear that Cain’s art emerges from her exploration of a few weighty subjects: love, death, spirituality, and beauty – mainstream themes in Western art history – raise their heads among more current issues such as gender and wealth inequality. Her approach, says Molly Donovan, contemporary art curator at the National Gallery, “brings the tradition of abstract painting into the present”.
An overview of her work since 2012 is currently available in Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY (through January 2), and a solo exhibition of new work has just opened at Broadway Gallery in Manhattan (through October 16). “My Favorite Season Is The Fall Of The Patriarchy” stays in the National Gallery through December.
In the tang, Cain painted the entire floor of the gallery and then also added painted sofas from which one could see the works on the walls. Their exuberant traces often splash from the edge of the canvas onto the wall or floor, dropping the painting category into the installation. At other times, murals include (she avoids the term “mural”) canvases, cut and deconstructed, along with other odds and ends. When she was painting a wall next to the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2017, she attached backpacks with sequins that she had bought in a shop down the street.
These rucksacks, which she found when the work was uninstalled, reappear on two new paintings in the exhibition in the Broadway Gallery. Beads, ropes, crystals, paint rollers, shells, twigs, plastic flowers, hula hoops and, in this new exhibition, a bra can be seen on the surfaces of her work. She once spent $ 5 at a thrift store and came back with a bag of knickknacks, including faux-Hawaiian leis, with a promise that she would find ways to put it all in a painting. (“It’s so ugly,” she says laughing about the work.)
“Sarah encompasses the very ideas, content and styles that have been marginalized – craft, graffiti, the feminine, the decorative, the domestic,” said Jamillah James, senior curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. “Don’t just hug it, let it explode. She has a completely fearless approach to the medium. “
Somewhat to her amazement, the answer Cain most often receives is that her pictures make people happy. “That’s probably because I often start from conflict points,” she says. “In the end, I worked out of this zone. But I don’t plan to take happy pictures.
“I’m so serious as a person that it annoys me,” says Cain with a smile. “That’s probably not a cool thing, but I think if I didn’t paint I would be really depressed.”
“She’s a wonderfully dissatisfied painter,” says Ian Berry, director of Tang and curator of Cain’s exhibition there. “It doesn’t repeat itself. She always tries to take pictures that no one has seen before, pictures that are a really provocative combination of pleasure and politics. “
Cain first attached cut glass crystals to her paintings after hanging them in the windows of a “really cute but super dangerous” house she once lived in, in a gang-riddled area of Los Angeles. “It was that silly New Age protective thing, but it also made my house look kind of crazy. For example, you didn’t want to break into that window. ”Tied to her paintings, crystals and prisms really shine in a magical way, with rainbows scattering in space when light hits them at certain angles.
Since the 2008 recession, she has been painting “talismans” on dollar bills to bring their owners money. “I bought my house from them! I once sold 150 at a trade fair, ”she is amazed. “But I really believe in her.”
The conflict in Cain’s work can be traced back to her experience as a woman in a male-dominated art world. (“My favorite season of the year is the fall of the patriarchy,” it should be noted) was commissioned by the National Gallery first female director, Kaywin Feldman.)
She despairs of the “formats” for artistic ingenuity that the institutions of the art world perpetuate, and of the artists who willingly play along. Many curators, she says, would like to discover an artist in his untidy studio (she keeps hers meticulously clean) and take these “messy boys” under their wing. “It’s so deep and disgusting to me.”
It’s hard, I tell her, not to read the big pink X painted on one of the National Gallery’s sculpture-wrapping boxes as a cancellation. Cain replies that it didn’t start like this: “It’s a quick way to take up space. And that’s something that my job does, but that’s something you have to do as a lady in the art world. Even if it’s not a physical space, you have to press harder or speak louder. And people get annoyed when you do it. “
During her studies at the University of California at Berkeley, she attended an impressive course in feminist theory with the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha. One session focused on the voice and dissected studies showing that we are culturally conditioned to pay more attention to deep, loud voices than to soft, higher ones. Trinh kept her own voice low and low. “I’m going to retrain you,” Cain recalls, telling the class. “You will have to listen.” I ask Cain if she does that too. “I don’t think I have the luxury,” she replies.
At the beginning of her career, she might have given a different answer. While still in the Bay Area (she moved to Los Angeles in 2007), she would walk into abandoned buildings or squats and paint on the walls, knowing that her job would not last. “I really felt that fragility was strength,” she explains. “Making art that feels active instead of dead and preserved forever was really my goal, and I still am.”
Nowadays, she says, she looks for ways to do work that will last. In 2019 she completed a stained glass window contract for San Francisco Airport and wants to make more public art. “I want to do some bronze work. I want to do more stained glass. I want to make things that can withstand the elements. “
In other words, she wants to be the artist with the work under the big wooden box, not on it.
Through October 16, Broadway Gallery, 373 Broadway, Lower Manhattan; (212) 226-4001; www.broadwaygallery.nyc.