Modern Painters: Sarah Cain

Sarah Cain in front of “In Loving Memory of Your Mind”

In Sarah Cain’s As You Continue to Walk Forward, her 2008 site-specific installation at the Orange County Museum of Art, fluorescent colors and patterns crawl up and dripped down walls, ceilings, and floors.  The geometric composition in Midnight Mission, from 2009, begins on a canvas and extends beyond its edge and onto the adjacent walls and floor.  In Santa Barbara 2, 2011, a deconstructed canvas reveals the architecture of its stretcher bars, an integral component of the work.  So, is Cain a painter, a sculptor, or an installation artist?  ”I’m a painters,” she says.  ”I think of it all as painting.  Great painting should expand what painting can be.”

Growing up in a small rural town in New York’s Hudson River Valley, Cain left home at 15, dropping out of high school to do a one-year exchange program at a lycée in the South of France.  She did not speak French and found the experience both difficult and revelatory.  ”I was already drawing all the time, but a year of not being able to communicate, of being mute, solidified that I was going to be an artist.  That’s all I did.”  After returning briefly to New York, Cain went back to France to attend Ecole Parsons in Paris.  Her second extended stay in France was equally challenging.  ”I was on a $5-a-day budget.  I ate only coucous, and I live in the ghetto.  It was brutal.  But I look back and think, Wow, you were 17 and you had your own apartment in Paris that Parsons paid for!”  Shortly after returning to the U.S., Cain moved to California to study as an undergraduate at the San Francisco Institute of Art; she later received an MFA from the University of California at Berkeley.  She had the foresight and patience to build a consistent, focused practice, spending 10 years in San Francisco refining her voice.

“As You Continue to Walk Forward,” 2009, mixed media.

Early on, Cain found the prospect of entering the commercial art world alarming and overwhelming.  ”I couldn’t even comprehend how you put money on art – it was just too much for me to handle.”  Her instinct was to delay her career as an artist in order to give herself the freedom to experiment.  From 2000 to 2004, she honed her skills as an abstract artist, creating temporary, site-specific installations in abandoned buildings around San Francisco and in Upstate New York.  ”It was about a sense of urgency, risk, and love of the present tense.  All of that is the rejection of the commercial.  Those works are the core alphabet of what I still do.”  She favored abstracted from the start: “To me, abstraction is a language that expands upon our spoken language.  There are holes in what I know how to say in words.”  Cain still retains much of the creative process developed in her early years.  This is most apparent in her on-site work, which she does not plan in advance.  She interacts with an exhibition site and allows the dialogue to inform her work.  In As You Continue to Walk Forward, the indoor-outdoor delineation was interrupted by stripes of bold color that began on an interior wall and stretched to an exterior floor and wall.  In that same exhibition, a floral painting hung on the same horizontal plane as the government-mandated exit sign, incorporating and reacting to the sign’s neon-green letters.  Much of Cain’s on-site work continues to be temporary.  Nevertheless, she explains, “It’s important for me to keep that work as part of my practice; it’s a great way to plow through ideas really fast.  A lot of the things I start on-site I continue in the studio.”  Her studio work is slower and more enduring.

“Moonlight”, 2011, Acrylic, canvas, beads, string, silver leaf and stretcher bars.

As a result of creating ephemeral art for four years, Cain didn’t have many concrete examples to show for all her effort.  Now, she says, “I have found ways to make work that still has a lot at stake but will actually survive, which is important to me.”  In her studio, Cain continually turns the notion of painting on its head.  She approaches the architecture of the canvas in much the same manner she does an exhibition space, deconstructing and manipulating it in unexpected ways.  She began pulling back pieces of canvas to find the structure within them, and they too became part of the work.  It was these deconstructed canvases that launched Cain’s transition from working directly on the wall to working primarily on canvas.  In Moonlight, 2011, Cain uses it as a structure on which to add found objects.  An empty frame, a circular painting of the moon, and a small red composition are perched on top of a larger white rectangular canvas draped with colorful strings and beads.  She started doing this back in San Francisco, incorporating objects she found while working in abandoned squats because “I just felt they had this other life.”  Close friends and family members now collect items for her.  Her father recently sent her a large box of parrot feathers, which she added to a work on which she also painted silver feathers.  ”My whole practice has been about challenging painting.  Now I find that the starting point on which to build something serious is the ridiculous, the funny, or something you shouldn’t do.”  This includes adding appendages such as silver chains and big pink bows, or turning a canvas inside out – all of which might seem to break the formal structure of a painting, though Cain sees them as extensions of the medium.  ” I use acrylic, gouache, and latex, and to me, silver leaf and feathers could just as well be paint.”

“Solar Eclipse in Leo,” 2011, acrylic and sand on canvas.

By 2006, after years of developing her practice and staying away from “the evils of the art world,”  Cain felt ready to exhibit.  That year saw her first solo gallery show, at Anthony Meier Fine Arts, in San Francisco, followed shortly afterward by her first museum show, at SFMOMA.  Seeking a larger arts community and great career opportunity, Cain left San Francisco in 2007 and, taking her friend Andrea Zittel’s advice, relocated to Los Angeles, where her work became even more colorful and explosive.  ”I started working on a more maximum level.  My first studio was downtown, in the fabric district.  I grew up on a dirt road – I’m not used to so many people and tons of color.”  The shift is especially noticeable in the abstract paintings on sheet music she made in 2008.  With those works, set on bound and loose-leaf sheets either found or given to her by friends, her practice became less physical and more contemplative, the detailed paintings not unlike manuscript illuminations.  One of those bound books will be displayed at the first Los Angeles biennial, “Made in L.A. 2012,” opening at the Hammer Museum June 2, along with three works on canvas and one site-specific installation.  Also this month, the Los Angeles Nomadic Division (LAND) will publish their first monograph on Cain, providing a scholarly assessment of the painter’s career over the past 10 years.

Cain continues to push the medium of painting but finds working on canvas surprisingly inspiring.  ”I never though I’d be able to have fun in such a traditional painting size, one that somebody could easily put in their house,” she say, pointing to a 77-by-48-inch canvas she is finishing for her upcoming September solo show at Honor Fraser gallery, in Los Angeles.  Her most recent works on canvas, such as Solar Eclipse in Leo and In Loving Memory of Your Mind, both 2011, exhibit familiar through-lines such as bold colors, deconstructed surfaces, found objects, and geometric shapes.  Despite her scaling down her work from large installations to smaller canvases, Cain still considers her work to be “the synthesis of physical and mental space” – but the chance of scale hasn’t altered the way in which she approaches space in her work.  ”In a lot of ways, I’m a painter painting about space.”

“Music Book,” 2008-2012, 20 gouache and acrylic paintings on music sheets, bound in a book.

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