Sarah Cain Redefines Seriousness in Painting

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LOS ANGELES — Final summer months, the painter Sarah Cain was considering the biggest venture of her occupation: a 45-foot-extensive portray for the East Setting up Atrium of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. Cain, 42, has been making caustically colourful, improvised abstractions due to the fact the mid-2000s and had been commissioned to disguise development walls during refurbishment of the atrium’s skylight. Nearby sculptures by Max Ernst, Isamu Noguchi and Richard Serra, also large to relocate, were being shielded by wooden containers. Cain was tasked with painting on the bins, as well — just about every larger than her studio. (And she necessary a title.)

Not very long afterward, a single recent scorching afternoon, I frequented the artist in the hilly Los Angeles neighborhood of Garvanza. Cain handed me a mug of iced mint tea. On the side, in jaunty lettering, was that title, borrowed from a meme she spotted on Instagram that built her snicker: “My beloved time is the tumble of the patriarchy.”

The critic Quinn Latimer after remarked on Cain’s compulsion towards seemingly “bad tips,” this sort of as attaching feathers or doilies to the area of her paintings and drawings. “And I do a good deal of nuts titles,” Cain admitted, far too. “But I just felt, I won’t get this possibility at any time once again. Why would I shy absent from 1 of the greatest challenges in the art environment?”

Cain’s paintings difficulty been given ideas of what severe artwork appears to be like like. Almost every thing about them — their pace, their brashness, their noodling compositions, their splashes and spray-painted scribbles, their tacky accouterments, their perception of absurdity — would seem to undermine the gravitas that large-scale portray historically initiatives.

Devote time with it, in the a lot of exhibitions about the state, and it will become obvious that Cain’s art comes out of her competition with some weighty issues: Like, dying, spirituality and magnificence — mainstream themes in Western art background — elevate their heads together with more modern issues these types of as gender and wealth inequality. Her technique, suggests Molly Donovan, the National Gallery’s curator of contemporary art, “brings the tradition of summary painting into the present.”

A survey of her do the job due to the fact 2012 is currently on watch at the Frances Young Tang Educating Museum and Artwork Gallery at Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. (as a result of Jan. 2), and a solo exhibition of new work just opened at Broadway Gallery in Manhattan (as a result of Oct. 16). “My favourite time is the drop of the patriarchy” will stay at the National Gallery right up until December.

At the Tang, Cain painted the gallery’s entire floor, then included sofas, also painted, from which to check out the will work on the partitions. Generally, her exuberant marks spill off the edge of the canvas onto the wall or floor, collapsing the group of portray into set up. Other moments, wall paintings (she avoids the time period “mural”) include canvases, sliced and deconstructed, along with other odds and ends. When she painted a wall beside the new Institute of Up to date Art, Los Angeles, in 2017, she hooked up sequined backpacks she’d purchased from a retail store down the road.

Individuals backpacks, which she retrieved when the piece was deinstalled, reappear on two new paintings in the exhibition at Broadway Gallery. Beads, rope, crystals, paint rollers, shells, twigs, plastic bouquets, hula hoops and, in this new exhibition, a bra have highlighted on the surfaces of her works. After she expended $5 in a thrift store and arrived away with a bag of knickknacks, like fake-Hawaiian leis, promising herself that she’d find strategies to consist of it all in a painting. (“It’s so unappealing,” she states of the work, laughing.)

“Sarah embraces the pretty suggestions, written content and styles that have been marginalized — craft, graffiti, the feminine, the attractive, the domestic,” Jamillah James, senior curator at the Institute of Up to date Art, Los Angeles, says. “Not only embraces them, but explodes them. She has a wholly fearless strategy to the medium.”

Considerably to her bemusement, the response Cain receives most usually is that her paintings make people come to feel content. “It’s probably for the reason that I get started from points of conflict a lot,” she says. “By the end, I’ve labored out of that zone. But I never established out to make satisfied paintings.

“I’m so critical as a man or woman, it is frustrating,” Cain states with a smile. “This is probably not a cool matter to say, but I imagine that if I didn’t paint, I’d be truly depressed.”

“She’s a gloriously unsatisfied painter,” says Ian Berry, director of the Tang and curator of Cain’s exhibition there. “She doesn’t repeat herself. She’s constantly attempting to make paintings that no a person has noticed prior to, paintings that are a actually provocative mix of pleasure and politics.”

Cain to start with attached slash-glass crystals to her paintings right after hanging them in the windows of a “really sweet but super dangerous” house she once lived in, in a gang-ridden region of Los Angeles. “It was this silly New Agey protection factor, but it also made my house search variety of ridiculous. Like, you did not want to crack into that window.” Tied to her paintings, crystals and prisms actually do radiate in magical strategies, with rainbows scattering about the place when gentle hits them at certain angles.

Due to the fact the recession of 2008, she has painted “talismans” on dollar payments, meant to provide revenue to their house owners. “I bought my house off them! I the moment marketed 150 at a good,” she marvels. “But I truly consider in them.”

The conflict in Cain’s get the job done can be traced back to her practical experience of being a female in an art earth dominated by guys. (“My favourite season is the drop of the patriarchy,” it really should be famous, was commissioned by the Countrywide Gallery’s initial female director, Kaywin Feldman.)

She despairs of the “formats” for inventive genius that the institutions of the art earth perpetuate, and the artists who willingly perform alongside. A lot
of curators, she claims, like to learn an artist in his untidy studio (she keeps hers fastidiously neat) and get these “messy boys” beneath their wing. “It’s so deep and disgusting to me.”

It is difficult, I tell her, not to read through the significant pink X, painted on just one of the sculpture-shrouding containers at the National Gallery, as a cancellation. Cain responds that it did not begin out that way: “It’s a speedy way to get up house. And which is a thing that my operate does, but also that you have to do as a woman in the artwork planet. Even if it’s not physical place, you have to drive tougher or communicate louder. And persons resent you when you do.”

When she researched at the College of California at Berkeley, she took an impactful feminist concept course with the filmmaker Trinh T. Minh-ha. 1 session centered on voice, dissecting scientific studies that confirmed that we are culturally conditioned to pay a lot more notice to deep, loud voices than quiet, higher-pitched types. Trinh saved her have voice delicate and very low. “I’m likely to retrain you,” Cain recollects her telling the course. “You’re likely to have to hear.” I question Cain if she does that much too. “I really don’t consider I have the luxurious to do that,” she replies.

Before in her job, she could have offered a different answer. Although nevertheless in the Bay Region (she moved to Los Angeles in 2007) she would enter deserted properties or squats, and paint on the partitions, knowing that her get the job done would not past. “I actually felt that fragility is energy,” she describes. “Making artwork that feels energetic as a substitute of dead and preserved without end was definitely what I was following, and I however am.”

These times, she suggests, she is seeking for ways to make get the job done that will outlive her. In 2019 she accomplished a stained-glass window fee for San Francisco Airport, and she is eager to do extra general public artwork. “I want to do a bronze function. I want to do a lot more stained glass. I want to make factors that stand up to the factors.”

In other words, she wishes to be the artist with perform below the significant wood box, not on prime of it.


Sarah Cain

Through Oct. 16, Broadway Gallery, 373 Broadway, Reduce Manhattan (212) 226-4001 broadwaygallery.nyc.

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