Friday, June 06, 2008

Art Space Talk: Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie painted aerial views of suburban sprawl for a number of years. In her recent work, she has "zoomed in," to focus on individual tract homes and commercial structures captured in a state of partial construction. These new paintings explore the building process. Upon observation one can discover a metaphor for the activity of painting. Sarah studied at Yale University and the University of Michigan.

Build Up, oil on canvas, 72" x 72"

Brian Sherwin: Sarah, can you recall your academic years? I understand that you studied at Yale University. Did you have any influential instructors? What advice do you have for students considering Yale?

Sarah McKenzie: I loved my undergraduate experience at Yale. Even though I took a lot of art classes (essentially minoring in art), I can't overstate how much I value the top-notch liberal arts education that I received at Yale. I can clearly picture myself, at age 19, "discovering" all these connections between what I was learning in my sociology classes, and my film studies classes, and my art history classes, and my French lit classes... For four years, I felt like light bulbs were coming on in my head daily.
With respect to the undergraduate art program at Yale, when I was there (1989-1993) the approach to teaching art was very traditional- lots of emphasis on drawing from observation and Albers-inspired color and design courses. I got a really good grounding in technical skills and materials, but perhaps not enough exposure to contemporary art. I know the graduate program is very different in that respect, and perhaps the undergraduate program is now, too.
Probably my most influential professor was Robert Reed- I had him for Painting 1, which was a year-long course, and for that year, his class was my first priority. I essentially lived in the painting studio. Reed demanded that level of commitment of time and focus from his students. I learned a lot about discipline and ambition that year. It was Reed who told me, "You have to be a painter," and gave me the boost I needed to decide to pursue this thing professionally.

Construction 5, oil on panel, 20 x 20 inches

BS: Speaking of education... you have taught at several schools since 1998. How do you find balance between that profession and your personal art?

SM: Well, before I started a family, it wasn't too difficult to find a balance. I generally taught three or four days a week and painted the rest of the time, in the evenings and on weekends. I've always learned a lot about my own work through teaching, and it's very motivating to be part of a rigorous academic environment, in any capacity. But I left teaching in the spring of 2006, and I am now pursuing my studio practice full-time.
I had my second child in 2005, and I found it difficult to be a good teacher, a good artist, and a good parent to two young children all at once. Now I paint from 9-5, and evenings and weekends are family time.

BS: Sarah, for a number of years you painted aerial views of suburban sprawl... since 2005 you started to focus on specific structures instead of sprawl. Can you discuss this shift? Also, what do you find interesting about suburban sprawl and those specific structures in regards to your painting practice?

SM: I painted aerial views of sprawl from 1999 to 2005. In particular, I documented areas which formerly had been undeveloped or had been used for agriculture, and were now undergoing a transformation into suburban tract housing. I am fascinated by the mutability of our landscape, how easily it can be reshaped and reconfigured as our socio-cultural needs shift over time. I am dismayed by the cookie-cutter nature of a lot of suburban development, but my aerial paintings didn't take a strong anti-suburbia stance. Instead, they were more focused on the notion of the landscape as a man-made construction, which is so very clear when you look at it from above.

The shift to painting individual buildings under construction actually happened shortly after I switched from a film camera to a digital camera, in 2004. Throughout the years that I was painting aerials, I was always interested in construction sites and the skeletal structures of the incomplete houses, but I never got close enough to the ground to take very satisfying film photos of those structures. When I switched to a very high resolution digital camera, I was suddenly able to zoom in on my photographs in Photoshop, and that opened up a lot of possibilities.
Once the new work took off, in 2005, I realized that I no longer needed to document the houses exclusively from an aerial perspective. The aerial view had been important to the earlier suburban paintings because of the way it flattened out the picture plane and abstracted the landscape. But partially constructed buildings are already inherently abstract.
I love that I find all these Modernist systems and structures--grids, stripes, etc.-- in the rather generic architecture of suburbia. In fact, my newest works are increasingly abstract and formal, with each new building/composition presenting a different set of possibilities and ways to play with paint (color, surface, mark, etc.)
Roof Line, oil on canvas, 48 x 48 inches

BS: You have stated that your work can be interpreted as revealing cracks in the suburban American dream. What are the social implications of your paintings?

SM: This varies from painting to painting, and, in general, I would not assert that my recent work has strong social implications. I am much more concerned with exploring the nature of paintings as objects, and with drawing a connection between the construction of a three-dimensional building and the construction of a picture on a two-dimensional surface.
Many of my recent works include moments of visual rupture, where the picture becomes fragmented. I am applying paint to the surface in incongruent ways, juxtaposing various painting "styles," leaving sections of the painting support unpainted, and otherwise undermining the potential for a unified image. This disruption of the viewer's experience enables him or her to see the picture as a construction, rather than as a cohesive, fixed whole. What I have said is that if any commentary on suburbia remains in the new work, it is in these moments of visual rupture, which can be interpreted as revealing cracks in the suburban American dream. But I think that's fairly subtle.
Occasionally, social commentary does find its way back into the work more overtly. My painting Site, for example, which is currently on view at the Walker Art Center in a show titled "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes," can be seen, on the one hand, as addressing the relationship between abstraction and representation, but it also comments on the reproducibility of tract housing. The viewer looks through the skeleton of a house under construction in the foreground, to a completed house on a hillside in the distance. There is something dark about the composition; the dominant one-point perspective in the image focuses the viewer's gaze on the house in the background to such an extent that the house seems to be almost threatened, vulnerable.

BS: Sarah, would you like to discuss some of your other influences? For example, do you admire any specific artists?

SM: There's so much great painting coming out of Germany right now, that it's hard not to be influenced by it. Two painters that I think about a lot are Mattias Weischer and Christian Hellmich. Both deal with architectural spaces and play with paint handling and surface. I also really admire the recent paintings of Jules de Balincourt- His show at Zach Feuer last year blew me away, and motivated me to start working with acrylics (along with oils) again. It's exciting to see so many artists of my generation making such good work.

Construction 4 (STEPS), oil on panel, 20 x 20 inches

BS: What are you working on at this time? Can you give our readers some insight into your current work?

SM: At the moment, I am pursuing two new directions in my work. The first is a series of "interiors," based on photographs of a large commercial building under construction. These compositions more minimalist than previous works. I am mainly interested in the transitory nature of these interior spaces: they have dry wall, but no paint yet; they have wiring, but no electrical fixtures. The spaces are eerie, quiet. They are empty, but in a not-yet-inhabited (rather than abandoned) sense. They are full of potential.
In a very different vein, I am planning some works based on photos that I shot of the reconstruction efforts in New Orleans back in March. This work will obviously bring up a lot of social issues- I haven't yet figured out where that will lead.

BS: Where can our readers observe your art in person? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

SM: As I mentioned above, one of my paintings, Site, is currently on view at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, MN, in a group exhibition titled "Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes." This is a really interesting show, curated by Andrew Blauvelt and Tracey Myers, which looks at both artists' and architects' responses to suburbia. "Worlds Away" is up at the Walker until mid-August. It will travel to the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh in October.
I am also currently showing at the General Electric World Headquarters in Fairfield, CT, in a group show titled "This Modern World," a survey exhibition of contemporary representations of architecture in art. I am represented in Denver by Robischon Gallery.

You can learn more about Sarah McKenzie by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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