I first saw Sara Dykstra‘s paintings at the California College of the Arts 2013 MFA Thesis Exhibition, and again at the Root Division Introductions 2013 Exhibition. I was struck by her subtle mastery of color–seemingly achieved without glazing–and by her mysterious, tissuey forms that were neither completely opaque nor transparent.
Sara’s solo exhibition Revolving Around You is on view at Patricia Sweetow Gallery in San Francisco from May 6 through June 21, 2014. The artist’s reception is Saturday, May 31, from 3 to 5 p.m.
I asked Sara about her process, her color palettes, and the space between things.
Articiple: In your current painting process, you create fragile sculptural installations that serve as models or points of departure for the paintings. The paintings’ diaphanous shapes hold a tension between precision and ambiguity. Can you talk about your interest in that space “between”—between life painting and abstract painting, between resolved and unresolved forms?
Sara: The space between things emerges in many ways. One way is, as you mentioned, the space between abstraction and representation. My installations are abstract, yet the paintings allude to the light and space of the set. So I don’t know where the work ultimately lies, and that is welcome in my practice.
Once the painting is done, there is a tension between knowing that I’m looking at something that exists, because it’s resting in space and its form is illuminated by light, but not knowing what it is. This is the space of ambiguity that interests me—the uncanny—something which is foreign, yet oddly familiar.
Articiple: In recent paintings such as the Revolving Around You Series (2013), there’s an overall effect of controlled exuberance. Colors are complexly layered yet distinct. Shapes have ragged but discernible edges. The paintings have unified, soft matte surfaces. There’s a quiet certainty to each composition that I’m sure belies the effort behind it. What can you tell us about your process that is not visible in the final paintings—the dilemmas or struggles that go into the work?
Sara: Each painting begins with a process of discovery that takes place while I’m making the still-life. I never really know how it will turn out. I sometimes have an idea or a color in mind that I want to begin with, but they always end up looking completely different than imagined. This part of the work is done intuitively, so it seems as though the set-ups have a life of their own and a direction they follow outside of what I think will happen, or try to make happen.
The still-life, the subject-matter of the painting, is then painted from life. It’s never ready until there’s something unusual about the light, color or sense of space that makes me want to paint it. My still-lives are almost completely made of translucent material. I layer transparent color or form upon form so they can be seen through to the back of the set-up, then they are lit from various angles.
Ultimately, I want the work to emerge unbidden. This is a difficult task because it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the process, such as getting the values and hues of the painting right in order to create the illusion of transparency. Sometimes I spend hours struggling to get one color right, painting it in and wiping it out. The color I think I see in the still-life and on the palette might not necessarily work in the painting. An optical illusion takes place on the canvas once the color is surrounded by other colors. So, the color that doesn’t necessarily make sense to me optically on the palette, might actually make sense in the painting. There is a lot of trial and error in undoing one optical illusion in order to make another one work. I’m amazed every time this happens and think a lot about Josef Albers.
Articiple: The dis-Integration Series (2012) includes portraits with faces partially concealed by aluminum leaf. The decision to step away from fully figurative work is pretty clear. What lay behind that decision? How did the dis-Integration Series set the stage for your recent work using sculptural installations as models?
Sara: The dis-Integration Series marks a clear transition in my work. It was an important series of paintings to go through. I’d been painting the figure for quite some time and sensed I was getting ready to move on to something different, but didn’t know what or how to get there. During periods of transition I tend to work serially, painting the same thing over and over again in the hopes that I will discover something new about it that I hadn’t seen before, or a new way of painting it. In this instance, I was working from a model. I did several paintings of her from the same vantage point and in the same pose to the point where I could not go on without making a change. I then built a screen made out of scrim fabric and situated her chair behind it. I did paintings of her looking through one, then two, then three layers of fabric. I wanted to create a situation with the screen such that each time I painted her it was as if I was painting her for the first time. The fabric visually altered her, so every painting was a new challenge. When it became impossible to see her, I began to cut holes in the fabric. I became interested in how the paintings were about my experience of sitting with her, my own subjectivity, and what I thought I was learning about her even though we were mostly silent during our sittings. Ironically, the more difficult it became to see her, the more the portraits began to resemble myself. After a few months, I began placing objects behind the screen. I made small still-lives of things found laying around my studio. From here, the screen expanded into a large theater and the possibilities became endless.
Articiple: In the Revolving Around You Series and many of your works from 2013, there’s a unified color palette—neutral mid-tones are set against assertive hues of cyan, orange, or magenta that feel almost like geological intrusions. The palette derives from the materials you used in the sculptural still-lives. It seems to have a connection to the skin tones in the dis-Integration series and earlier work. What motivated your color choices in these 2013 works?
Sara: I try to allow my color choices to be unconscious. Perhaps because I’d been working from a model six months prior, various skin tones stayed with me. In making the Revolving Around You series, I was still thinking about subjectivity and the idea of looking at the same subject matter, but from multiple vantage points and how different and complex it can be as a whole.
I’m sure living in San Francisco also has an impact. The vibrancy and color of the city becomes part of you, as does the incredible geology of this part of the world.
Articiple: In some of your recent work, like Cave (2014), there’s a color shift to deeper blue tones. A “cave” suggests a retreat or shelter, but also an exploration into the unknown. Is this new palette motivated by any of those associations? What else does this palette mean for you?
Sara: Some of the paintings are beginning to look like places or landscapes to me. I see the figure in others. However, I never pre-plan any of my installations. The installations unravel on their own and are in a constant state of change for about a week. There were probably three different versions of this one. This piece took on the feeling of a shelter or cave and the colors came about naturally.
Articiple: For your pieces in the recent exhibit SURVEILLANCE: Everyday (at Studio 110 Projects), you said that you were thinking about the experience of being surveilled—the emotions of vulnerability or even shame that arise when we realize we’re being watched. It seems like these paintings, and the installations that preceded them, take on an almost narrative quality—characters (however slight or minimal) respond to something in their environment. Do these new works feel like a shift to something more story-like in your work? Or, has there been an implicit narrative element there all along?
Sara: The works all have the suggestion of a narrative running through them, but the SURVEILLANCE: Everyday exhibit was different because the entire show had a theme and the work was made with that in mind. I was asked to make works which respond to the idea of transparency and being watched. So, I began these pieces differently than I normally do. I wondered, how would I show an element of curiosity, secrecy and intimacy between two things? What would it look like if they suddenly realized someone was watching them? As a response, I made two paintings, “Exposure” and “Cover Up,” which create a mini-narrative. The forms in these paintings are figurative and much more emotive and animated than in previous works. Body language was on my mind. This was an interesting and fun way to work.