Q&A with Sarah Kaiser: Painter of Many Genres

The Blimp
The Blimp. Courtesy of Sarah Kaiser.

With an MFA in painting and an MA in art history from the University of Chicago, Sarah Kaiser is a creative artist who changes her subject matter to keep her art making as alive as all of her intellectual interests. She has created multiple series of paintings dealing with subject matter as diverse as cartoons, geometric abstraction, observational still life, and conceptual pieces. Besides making art, one of her favorite past times is vacuuming.

ArtStyle: What motivates you make art and how do you keep it changing?

Sarah Kaiser (SK): I make art because I am constantly coming up with ideas for new paintings. I feel like I want to get them down on the canvas before they fade away or I get distracted. Sometimes it is difficult to concentrate with so many ideas in my head, and I feel like my “disk is full.” Getting something down at least preserves it so that I can revisit it in the future. It frees up more space in my “hard drive” for additional ideas.

Also, since I was an only child, I made art to entertain myself. I'm still a very private person who requires a lot of personal space. Spending time in my studio helps me to create my own sense of order and to construct a buffer zone between me and the world.

My work keeps changing because I have never been the type to tap into that buzz word called “continuity.” I remember when one of my professors in undergrad kept telling me that I needed more “continuity,” but I resisted the idea because I didn't want to get too comfortable or make my work too predictable. Although it's good to develop a recognizable style, I like to challenge myself. In summary, my work is dynamic because I enjoy setting up problems to solve.

Bazooka. Courtesy of Sarah Kaiser.

ArtStyle: I noticed you have cartoons and child-like imagery in some of your artwork. Could you tell me about your influences in these series?

SK: Every year I teach my students about Lichtenstein's Bengay dot method. Around that time, I remember how much fun it is to reduce a complex image into a series of different-colored dots. Thanks to Hans Hoffman, I can teach the students how the warm colored dots push forward, while the cool colors recede. Plus, I found a large cabinet of old comic books in my grandmother's garage. They are from the ’60s and are in mint condition. But instead of selling them on ebay, I enlarge individual frames. For instance, the Bazooka painting is 60″ by 60″. I often enlarge images with banal, lame narratives to show how random and pointless some of the plot lines in these comic strips actually are. Also, I like to find stereotypical images of women (or girls) in these comic strips and play with their representation. For me, it's fascinating to compare our representation at that time period to how we are portrayed now.

Good Housekeeping
Good Housekeeping. Courtesy of Sarah Kaiser.

ArtStyle: A common theme in some of your paintings is a pair of glasses. Is there a disguised symbolism used in these images?

SK: The glasses are a metaphor for clarity. I started working with eye glasses in graduate school. My advisor, Herbert George, suggested that I work with them. I was at a point in which my head was swimming with theory since so much of graduate school is about listening — and at the same time trying to absorb — the disparate ideas of professors. Herbert told me to “put the theory in a box” and focus on a simple pair of eye glasses. So for me, the glasses symbolize my ability to focus on the physical world around me: by holding still and focusing, I calm down and thereby escape the business and chatter surrounding me. Even though I do not wear glasses yet, the image keeps popping up in my paintings because I remember that I only bring my paintings to fruition if I focus on tangible concepts. I must hold onto them before they fly away.

Sterile. Courtesy of Sarah Kaiser.

ArtStyle: Other paintings seem to be formal abstractions dealing with light and paint. What is your inspiration in creating these paintings?

SK: Recently, I introduced my students to some of M. C. Escher's tessellations, which are repeated patterns that do not overlap. I enjoy applying some of Josef Alber's concepts of simultaneous contrast to these patterns. Since I do not have to concentrate on drawing, I can focus solely on the relativity of color. I pay attention to how the same orange hue is perceived differently when painted next to a purple and then next to a yellow. I also play with optical illusion.

Fit-in. Courtesy of Sarah Kaiser.

ArtStyle: Some of your other works include embroidery, text and social issues and seem to be more conceptual. Could you tell me about the issues you are addressing in these works?

SK: I'm addressing concepts of masculine and feminine in the embroidery pieces. I am embroidering masculine images onto muslin and crotched doilies, a predominately feminine art form. Using this surface intentionally plays into the notion that embroidery is the past time of grandmas and housewives, and has been belittled as a “craft” instead of a painting, which has been traditionally regarded as a work of “high art.” So, to touch upon this idea, I embroidered appropriated images from an instruction insert that I found in a box of Trojan condoms onto the doily. Consequently, the originally feminine craft comes with a shot of irony.

Instructions. Courtesy of Sarah Kaiser.

ArtStyle: What other social issues have you addressed?

SK: In July 2007, I participated in a conceptual project for Pathogeographies, an artist-collective that emphasizes the “emotional investments, temperatures, traumas, pleasures, and ephemeral experiences circulating throughout the political and cultural landscape.” Together, we created a “suitcase project” that involved packing our suitcases with “tools” that volunteers could carry around the city of Chicago “to incite, create, collect, and record political or emotional scenes.” It was a literal take on the “baggage” we carry with us daily. My suitcase included “Smart Pills” intended to comment upon the pharmaceutical industry which attempts to get us hooked on substances meant to cure our depression. In reality, the “Smart Pills” were only “Smarties” candies. My vision was to elicit a placebo effect to prove that we can live without these expensive little pills. I am doing small drawings of these “magical” pills, and working with the positive and negative space of pill bottles.

Otherwise, I really don't get political in my work. I think that just the idea of devoting one's self to art production and instruction is a political move in itself since art making — at least for me — is not a means of mass production. So, in a Marxist sense, I am not an alienated laborer working on an assembly line. I am lucky enough to be in charge of the fabrication of an object from start to finish. I use my own two hands, and am not a “cog in the wheel.” (I am sure someone could challenge that since I still buy art supplies and am thereby contributing to the capitalist state, but I do what I can.)

ArtStyle: How does text become important in your work?

SK: If text is in my work, it is just a whisper or a mumble. As opposed to screaming or shouting out a word in a large font with bold letters, I will scribble a word or phrase onto a drawing or collage a tiny bit of text into a painting. I think I do it because so many of my teachers would not permit me to use text in my paintings while in art school. Maybe I do it to comment upon all of the jumbled sounds and images we have around us in urban life: sirens, people talking on cell phones, Muzak. It's possible that the text is just background music. Since I am a fine artist, and did not focus on graphic art, text is definitely subordinate to the image and must not interfere with the composition. However, occasionally I collage bits of poetry into my work. Some of it was written by me, my friends, Wallace Stevens, or Rainer Maria Rilke.

ArtStyle: How do you address a painting starting out and how would you describe its final outcome when dealing with the act of painting?

SK: Before I start a painting, I normally do a series of thumbnail sketches to make initial decisions about composition, color, and subject matter. It is at this stage that I can work with cropping. I can also tell at this stage if I will eventually grow bored with the subject. If that is the case, the drawing never makes it past the drafting table. Once I get something that I wish to enlarge, I do some math and figure out how I will enlarge the sketch. I normally will enlarge it by 3 to 5 times the size of the original. I scale up the sketch by dividing it into quadrants. After I stretch the painting, I start sketching, and eventually end up drawing with my brush. My paintings are not a far stretch from my drawings because I integrate the graphite into the paint, which is reminiscent of Giacometti's drawings and paintings.

Over time, I build up the paint in a series of glazes. Currently, I work with oil in the summer –when I can open the windows — and acrylic or watercolor in the winter. I keep my glazes translucent and diaphanous by sanding them down or wiping them with rags. Stains of color intrigue me, and I will only use impasto paint in small areas that I wish to accent, highlight, and serve as focal points. In the end, there is still a lot of searching going on. Even though I normally start with sketches, I can take a 180 degree turn before I finish. I might start sewing pieces of cloth onto the canvas or rip it. I might paint over it and start something completely different. Although I try to have a plan, I know that if I get too formulaic my work will only be manual labor.

Anonymous Boy 2
Anonymous Boy #2. Courtesy of Sarah Kaiser.

ArtStyle: You have done portraiture work and are working on a new series of people. Could you tell me who these people are and where you come up with your images?

SK: Portraiture is one of my strengths. In the past, I have painted portraits of family members, friends, and students. Currently, I am working on a series of anonymous portraits. Surprisingly, I found some abandoned albums of family portraits at Intuit Gallery last summer when I visited their recycled sculpture exhibit. I bought several of the little black and white snapshots and have been using them as source material for a series of drawings and paintings I am making of “Anonymous People.” They have yellowed over time, and are images of small children playing. I wonder why the photographs are no longer in the family and am intrigued by the fact that somebody let go of these family heirlooms. It's a melancholy, sad attraction I have with this concept, and I think I am cherishing them mainly because of their “neglected” quality. If the young boy in this image (Anonymous Boy #2) is still alive, he should be about 64.

Sarah Kaiser may be contacted at sarahkaiser@hotmail.com.

For more of Sarah Kaiser’s artwork, click here ArtStyle Blog Gallery.

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