by Lynn Maliszewski
Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps (2011)
The desire to reinvent the figure has become a point of contention, demanding more than the gestural theatrics of Parmigianino or blatant authority of Velazquez. Sarah Kurz rehashes the versatility of figurative painting by provoking a psychological intimacy with her audience and a physical solidarity with her medium. I spoke with her prior to her first solo exhibition at Allegra LaViola gallery in Chinatown about the work in the show, her guiding lights, and the comedy of sex.
LM So let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
SK I started painting in oil with my grandmother when I was 10. I stuck with it in school, but never considered it as a career in spite of the fact that I always loved painting. After I transferred to Columbia [from Stanford University], I began taking classes in the printmaking department. We had Sarah Sze and Kiki Smith as professors. It was great to work with practicing successful artists, get away from painting and open up my practice. I double majored in art history and visual arts and then worked at a gallery for two years in Midtown. I remember the week before I decided to quit I was walking to work and I thought to myself, “I can’t smile.” I wasn’t happy and just had to quit. I had a studio and started painting more and really worked on putting a portfolio together to go to grad school.
LM So you explored the industry on both ends of the spectrum, dealer/facilitator and artist/producer. Any lessons?
SK I learned a lot about how artists work with dealers and what that partnership is about. There is the making art perspective and the business perspective, and both parties have to respect each side of the deal.
LM Let’s talk about your upcoming show, “Made for Love”. Why is everything so small?
SK I am thinking about human size, interaction, and intimacy. I want the viewer to relate to the image. I am interested in cropping an existing image to only show what needs to be shown. You know, ‘less is more’. I edit inconsequential information and only keep what is absolutely necessary. It’s about conveying as much as possible through as little information as possible. Asking what really needs to be in this image to convey what I want to convey. It’s a reductive approach. I had a critique with Eugenie Tsai and she said the teapot painting [Never in the Morning, 2009] was like the cover of a romance novel. She said she could feel the whole novel through that image. The teapot painting is a new take on a still life, it captures a moment mid-action, it’s an active still life.
LM You play up the fallacies of cinematic beauty but combine it with the everyday, stunning Plain Jane. Where did this impulse toward a mixed message come from?
SK: I was painting a lot from film stills before this particular series of work. I was painting actresses [Jane Fonda, Bridget Bardot, Monica Vitti] but wanted to take the whole conversation of who they were and their roles out of the paintings. So now I am painting real people. The surface of the paintings have become sexier and there’s a more blatant sense of kitsch. I’m questioning lines of taste or tastefulness more and using the power of humor. I think a bit about Richard Phillips, and what the strength and meaning of an image can be and how to subvert that, but there’s no one artist or one thing really in particular who inspired the message. I consider everything from Donna Summer’s 18 minute long “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” to Bavarian wood carvings of angels from Oberammergau. I love films by Antonioni and Vadim. I adore Ingres; his ability to make things glow, and his elegance and grace. I think about Lisa Yuskavage, her use of sexuality and her politics. Karen Kilimnik for her saccharine and overly sentimental, but sincere paintings. She mixes pretty with dirty. I love de Kooning’s and Stanley Whitney’s color – to learn what can be done just through color, it’s amazing. And of course John Currin, because in the end, his love of painting always comes through. I was fortunate to work closely with Will Cotton at a residency; there’s definitely a thread there with the themes of indulgence and pleasure. I can’t help but think of a scene in Barbarella where the bad guy puts her in this organ machine that gives sexual pleasure by playing the organ. It’s Titan’s painting. Only catch is, it’s supposed to induce an orgasm so great it kills her. But she just wants him to play more and more. She refuses, she’s insatiable. Beyond flustered, he becomes simultaneously disgusted and amazed by her.
LM The images are incredibly active and obtrusively lush. What role does color play?
SK The paint is sexy, the color is sexy, and the image is sexy. The painting is how to get all of that to come together. I think it’s important for color to be nuanced. And understand how touch and color go hand in hand and work together to create the desired image.
LM How do you think this relentless flight of beauty, with the show itself entitled “Made for Love,” might register?
SK I was talking to an older artist and he proclaimed: “You’re gonna get butchered in New York if you use ‘love’ or sentimentality. It’s Duchamp and Warhol’s town. There’s no room for it.” He did preface it: ” I’m older though, I come from a different generation of artists and art in New York.”
LM But couldn’t Warhol have gotten away with a screenprint show of self-portraits called “Made for Love”? He loved himself, and he knew we’d love it too. New York almost encourages that playfulness. The double-edged sword is around every corner in New York. Speaking of swords, has the male as subject matter crossed your mind?
SK A little bit, but I think I’m still playing that out. I’m not as interested in painting men, and if I do, I think of the male in relation to the female and not as standing on his own. But perhaps that will change.