Sarah Sze @Tanya Bonakdar

JTF (just the facts): A series of installations and paintings on view in the main gallery space (which has been divided), in the two gallery spaces upstairs, in the transitional entry and reception areas, and on the exterior walls on the street.

The installations are variously constructed from mixed media, wood, silkscreens, stainless steel, acrylic, video projectors, archival pigment prints, ceramic, tape, ladders, lights, cardboard, and other objects. There are two installations outside/inside, two installations in the main gallery, one installation upstairs, and one made from scattered paint on the floor of the larger upstairs gallery. All were made in 2019.

The show also includes stand alone paintings made from oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, archival pigment prints, dibond, tape, fabric, and wood. These were made in 2019 and range in size from roughly 16×20 to 103×130 inches. 5 paintings come in the smallest size, with another 4 variously larger.

(Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sarah Sze’s name doesn’t often come up in discussions inside the bubble of contemporary photography we typically inhabit. A multi-talented painter, sculptor, and installation artist, with a 2003 MacArthur fellowship and countless museum solo shows around the globe on her resume, Sze has consistently tested the definitional boundaries of her chosen mediums, using everyday materials to experiment with and redefine the complex spatial interplay between two and three dimensions.

Intriguingly, given that we might assume she already has plenty of ideas to work with, in the past handful of years, photography has started to creep into her work, largely in the form of paper prints which populate her installations. Given our vantage point, this kind of evolution or adaptation comes as no surprise; in fact, we published an essay in early 2014 (entitled 2013: The Year of Interdisciplinary Photography, here) which signaled the broader arrival of just this kind of cross-over activity – as digital photography (and digital printing technologies) became more flexible and powerful, it was natural that they would start to extend and bleed into painting, sculpture, film, performance, and other artistic hybrids. Sarah Sze’s recent work reinforces this idea, but with an inversion – instead of photographers reaching out, she’s reaching in, adding photographic imagery to her existing artistic toolbox. A quote from Sze in the materials for this recent show declares “In the age of the image, a painting is a sculpture.” From where we sit, it’s just one more small intellectual step to see that photography (and its image/object dichotomy) inevitably and inextricably blends into both.

Sze employs photography more forcefully than ever before in her most recent installations. Crescent is a sprawling, room filling bundle of scaffolding and found materials. Paper photographs with ripped edges have been delicately affixed to the central edges of the scaffold, creating a concave surface of hovering imagery, which is then lit by spotlights and activated by projections of shimmering water, tree branches, and moving waves. While inherently physical and fragile, the makeshift assemblage recalls futuristic curved screens with cascading windows of images fluttering by in a torrent. The photographs themselves are generally nature studies, notable mostly for their color and texture, although a fox, some flying birds, and a paved road are obliquely recognizable. The torn, fragmented photographs seem to fill the available space, that is until they tumble to the concrete floor and trail off like highly ordered Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs. The work is at once meticulous and seemingly ephemeral, an approximation of digital life given crafty handmade form.

Images in Translation is a smaller installation with a similar structure. It too has a scaffolding of sticks that holds a curved array of photographs, but it’s been constructed on a much smaller scale, so that it can sit atop a wooden stool. Sze then projects light through the paper images, creating a flickering colored shadow on the back wall of the gallery. The installation also includes a daisy chain of other contraptions that cast scattered light, blow air, and make crackling sounds, creating a progression of sensory stimuli that lead to the main image repository. The whole feels recursive and iterative, but in a resolutely analog way, the tiny images seemingly pulled into a descending vortex.

A thin trail of torn photographs arranged into a color progression along the edge of the main gallery signals Sze’s intention to also use the imagery in other ways. In a temporary studio at the back of the space, Sze’s paintings have been taking shape, the scraps of pictures incorporated into the expressive flow of the paint. Compositionally, the paintings are loosely structured, with lines of perspective that recede into the distance, where the vertical repetitions narrow and become further abstracted into fields of brushstrokes. The dominant colors run from blue to snowstorm white, with intermediate stops at various icy shades, and many of the works are interrupted by small splashes of fiery orange and yellow that turn out to be minuscule images of erupting volcanoes or ragged strips of sunsets.

Process-wise, in addition to using traditional painting techniques, Sze appears to be “painting with photographs.” White-edged paper image fragments (and a few Post-It notes describing in words an image to be placed somewhere, like “big sky piece”) are taped directly to the canvas, both on top and underneath layers of paint, the colors and textures of the images meticulously chosen and controlled. Strips of photographic color (and shards of blue painter’s tape) drip down the face of the canvas, the textures of clouds, ice, skies, snow, water, and sunsets used to build up the dappled color effects. In one case (in the painting Three Dead Trees (After Object)), Sze appears to have turned the crank one round further, using rephotographed images of the surface of the painted canvas as strips that were then painted over once more. To be precise, this is not collage – what she’s doing is far more painterly and shiftingly uncertain than that. The overall integrated effect recalls the woven time dimensional strings of the tesseract in the film Interstellar or a feeling of fluttering immersion in a strangely ordered ticker tape parade. The compositions seem to make the constant image overload we now experience both geometrical and meteorological, the pictures whooshing by within a rigid structure we can’t quite comprehend. There is plenty of movement in these canvases, and it’s surprisingly and disorientingly fast.

Most contemporary painters and sculptors have so far engaged with the beast of digital photography in only the most obvious of ways – by printing digital imagery (or better yet, software manipulated digital imagery) on canvas or other substrates. Sze has done something much more nuanced and sophisticated. She has retooled her artistic process to embrace the possibilities of photographic imagery, leveraging not only the pictures themselves (and their potential for expressing detail, texture, and representation) but the physical and tactile qualities of the prints. This smart show is evidence that she’s now thinking with photographs, and consciously adapting her approaches in other mediums to take advantage of these newfound opportunities. She’s clearly planted one foot firmly in the rushing water of digital photography, and it will be fascinating to watch how it continues to transform her thinking.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show can’t be defined as photographs, nor does Sze’s work ever appear in the secondary markets for photography. As a result, we will forego our usual detailed discussion of prices and auction histories.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Contender for best show of the year?

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