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Interview: Sarah Lee

Image: Head of the Mad Woman, 2021

1) Could you introduce yourself? Where are you from and where did you attend school? How long have you been painting?

Sarah Lee is a Los Angeles based artist who specializes in large scale abstract paintings. She was born in 1990 in Manhattan, New York, and began studying Fine Art painting at Pratt Institute before moving to California in 2013. She received her BFA from Art Center College of Design in 2016, and MBA from Seoul National University in 2021. Her work questions the boundaries of social constructs as well as political issues, redefining the contemporary notions of intuition and logic. Inspired by philosophical theories and literatures, her colorful paintings present the gray-area for the audience to ponder. She had her first solo exhibition, I Am Not Unconscious, in February 2016, and Ignis Fatuus, in July 2016. Her most recent solo exhibition, Episteme, A Free Man’s Yoke, in March 2021.

Image: The Massacre of the Wrong, 2021

2) Why did you choose the medium of painting as your primary medium for expression?

I’ve tried many different mediums but I’ve always found myself negotiating with what I can and cannot do, what I’m capable of, or what would be the most effective way to meet my goals. With painting, I’ve found myself having no negotiations nor justification. Painting is the only medium for me that I could be completely and willingly free in expression.

Image: The Union For Negotiation, 2021

3) Who are some of your favorite artists - historical and contemporary? What about them or their style attracts you to their works?

My favorite artists are Cecily Brown of course, Joan Mitchell, Amy Sillman, Willem de Kooning, Tala Madani, Nicolas de Stael, Richard Diebenkorn, Cy Twombly, and countless more. I appreciate their technicality and physicality of the paintings but most importantly I appreciate their connections with the historical and social references. I always work with references from the past, whether in classical paintings or classical novels or philosophical theories. I believe art develops from historical references and researching process, their methods in research successfully and meticulously coincides with their physical painting processes.

Image: The Entombment of the Body, 2021

4) What were your earlier works like, and how are they similar to and/or different from your current body of work?

Many raises up the issue that my works always change in style. It may seem like it visually, but the way that I approach the study remains the same. I always work with heavily researched topic of my interest, and questions the ways I can articulate it visually, In that questioning process, my visual representations may change when necessary, but it’ll be the matter of in what scale should I or should I not use abstraction or in what purpose should I assemble my gestural mark makings.

Image: The Hunt of Resistance, 2021

5) What is the narrative or the message that you are trying to convey with the recent paintings utilizing an abstracted figurative style? What were the reasons that made you transition from pure abstraction to figurative abstraction?

For the most recent body of work, I’ve developed an idea from a philosopher named Michel Foucault, and his ideology of Episteme. Foucault talks about the rules, structures, and systems in our society from history to now, so I’ve decided to use Baroque classical paintings as a reference to articulate the concept. Classical Baroque characteristics are dramatic, flamboyant, grandeur, and decorative, yet gives a sense of artificiality or some sort of shallowness inside the highly decorated paintings. For this series in particularly, I needed fair amount of figurative representations in order to fully convey the philosophical message and connection with history to the contemporary. I needed audience to be able to easily recognize that the reference comes from history, a painting that they feel like they can recall, or a scenery that resembles historical myths or religious references. I wanted to create the same disconnection or empathy-lessness to when one’s in front of a classical painting, Like It’s beautiful, I’ve heard of it before, but it’s not my story. Highly abstracted painting especially with gestural expressionistic brush strokes contains certain energy and leaves too much space for interpretations. I needed this certain series to be direct representational of the word, “History”.

Image: A Shadow, an Illusion, and a Sham, 2021

6) The current body of works appears to utilize anonymous and ghostly figures. Why are the figures faceless and appear to flow like wispy, ghostly forms? Are some of the figures fragmented or torn apart, and, if this is the case, why did you render them this way?

I wanted these paintings to be stripped of individual human quality and stand like an object or an artificially made characters from a book. I subtly took out, erased, and covered all the humanly forms such as faces or hands and feet, and had the figures lose in competition with the gestural marks in the background that serves no purpose but the purpose of being merely decorative. My underlying ideology of the series talks about the society, not an individual. Our tendencies, not a behavior. Michel Foucault’s research process is documentations of meticulously gathered information and facts, stripped of emotions or his own personal narratives. Foucault dealt his theories almost like an engineer or scientific researcher. When I work with certain artists’ concepts, it is important for me to correspond my process with their method of using the language. I work from books, so their way of using the language would be my way of using my brush, so it was necessary for me to continue their character in speech. For example, my former series, Ignis Fatus: a room of my own, is developed from Virginia Woolf’s novel so it was necessary for me to somehow convey her stream of consciousness writing style in my work.

7) For a successful figurative painting, should the figures be correct strictly in terms of anatomy, or should they bend and morph according to the requirements and the intents of the painting? What are some of the instances in your paintings in which this morphing occurs?

I don’t think I have those guidelines set on stone for me.

Image: The Punishment, 2021

8) What separates a good mark from a bad mark in a painting? How important is mark making to your paintings?

I believe an example of a bad mark would be a mark without intentions, whether it serves a purpose or no purpose, mark making should be an outcome of intentionality. Expressionistic brush strokes are important to me in my studies, however I don’t deal with other methods of mark making since my works does not attempt to make a conversation on the process or ideology of mark making itself. Expressionistic brush strokes are important for me for a purpose to show intentionality, and to keep the painting busy and the eyes of the viewers busy, to make the audience get lost in the marks and at the same time find “clues” in those marks. Usually I’ve dealt with expressions that breaks the correlation of expression=intuitiveness, and to have seemingly intuitive brushstrokes to form figures, or foregrounds from a mark, or background. However, for this particular show, I’ve used the expressionistic brush strokes that serves as a purpose of decoration and distraction, and to have them compete with the subject matter to portray the concept of purposeless outer decoration can cloud the sole purpose, or to indicate that the figures are dealt with less importance when compared to the expressionistic background.

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