Williamsburg based artist, Sarah Sharp, took a long road to New York. Born near San Francisco, California, she made academic and working detours through Olympia, Providence and Northern Vermont before landing in Brooklyn, where she now lives and works. Last weekend, I visited her studio to meet her and learn more about her work.
As I walked toward the building I thought must be Sarah’s studio, I saw the river, and thought that this corner of Williamsburg was perhaps the most perfect place to work as an artist. The city was in front, in back, behind and above, but I was alone in this serene, and strangely beautiful industrial desert.
Mediuum: When did you move to Williamsburg?
Sarah: I moved to Williamsburg when I moved to New York for grad school in 2005. At that time Williamsburg had a great sense of community, so even though I had a bit of a commute to school, I decided to live here. I currently teach in the New Media department at SUNY Purchase (and at SVA in the summer) so I still commute a few days a week.
What inspires your work?
The pieces that are based on horizon lines, like Sunburst, are my attempt to represent landscapes as symbols. The more abstract work like Cortijo de Las Vacas, are the result of thinking about land-boundary formation. When I was an artist in residence at Cortijado Los Gazquez in Andalucia, Spain, I found a map of non-existant land boundaries, so I became interested in these boundaries as momentos of another time and of human interaction with the land.
My interest in landscape and the mountainscape came first from an interest in people with a Utopian vision who attempted to build their own societies in the US by leaving the urban environment and going to the “land.” There is this primitivist idea about the purity of nature, as well as a feeling that man has the right to conquer the land, both of which work out in different and specific ways on the American landscape. In this way, a “pure” mountainscape means different things to different people.
My father is a fundamentalist Christian. When he goes to the desert or the mountains, he really sees proof of his belief system, of the existence of God and of the endless bounty of natural resources. I also love the desert and the mountains, but I don’t have the same experience as my father does in those places. Even though I might feel something sort of mystical, my reaction is more like radical environmentalism. It’s a struggle for me to find a commonality with my father, but in the 1960’s, he lived in a commune and has been part of several churches that separated themselves from society. I spent time in various collective households and communities in my 20’s and we share a common desire to live out our ideals, they just happen to be quite different. I find it interesting that something we commonly experience, in a sometimes mundane way, (mountains or landscape in general) can mean very different things to different people.
Mountains play an important role in a number of cultures. I am thinking specifically about the Chinese mountain poets. What do you think it is about the mountains that appeal to so many different perspectives?
Mountains inherently represent struggle, but also the reaching of a goal, on the other side. They contain this symbolic promise, if you can climb the mountain something else awaits. This is obviously part of Christian mythology, but also part of the mythology of “conquering” the west in America. That is what Sunburst is about. The mountain in the horizon is a symbol of itself but also what waits beyond it. It’s part of an iconography that I’ve been working on.
Can you tell me more about this iconography?
I think about building my own iconography around landscape. A part of this is figuring out how to make symbols that come from a subjective place but riff on a commonly understood visual language. In all of my work there is this importance of the subjective or poetic voice.
I like your use of “poetic” to describe the subjective. Can you explain this further?
As an artist, you are often asked to explain yourself, especially in school, but I think seeking meaning is part of our interior monologue, checking in with the reasons for making what we make. One of my favorite artists, Ree Morton, had this great quote in her published journal, “The Mating Habits of Lines” about how poets are not required to “explain” their poems. She wanted to make a space for an intuitive and poetic way of making art. Part of what the feminist art movement did was make a space for for multiple voices and subjectivity in the art world, and Morton was part of that in many ways. The conversations within the art world were multiplied and this affected and benefitted everyone. Lesser-heard voices could emerge. I think this is one of the ways I can connect my practice to that time period.
And what about the very geometric element of your work?
Certain geometric forms had a real utopian signification in the middle of last century. I love the weirdness of design in the 60’s and 70’s, and the idea that good design, and new forms could have a true social impact. I am thinking about Buckminster Fuller, but also the Constructivists and others working in the earlier part of last century.
Who are some artists that you admire?
Many of the artists and makers I really like produce work that looks nothing like mine. I mentioned Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and the Constructivists, both of whom I draw from formally. And Ree Morton, as I mentioned, is really important to me. She is someone who really worked intuitively. She didn’t start showing until she was 40 and a very tragic death at a young age, but produced an impressive amount of work. She was friends with Marcia Tucker, who founded the New Museum. Tucker showed Morton’s work at the Whitney and later at the New Museum. Marcia Tucker is a serious inspiration as well. The New Museum was originally run as a sort of collective where all of the employees were paid the same and it provided a physical place for an alternative to the traditional art world to form and be seen.
I love and respect Dara Birnbaum’s appropriation and early video work. I love Mike Kelley’s re-processing of popular culture and the abject. When I was young I was very moved by Eva Hesse’s material experimentation. Lygia Clark, a Brazilian conceptual artist, has been very important to me. I also resonate with artists that create their own cosmologies like Trenton Doyle Hancock. And ofcourse I am very influenced by my peers and the artists that I’ve worked for and who’ve mentored me. Two of them are Mark Tribe and Elaine Reichek. I am heavily influenced by craft, a field with many amazing, but unnamed makers.
When you teach at Purchase and SVA what do you want to impart to your students?
At Purchase I teach undergrads in two departments: New Media and Media Society and the Arts. I really love them. They sometimes come to Purchase thinking: “I will go to college and then I will go work for Disney” or some other big corporation. They have anxiety about getting jobs after graduation, or they can’t conceive of a non-corporate life. I want to get that fear out of their heads while they are with me and help them to do something interesting. I want to give them critical thinking skills and a critical framework that they can use to approach the world, especially media. It is really hard to pull them out of their uncritical position, to get them to ask themselves “Why are you doing X, Y, Z?”, but I love the moment when I can see their perception shift and the “lights go on.”
At SVA I teach video and sound production to graduate students in the MFA in Art Practice program. The students are artists who are sometimes my peers. My goal with them is really to create a structured but experimental laboratory environment. I want to help them figure out how contemporary media practices might dovetail with and support the studio practices that they are already developing.
For more reading on the artists mentioned in this interview: