“It is fascinating…to follow [her] attempts to rid herself of the obstacles which prevent her painting”
– Anna Freud, 1950
Sarah brought me a book the night we were previewing her install: On Not Being Able to Paint. It’s a reflection on creativity from the 50s, by psychoanalyst Marion Milner. I appreciated the timing: about to go public with her first big foray outside painting proper, she produced a treatise about what it means to not paint.
So far, I’ve read only the introduction the book, which Sigmund’s daughter Anna Freud – an important psychoanalyst in her own right – contributed. Analogizing the therapeutic situation and the painter’s context, Freud notes that both psychological and creative breakthroughs require dedicated spaces for uninhibited work.
The residency attempts to proffer such a space, and within that space, Sarah made another one. Within the venue, she delineated a corner for her installation by papering the walls in silver and smattering the floor with wood. She needed a frame (in psychoanalytic lingo: a “container”). The outline is an entrenched habit – not just for Sarah, of course, but for the majority of painters everywhere for ages.
In fact, Sarah’s practice work comprises frames within frames. Each of the shapes she contributed is its own self-contained unit; the installation can be considered one painting rendered in space, but each component is also its own composition. The psychological underpinning is that Sarah privileges strength: she wants each part to be viable alone. When she started crafting the objects for her installation out of foam, she hated the way its puckering read as scarring; that seemed vulnerable, so she gave them paper mache shells. She does not handle the finished shapes gently. Sewing, with its connotations of daintiness, was always off the table as a means to connect the disparate elements.
Now the painted, paper-mached foam is hung with fishing line, and today, talking about the negative space the shapes make, Sarah said she wished she could fill it with water. The idea made me see the objects as kinds of islands, and the whole work as a distorted, abstract seascape with broken horizons for surface-levels and seafloors. Technically, the shapes would be peninsulas, just umblicaled to the ceiling as invisibly as possible. (Sarah’s concern for their self-sufficiency is such that she even wants to cover over the tape that secures them there, although I like how their stilted lines echo the collaged stripes of the shapes’ surfaces.)
Ultimately, the respected independence of each piece lends the experience a feeling of happenstance. It reminds me of a metaphor I read about how arbitarily the meeting of ideas and characters can seem in a writer’s mind, like they were all at a bus-stop when it started to rain, and suddenly all shared the same umbrella. The mingling can seem strange and forced, but precipitates the story.