Stephen Beal

Sara Bright
Works on Paper

Published on the occasion of exhibition LA03
10.5 x 8.25 in. softcover; 99 pp., 60 color plates
$34.00 + applicable tax and shipping, available from the gallery

Foreward by George Lawson

Commentary by Jana Blankenship,
Curator at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco,
co-director of the People’s Gallery in San Francisco

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Sara Bright
— George Lawson, Los Angeles, August 2011

One afternoon last November I was pulled aside by painter, writer, and recent Guggenheim fellow Pamela Wilson-Ryckman after a long day of touring artists’ studios with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art collector’s forum, SECA. Pamela wanted to introduce me to a young painter who rented the space next to hers, Sara Bright. In part because I trust Pamela’s eye, and in part because I was impressed with Sara’s demeanor, I arranged to come back a few days later to pay a visit to Bright’s Folsom Street studio. As I walked in the door, my first thought was that this stop should have been on the SECA roster; it should have been at the top of their list. I was immediately taken with the confidence of Bright’s handling of her chosen medium, oil on linen, and the agility with which she choreographed her repertory cast of personal icons. She had managed to negotiate a working settlement between a classic, mid-century abstract expressionist ethic and a contemporary ransacking of narrative content and dream imagery. What made the second half of this balancing act feel so current was the manner in which, in spite of her free use of incongruous symbols, she could side-step the disembodiment of surrealism, presenting instead a radically grounded physicality in her painting.

In her studio she had hung a surround of fairly intimate to mid-sized canvases for view, and over a work table on one wall, a loose grid of dozens of small works on paper, done in what appeared to be transparent watercolor mixed with opaque China white. These seemed to provide the wellspring for the iconography in her canvases. I had one of those rare moments as a gallerist when you know you’ve stumbled upon something, and after some discussion, we scheduled a Spring show in the San Francisco gallery. Unfortunately the date was interrupted by my decision to move the program to Los Angeles. I promised she would inaugurate the new gallery’s first Fall season, and in the interim, she moved to New York. I had originally thought to produce a catalog of the canvases in the show, but we both agreed it made more sense to showcase the watercolors, providing a much broader view into the workings of Bright’s psyche and her methodology.

Bright’s oils on linen are characterized by robust gesture, viscous paint and an
evocative, symbolic content; they straddle the traditional boundaries between abstraction and figuration. In spite of the greater fluidity of the gouache medium, the same could be said of her watercolors. This is an incredible body of work, particularly considering that over 150 of the watercolors were completed within a single year period. Although relatively fresh to the gallery scene, Bright does not arrive without hard-won experience, having completed a residency at the prestigious Skowhegan School and shown her painting at venues including the Berkeley Art Museum and UCLA’s Wight Gallery.
I am proud to have the opportunity to work with her.

My thanks to Bruce Johnston for his early insights into Bright’s art, to Rema Ghuluom and Vanessa Price for their production and design assistance, to Jana Blankenship for her spot-on commentary, and to Sara Bright for her generosity at every stage of this project.

Gem Cave
— Jana Blankenship, San Francisco, August 2011

When I was a child I had an impressive rock collection. Purchased semiprecious stones married with found rocks in a wooden box. When viewed together, the pile of rocks became kaleidoscopic. Each rock on its own seemed to shine with the secret of its creation. These objects filled me with wonder, exotic and brilliant but also related to the landscape outside, the earth’s core and a personal geological narrative. Translucent lilac amethyst, turquoise seas, mesmerizing tiger’s eyes, opaque oil spill obsidian and crystal clear quartz were shining gems in my collection. The collection of small paintings laid out over the following pages is like a considered rock collection, on display for contemplation. Painting can be seen as the act of covering a blank surface with color. I like to think that Sara Bright’s paintings uncover through color. Like the prospectors that navigate dull ore in search of brilliance, Bright’s paintings shine a light into a dark space, illuminating the colors within.

The works on paper compiled in this book encapsulate a year of work. Made in
conjunction with, and complementary to, Bright’s larger-scaled oil paintings, these intimately sized works are explorations into an imagined landscape that is rooted in color. They are serious and humorous, both dark and light. Like a thing and its opposite they are gem and ore. Artist Amy Sillman says, “Painting is a physical thinking process.” These paintings are very much about an active process, strata layered upon strata. A crystal grows according to a particular set of circumstances; each brushstroke is dependent on the next to probe further into letting the unknown become visible. These landscapes are excavations into an interior world as well as manifestations of the surrounding landscape.

While gems are mystical, they are also reflective of tangible geologic processes. Jade is a metamorphic gem created from a prescribed combination of high heat and pressure. For Bright, these works aren’t merely mysterious; they are also born out of heightened self-awareness. Metamorphoses of rocks or of ourselves are brought onto the same plane in her paintings, becoming reflective of each other. The works are small in dimension, but the spaces they depict are made tangible through harmonized composition, repetition of symbols, and the building of gestural brushstrokes. While the paintings gain solidity through these elements, they remain impossible to locate. When we are dislocated by scale, it un-anchors us to search for relation. The painting becomes a portal through which Bright’s imagined world gains visibility, but retains its secrets. While the end result is a finished object, it is also a visceral retracing of steps. A journey is the inextricable building of examined moments, not just an established beginning and end. There is a narrative that unfolds in these paintings and while it is abstract in form, it is intuitively felt.

In Meeting, 2010 [pg. 25], two figures stand side by side on a grassy plain under the night sky. They are solid objects, but through the building of color, shapes and lines we see what they are made of and can sense their weight. These unique lovers lean together, covered by an aura that embraces them. While they evoke rocks, they are unnamed entities with a definite connection. The color that surrounds is the color of the ocean on a cloudy day pierced by a passionate red that spills in. They are dynamic objects. In Howard Hodgkin’s paintings colors crash against each other creating an electric charge. Through texture and color, Hodgkin’s paintings vibrate like Bright’s with a dynamic push and pull. While both painters’ works are rooted in abstraction, they both retain a subject that is investigated
in their work. While this subject might become lost in the act of painting it always returns at the end. The process is a journey to uncover and understand. Bright expresses that painting is a vehicle for connection. The painter is like a shaman who communicates between the physical and the metaphysical. In painting, the gesture of body and mind, both spontaneous and premeditated, builds into an independent presence. The shaman communicates with the dream world making it manifest in the living world. The painting is a site where the invisible action and physical manifestation merge. It is an energetic entity where relationships form and develop.

Heart, 2010 [pg. 42] reveals a luminous object formed out of strife. An orange background is covered in shades of red and a net of violent lines. From this hot magma a pale fire figure with sparkling spots and glowing exterior emerges. Bright believes that a painting is not just what, but how. Heart is a visualization of how, a map of the act of becoming. In
contrast, in Foggy Tunnel Pink String, 2011 [pg.44], a cool calm pervades from within.
Instead of digging beyond the surface, we float on a shimmering sea. A diamond-like entity has a magnetic pull, its layers of pink, blue and white evoke reverie. Against a dark green backdrop, the color of pine forests, the luminous being holds court. An aqua aura grows on both sides and is connected by a charged magenta line. Despite the small scale, these landscapes look accessible. In both these paintings color marries with gravity and intention.

David Batchelor writes in Chromophobia about the relation between color and gems, “Color projects; it is not a passive coating of an inert object; light appears to shine from within; color often seems to have its own power source.” A gem seems lit from within;
a colorless diamond is cut to refract a rainbow becoming a borealis captured in stone.
Color is the tinted set of lenses through which we see and begin to comprehend the world around us, but it is not simplistic. In its multiform, color is a refracted universe of the
visible. In Bright’s work she looks to the multiplicity of color and explores its potential, from black carbon to radiant light. The malleability of gouache and watercolor seems
the perfect medium for these intimate explorations. They work together to create translucency, opacity and active layers that let colors breathe. Expressing turbulence or harmony, colors create forms in her paintings that evoke revelatory moments, seamless movements between worlds.

Bright draws from Philip Guston’s anthropomorphic symbolism, Helen Frankenthaler’s veils of color and Milton Avery’s bold, dreamlike landscapes rooted in the real. Her symbolism builds through repetition. Gems, arches, caves, waves, paths, and creatures become flashlights to uncovering a hidden language. While they flirt with representation, they remain abstract, ambiguous forms. Their understanding and power builds through multiplicity. Each painting is an investigation into an intimate psychic world, but instead of being shut out we are led on by increasingly familiar signs. Explored from different angles these
symbols become ever more real and have the ability to mediate between interior and
exterior landscapes.

While each painting is a contained experience, it cannot exist without what came before and what comes after. Objects are mirrored in individual works. In Lava Lake, 2010 [pg.53], an ethereal pink arch gains weight through its cool blue reflection. Yet, the works also reflect each other, creating a perpetual refraction of an imagined world. The arch symbol
is repeated as a shelter, a bridge over the chasm and an affirmation of the connection between the physical and the unconscious. A red and yellow arch is a solid structure protecting a circular presence in Sky Curtain, 2010 [pg.41]. Three golden lines on top of the arch are feelers striking out a connection to the dappled night sky overhead. Similarly, in Temple, [pg.92] and Grave, 2010 [pg.94], the arch becomes a symbol for reaching the
unknown. This world that is surreal becomes weighted by sign and carried by color to create an inviting atmosphere. In this space, explorations of geology, nature, life and death are played out and the audience becomes privy to this investigation.

In its simplest description, to excavate is to make a hole. Yet, it also connotes to hollow out to create form. Each brushstroke grows as another recedes. These paintings create wonder through absence and longing through building. Traveling through layers of time and memory, symbols rise up to the surface and are closely examined. In this collection of works on paper, as Bright digs further, our comprehension of her world expands.

Jana Blankenship is curator at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts in San Francisco,
co-director of the People’s Gallery in San Francisco and assistant curator for the 12th Istanbul
Biennial in Istanbul, Turkey.