The Perfectly Moody Collages, Paintings, & Photography of Brooklyn’s Sarah Zar
It’s not often that you find artists that excel in 5 or more mediums, which is why getting a submission from Sarah Zar feels like receiving a golden ticket.
Paintings, collage, drawing, objects, & photography are all part of her creative practice, and after delving into her portfolio, it became clear to me that her output is the product of an insatiable mind. Questions, perspectives, reflections, and critiques, all embedded in a variety of modes & applications, creating incredibly wide ranging bodies of work that stop you in your tracks.
Sarah Zar’s art is moody… in a really palatable, cool way. She blends texture & technique in differentiating proportions, letting ephemera lead when it needs to, while giving it her own unique spin. Whether her Historic Manscapes series in which a man shares a sunset, her radical collages, or her paintings, it’s clear Sarah needs to be making things.
I, for one, am grateful that she does.
In the following Exclusive Interview on IPaintMyMind, Sarah & I unpack inspiration, obstacles, history, and her concept of ‘thinking through sight.’
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Sarah, thanks so much for submitting your work to IPMM! We were instant fans.
Thanks, Evan. I love your mission, and was happy to find IPMM!
You draw, paint, work with objects, collage and more. Why do you like working in various mediums?
I don’t think of mediums as segregated practices. Each medium is like a language, carrying its own cultural burdens, evocations, and subtleties. I try to use the language that best aligns with my vision for each piece. Like the words that rise from a group’s collective need to express meaning over time, each method of making art grew from a desire. As this desire collects history, sheds context, and grows new skin, the possibility of its subtexts are constantly emerging. Every material reveals and obscures in its own way, and I love to trade between the veils.
What medium did you start with? I’m always interested in the process of working in various mediums and how artists get drawn one way or another.
The first piece I remember making, as a very small child was a combination between drawing, painting, and 3D collage. I painted a snake, covered it completely with black oil pastel, then scratched away its skin to make patterns. After it looked like a snake, I cut it out and glued it to a background, so it looked like it was slithering in and out of the image, with its forked tongue curling off the page. Despite a varied approach, drawing was my first love, followed closely by sculpture. When I was growing up, I won an apprenticeship in Renaissance style cast drawing. Learning technical skills as a young teenager was the most fantastic gift anyone could have given me, because it allowed me to depart from tradition consciously and explore style with intention. Drawing and sculpture were like breathing after that, and working with them still feels like magic.
Are there stumbling blocks with certain mediums you don’t find in others?
I think that most learning requires mistakes, but painting was definitely the most difficult. If I look at any square inch of anything, I see so many embedded colors that the idea of eliminating some in favor of others was ominously daunting for me when I first began. The amount of choice and loss involved in the art of omission was completely overwhelming. Then a very clever teacher told me that art is often an act of betrayal, and that did the trick.
Your work is moody in a really cool way. What thread ties together the various mediums you work in?
Thank you! I would say that the artists are the “various mediums”. All we have innately is the thread of our perception. I’m not sure what ties us together, but to return to your question about mediums, I think this goes back to the idea of reading. I see everything as a text, a lateral translation… I love to read, and generate meanings. Materials sometimes evoke different results from their wranglers during the translation process. In sculpture and collage, I tend to be playful. With painting, my symbolic thinking tends to spill over into the process once the sketch of the overall image is resolved. (A hole in a frame might be placed to mirror with the form of a figure hidden in shadow, detailed rendering will cluster around connected elements, and areas less central to the contextual connections will split into generalities…) With drawing, there is more opportunity for my subconscious intentions to hijack the narrative as I work. Sometimes choosing a medium is about choosing what type of control you are ready to sacrifice.
You also seem to love history and incorporating elements of the past into your work. How do you view that tendency?
That’s true. Lost histories are important to me. I have a deep respect for historians, but my concern is not related to preservation. I am more interested in the way the pieces that remain change as they inform a culture that is not directly connected to their temporal context. Like everyone else, I come from a long line of survivors. My grandparents (on the Zar side) were Holocaust survivors. After they escaped and their lives were no longer in direct danger, my grandmother began to collect beautiful antiques, and my grandfather made a hobby of restoring ancient swords. I think I unconsciously absorbed the idea that when there is a place for beautiful objects in the world, their custodians and makers are safe… perhaps even welcome.
What did art school do for you personally?
It gave me a chance to learn with and from innovative peers, and to work with one of my favorite living painters, which is an experience I will always cherish. My school had a phenomenal visiting lecture series, and provided opportunities to trade ideas, dine, and debate with some of the most interesting artists and critics of our time. The art history courses were surprisingly exciting, which was an unexpected treat. Being immersed in a culture of thinkers and makers is a fantastic privilege. It ignited my passion for teaching, and gave me access to a gigantic studio, which facilitated a lot of exploration.
Got any favorite cafes, bookstores, or other nooks or crannies in Brooklyn that are good places to hang out, read, draw? I’ve got my go-to coffee shop for my morning ritual drawing session & really love that ritual of walking there, finding my little corner, and doing my thing …
I love that ritual too, but here in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, time is so much more precious, so my practice has become much more private. I hoard the moments in my studio. I like to lock the door, brew up a nice dark cup of Thor (a blend made by Oslo Cafe down the street) and paint up a storm.
You mention in your artist statement the concept of “thinking through sight” … I loved thinking about what that concept means to me. What does it mean to you?
Wow, you’re thorough! A lot of my ideas exist in the intersections between senses and perceptions. I’m talking about the part of the mind that links different elements in the body’s sensory web, integrates those with the relevant points of memory, knowledge, intuition and empathy, then feeds them through the unconscious mind’s lateral engine to make instantaneous, perceptive connections. It’s similar to that place we go when we read. In the same way that people can hone and elaborate upon their impressions of a philosophy by writing out logical arguments, engaging in discourse, and researching points of uncertainty, making visual art helps me flesh out some of the connections made in that space. When I talk about medium as language, this is part of it. As far as I know, we don’t have any simple nouns or verbs in English that really capture that part of sensing in one word. Since those connections can’t be easily fleshed out with words, image seems the most natural way to distill them and explore some aspect of that sense’s insight.
Tell us about Historic Manscapes, your collage series. There is this feeling I get in viewing a lot of your work of things being obstructed in plain sight. It’s a really interesting dynamic.
Thank you. It’s a largely unconscious trope, but it’s definitely been present in my work for a long time. This ties into your earlier question about history. This series is a progression of integrations between an anonymous man from another time, and a contemporary landscape turned on its axis. These quotidian sights from dissonant time periods alter and inform each other with their proximity, in a way that mimics our contemporary access to history without the set of visual and philosophical literacies that would have been present in the time when these remnants were created. I am very interested in images that may contain references to and adaptations from their cultural history, but can still be felt and sensed closely from a perspective completely outside of their own instantiating context. I am drawn to this capacity, because it is so human.
Historic Manscapes also ties into my own history. I grew up in a bookshelf. Literally…. when I was small, I painted the inside of my closet black, dragged in a bookshelf, and built a nest on the second shelf, where I would curl up to sleep. I felt more connected to books than people, so I always felt like I lived in my own universe, and that was the natural place for dreams. As I aged, I started to see that each person walks around carrying this entire universe inside of them, and if people don’t tap into these realms, and let them escape somehow (often through some creative medium), then these universes stay hidden and lost forever, along with their hosts. This is why your observation of “things being obstructed in plain sight” is so apt. The things we have in common, but have the hardest time sharing, are the ways of being that are invisible. I think it is the responsibility of some artists to create portals into those other places so that people can feel like they aren’t alone. Even if the openings to those places in us feel strange or slightly uncanny, I think we are drawn to objects that hint at the unexpressed sides of our inner worlds. Our multiplicities are hungry, and art is their way of writing love letters to strangers, to other Others. Making a piece of visual art is like singing a torch song. It doesn’t have to be for everybody, but it is there for anyone, lingering outside the body. The most popular translation of one of Heraclitus’ fragments tells us, “Nature loves to hide”. This series reminds me of the evolution of that love through time. It is a reminder to keep peeling back the layers. Or to keep layering them forward. To perpetuate that love, and find new ways to share it. Or at least to keep it safe. To reserve a place for it in the world.
How do you view the classicism of technique versus the impetus of inspiration?
It’s very difficult for me to think of classicism and inspiration as rivals. The meditative practice of classical technique can often trigger the gamma wave activity in the brain that accompanies inspiration, though there are many ways to have a burst of creativity. I think that the natural rival of inspiration is pain. Each can cure the other. Pain cures inspiration, and inspiration cures pain. Medicine is dependent upon our definition of sickness, which is sometimes physical, sometimes cultural. I don’t know what kind of art we need. I just know that we desperately need art.
In other words, I know some people who view using a computer to manipulate images, like that which is done with a lot of great digital collage work isn’t as valued or pristine, as say, oil painting. As someone who works in older medium yet navigates the world of computers and collage, I wonder how you view that opposition.
That’s a complicated set of issues. It really comes down to the difference between financial and aesthetic values, both of which change as we look at them from an individual or larger, social perspective.
As individuals, we often feel that things are more valuable if we spend more time on them, but this is a psychological construct, and time is not always a direct indicator of quality. Our culture often places the highest value on art that artists have physically handled, touched repeatedly, or made themselves. (Or at least it did, before the impacts of today’s real estate market started altering the business of buying art so drastically). If I create a digital collage, but decide to limit the number of prints in an edition to a very small number, the value of the prints increases due to scarcity (supply and demand, one of the basic tenets of commerce). If I limit the edition to 1 print, I will still value an original drawing more dearly, because of its potential for physical uniqueness. Even if I draw a related image later, it’s the only thing just like it in all the world. If I see a picture of the same image online, even if it is a high quality scan that shows more detail than my eye itself can see looking at the drawing in person, the reproduction seems to be missing something.
If we’re talking about access and the ease of generating images with technology, one process itself is not inherently superior to another, except toward specific ends. A culture of education and art should be available for the public. When they aren’t, individuals and then their social groups become sick. The cultural value of digital and reproducible art is very high. But collectors do not always buy art on behalf of their entire culture. They buy for more individual reasons. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with collectors placing higher financial value on a painting than a digital work of art. Although I have been intellectually moved by digital works, I have had more profound aesthetic experiences in front of tangible works of art.
I think of digital art as a populist gesture, like publishing a book. An original, handwritten manuscript will sell for much more than a late publication of the exact same text, and I love that, because it is a financial acknowledgement that our culture still values being in proximity with inspiration. In an aesthetic culture that often tragically devalues visual narrative, I see it as a great sign of hope that we still cherish something we can’t quite define.
What are you currently working on?
As usual, I’m working on a number of projects simultaneously: drawings for the Mounted Kingdoms series, paintings, collages (both digital and analog, for private commissions), and some small sculptures of Moonlight Hunters. I am getting ready to release a visual poem as a small art book, just as soon as I find a publisher who offers the kind of paper I like at the scale the work calls for. I’m also working on a long-term, secret project that I’m very excited about, but all I can say for now is that it is an art book. And now, thanks to some of the observations and questions you shared, I am starting a new mixed media piece…. once again IPMM has inspired me!
Coffee or tea?
Both, as long as they’re strong!
Have you considered making limited edition prints available of your collage work, at least?
Actually, I just started making prints of my collages very recently, limited to signed and numbered editions of 6. Eight of them are on display right now in the lobby of Livestream Public in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
Name one artist IPMM readers should check out immediately.
In the spirit of our conversation, I’ll name one artist, twice in a row. One creates an art full of worlds, and the other creates a world full of art. I’ll let you decide which is which. They are Julie Heffernan and Phong Bui.