Faculty Feature: Sarah Grass
The Artist, Unmanned
April 3, 2019
by Michael Bilsborough
Sarah Grass is an SVA alumnus, Continuing Education faculty member, and former SVACE staffer. Her new exhibition, “Unmanned,” is on view at Doppelgänger Projects in Ridgewood, Queens. “Unmanned” focuses on ink drawing, a traditional medium Grass employs toward new ideas probing image, language, psychology, and theory. Dreamlike, these drawings conjure up richly associative vistas of life on earth. Technology, nature, and history swirl together in forms that feel iconic and almost universal, yet deeply personal to Grass’ expansive visual vocabulary. We wanted to learn more, so we asked Grass about her show.
SVACE: For "Unmanned," you draw in ink, a medium with appealing qualities that range from the practical, like its ease of use, to the sensual, like its silky fluidity. What led you to ink drawing, after years of making art in other media?
SG: I actually started drawing in order to plan ambitious sculptural works, but rather than amass a collection of “never built” projects, I got attached to the process of drawing itself. Of course it wasn’t the first time I drew — I’ve been drawing my whole life — but it had been a long time since I’d taken it seriously.
For me, drawing emerges as a resistance to language, or resistance to clarify what is best expressed in confusion. There’s so much to learn from the psyche beyond common language systems, beyond a need to be clear, and in my case coming from sculpture, beyond a need to be buildable. Drawing is direct communication with the imaginary — an introverted language.
The "Unmanned" drawings began while I was a grad student in the low-residency SVA MFA Art Practice program, which is predominantly conducted online, through written word. I was writing constantly and animating the online-classroom dialogues in my mind. There’s so much imagination involved in our digital world, especially in the social realm. I also began drawing as a result of this overwhelming need to be clear in my online presence. I needed an outlet for murky, non-binary thought since to be clear with oneself so often means being unclear with others, at least for a time of “figuring it out” like grad school.
In the early "Unmanned" drawings there was a lot of text, which has decreased considerably since. To answer your question about my relationship with ink, I commit to pen because it is a tool used for both writing and drawing. I think of my drawing as writing in a new language that sometimes switches back to letters the way my native English rests on Latin and Greek. My images rest on words, like the Dadaists, whose work also existed in the grey zone between image and text — or Emojis and animated GIFs, the contemporary collective shorthand for image-based writing.
And one last thing, because it’s great you bring up the silkiness of ink. Although the texture is not something I consciously sought out, I associate drawing with naturally woven material, like a spider’s web or a silkworm’s silk. So actually, that “silky fluidity” was probably an unconscious decision.
SVACE: These drawings embody an apparent influence from surrealism. Are you consciously responding to specific surrealist artists?
SG: I hope I can answer this question with a two-part response. My relationship to Surrealism is complex. In general, I would say I share the Surrealists’ concern with the unconscious, psychology, and methods for grasping what is unknowable. For a deeper discussion, I have to bring up my relationship to exile and to feminism.
I am a child of the Latin American diaspora of the 1970s. While I was born and raised in New York, I am part of a generation dispersed over multiple continents, countries, cultures, and languages. I have first cousins in Chile, Israel, and The Netherlands. I’m of the American chapter. It was an upbringing rich in meaning that I consider a gift, but also one involving the trauma of a lost homeland, or in my case as a second generation American, the post-trauma of a phantom homeland and the multiple-consciousness of dispersion.
Theodor Adorno wrote, “For a man who no longer has a homeland, writing becomes a place to live” and I would say I have written and drawn the place that feels most like home. I first read Adorno’s quote in T.J. Demos’s The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp, a biographical account of Duchamp’s artistic practice in relationship to his exile. Most Surrealists, in fact, ended up living in exile. Their roots were in the nonsensical tragedy of World War I, which took artistic form in Dada, and Andre Breton wrote The Surrealist Manifesto almost midway to World War II, during which time the group was dispersed. Many came to the US. I feel intuitively connected to their intercontinental dialogues on the violence of war, capitalist progress, and trauma. The wandering of the artists definitely informed their work and I share that wandering sensibility. This is all parallel relating though, a partial association, not necessarily my response to them.
To discuss my response to Surrealism, I have to bring up the second part of my answer, which is the feminine perspective. The very male roster of Surrealists in art history is problematic, to say the least. Although I’ve always existed in a surreal space, which is to say willfully withdrawn in my own reality, I went a long time unaware of other female Surrealists who did the same, save Frida Kahlo — thanks to Julie Taymor’s 2002 biopic, and Meret Oppenheim, who made the cut in an undergraduate art history survey. I made late discoveries of artists such as Dorothea Tanning whose painting, “Birthday”, I came across at the Philadelphia Museum, Kay Sage who has a few paintings I love in the Met collection, Leonora Carrington whose comparison I summoned through drawing, leading me to devour her short stories, and Remedios Varo who appeared in a Wikipedia search. There are now thankfully too many to list as their works continue to emerge in recent years, as if from thin air.
Personally, I prefer the female surrealists for the way they inherently know what it is to be feminine, and thus spiritually exiled in a patriarchal society — it shows in the work — but that is not to discredit the male surrealists, who I also tenderly relate to. They were attempting femininity as well, but had to seek it outside themselves via female muses. This is the art historical crux of “Unmanned." I am trying to get at a unified, ungendered, and even multispecies definition of Surrealism. By its history and definition, Surrealism should be without borders. And by the history and definition of our species on Earth, we should be anxious of an exile much farther.
SVACE: Your compositions feel open and inclusive, rather than planned, while your imagery is naturalistic. Do you work from imagination? Photo reference? And in what ways does this matter in your work?
SG: I definitely try to be open and inclusive. Nothing is planned, everything drawn directly in ink without erasure. This is essential for finding opportunity in perceived error, a process I live by, and was born by. It’s how all of us are born actually — in the wake of some trauma or tragedy. And we keep living. Eventually things appear balanced again, and then they don’t, but overall somehow they must.
Some have told me I’m brave to work directly in ink… bold, confident, etc. Most of the time I’m terrified for the future of a drawing just the same as I’m terrified of the future in general, but there’s also passivity in the permanent process. I can’t go back so I have to succumb to the stream of my consciousness, to the stream of time, and the limits of my perception. There are days when it’s hard to find meaning– I have plenty of those, in drawing and otherwise– but so far I’ve gotten through them. The drawings are a record of that. Meaning reappears, and there are fleeting moments where I can sense the grand order of things.
As for reference material, I scroll through Google images as a Flaneur would stroll through industrialized Paris, defiant of its speed. I slow down to revel in the details, bringing attention and delicate penmanship to the nooks and crannies of a digital image search. I make decisions as I go, paying attention to the signs and connections, like a Situationist would, deliriously charting the streets of a European city with a map of desire for a more efficient future. I take images from the Internet and physical space alike, as references. I think the mechanics of imagination are changing every minute. Imagination looks very different today than it did a decade ago– even more a century ago, when the Surrealists were forming.
SVACE: Classical sculpture, animals, and machines are recurring images among the drawings of "Unmanned." Do these function as symbols for you?
SG: I group classical sculpture and machines in the same category of “human artifact”, which is how I’ve chosen to portray the human animal in this work. The human form is more or less absent in the “unmanned planet” that haunts my consciousness — and my drawings — though there are some fictional characters, historical images, and body parts in rotation. Through the metaphor of an “unmanned planet”, unmanned of man’s toxicity that is, I conjure life beyond human self-centeredness and self-destruction. The unmanned planet is an imagined future, equal parts utopic and dystopic, considering that utopia is a place my consciousness simultaneously constructs and destroys. A science fiction consciousness, if you will. It’s complicated.
I express most through non-human animals, who I employ in a free-flowing pseudo-shamanic vocabulary. As an example, there are many birds, the animal which is most global for its ability to lift off the earth. In Ancient Rome, the Augurs would look to the birds for spiritual guidance. Birds are also used to study weather patterns and migration. A bird mother can live in one place while her eggs hatch in another. This was my relationship to my paternal grandmother so in a way I am a bird, too.
SVACE: "An artist studying narrative consciousness" is how you describe yourself in the press release for "Unmanned." What does this mean to you? Do you see other artists working in this space?
SG: Since a child I have always illustrated drawing with writing, not the other way around. What we would call “captioning” I suppose, on social media. My experience of everyday life is highly narrative but not necessarily verbal. This is the ancient brain’s way of building structure in order to process excess information. I’m fascinated by all manner of storytelling technologies: astrology, tarot, the I Ching, literary devices, curation, social media, dream interpretation, Jungian archetypes, personality tests, classification systems, etc.
In some way I think all artists work in the realm of narrative consciousness though they may not be consciously studying their method. I’m still figuring mine out, which I love, because the idea of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change, is what keeps me going.