Sharon Brant’s paintings and drawings embody a consistency of vision and persistence. Her work is the result of a long commitment to abstraction; it is structured and perceptual, human and beautiful, quiet and sensitive. Her career is distinguished by her long history as an exhibiting painter, by her support of the work by other artists, and by her position in the community.
— Chris Ashley, June 2005
The following interview with Chris Ashley took place via email during April and May 2005, and included a visit to Sharon’s Jersey City studio on May 19, 2005. For further information about Chris Ashley, please visit www.chrisashley.net.
Chris Ashley: Sharon, can you begin by talking a little bit about your background and how you came to be making the work you’re making now?
Sharon Brant: During my second year at the Kansas City Art Institute, I knew I would be a painter. The Rockhill Nelson Gallery and Atkins Museum is across the street. I saw the work of Kline, de Kooning and Gorky. As students we were trained in very traditional ways, but I was excited by forms of abstraction I saw in art magazines. In 1966, after three years of art school, I moved to New York City to be a painter. I wanted to paint abstract paintings, although it took a couple of years to realize how I was going to do that. It was kind of a jump.
The first truly abstract paintings were eight foot square canvases painted unstretched on the floor or stapled to the wall and later put on stretchers, although in my second solo exhibition I simply stapled all of the paintings to the wall – they were not on stretchers. When I worked on the loose canvas, it gave me the emotional freedom to throw the canvas away if I didn’t like the result. The idea was to not create any imagery that could be related to anything outside of the painting itself.
The canvas was raw – unprimed, except for a pour of rhoplex, a transparent and colorless medium purchased at Pearl Paint. The pour might be a background or one element in the painting. Other elements might be one or two brush strokes, a line of spray paint, a smudge of dirt worked into the raw canvas, a few ruled graphite lines, or an orange magic marker line. Each painting would be made up of four or five of these types of elements. I was composing things used in art making and they were the subject of the painting, including bringing awareness to the canvas as another traditional art material.
I wanted paintings that were about painting – non-referential to external objects and events. The brushstrokes had to stay “brushstrokes,” lines had to stay “lines” and hopefully not make too much of a shape.
CA: What kinds of experiences helped determine the direction you wanted to take at that time?
SB: Ivan Karp had left Leo Castelli Gallery and opened O.K. Harris on the first block north of Houston Street on West Broadway – the second gallery to open in Soho. His first show was a group show, in his two big front rooms, of large abstract paintings. Everyone was talking about it and said I had to show him these paintings. I had two solo exhibitions there, one in 1970 and one in 1972.
This led to teaching painting and drawing at the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. I quit the gallery. At that time I stopped making art completely. I needed to reevaluate the source of my work. Reading Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation gave me very different ideas as the basis for my work. I would make up a system, like throwing dice or dropping tiny pieces of paper with numbers on them and connecting the numbers with graphite lines, or invent a set of rules that would result in a drawing. Except for a series on pegboard I made only drawings, but later I found ways to incorporate these ideas into painting.
I would highly recommend not painting to everyone. I reconnected with why I wanted to be an artist, for whom and for what purpose. I was back in touch with my passion. It’s what I really like to do and has nothing to do with things outside myself. It was also the first time in my life I experienced being a conduit for the work as I drew. It must have been a combination of the quiet, the solitude, the focus and setting up a situation that once the mechanics of what would be done were in place, I was absolved from judgment in the drawings. Each drawing was perfect. I was a tool that brought them into being. It was a great feeling. I was teaching, had more time, and every day I was not teaching I made at least ten new drawings.
CA: It sounds like this kind of approach in the late 70’s and early 80’s led you to removing your ego from the work, and that this was an important experience and realization for you because then your work wasn’t just about you or personal expression. What kind of painting did this experience lead you towards?
SB: I poured many colors of thick acrylic onto a rigid rectangular plastic, and using a wide metal blade the width of the painting I pulled the paint from one end of the plastic to the other, so there was a uniform surface of multicolored stripes. Once it dried I could attach it to the wall at any angle. I thought of these paintings as one big brushstroke. After that I painted various rectangular areas on stretched canvas, using different drawing materials (charcoal and graphite) or painting materials applied very simply. The edges were not taped off, even though there was a lot of measuring for placement, grids, and still using the roll of the dice to determine placement of the rectangular shapes and lines. By this time in the late 1980s I was reading Gurdjieff and especially Rudolf Steiner.
CA: When we talked earlier you also spoke of different kinds of luminosity. There is the more literally luminous quality of paint and painting, which is an effect achieved through the use of color, surface, and drawing- that’s material and physical. There is also the quality of luminosity in one’s attentiveness while looking at your work — that’s observational. And then there is a kind of luminosity through the experience, recognition, and understanding of the paintings, which is both intellectual and psychological. The combination of these different kinds of luminosity approaches something less verbal and felt; it might be called emotional, and perhaps even spiritual. How do you think your paintings achieve this luminosity for you, firstly, and then for the viewer?
SB: I can create it in many different ways. It is not dependent on a particular material or particular colors. Right now, I’m painting black on the edges and white on the center. Through contrast of values there is a lot of luminosity present. I do the same thing with collage, using the most simple, dull surfaced colored papers, two colors. Putting them together and still getting the luminous relationship. It’s not dependent on the center being a lighter value, either. The center could be black and still be luminous.
Do you know this lovely quote from Emily Dickinson? “I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”
In painting there is always a transmission of intention and I sometimes sense it is the intention that is shining.
CA: I like the idea that the artist’s intention could shine through all the other readings a work might withstand. For Dickinson a word, the basic element of her medium, when concentrated on has such power that it can shine, and for you the basic elements of a painting—the support, the surface, the color, line, the edges—have always been so carefully considered and so evident that your decisions and intentions are essential to the making and viewing of your work. It’s elegant and basic work, but difficult, too. At this time, in the late 1980’s, what kind of support did you receive for this work?
SB: I felt the work would be better in some kind of alternate space situation. In 1989 Nancy Azara recommended me to A.I.R., the first women’s cooperative in the U.S. Over the next seven years I had four solo exhibitions there. You can imagine that the focus of those exhibitions was what I needed to hone in on the development and refinement of the work. It is so important, always, to do the work and show the work. I also formed wonderful friendships, which I still have with excellent and dedicated artists.
CA: Eventually you started showing at Margaret Thatcher Projects in New York.
SB: Yes, Li-Trincere, who is also a Minus Space artist, introduced us. For a while Margaret was representing my work as a private dealer until she opened her gallery, and I’ve been exhibiting with her since then.
CA: When we spoke on the phone recently you talked about how you wanted to make paintings in which the materials – brushstrokes, paint, supports – retained their essential qualities in such a way that they weren’t subservient to some other characteristic of painting, for example, illusion or excessive expression. You referred to how you wanted to make paintings that are essential statements about painting. Am I getting that right?
CA: Your description of past work and how your earlier work developed seemed to me to emphasize drawing or making a mark. There was a kind of paring down, or paring back, so that the finished piece seems holistic, like a single image or mark. I think I see aspects of your past drawing in recent work in several ways. You are using somewhat more eccentric formats, such as narrow rectangles or thin supports that hover from the wall. There is an emphasis on edge, such as how lines or bands are drawn or placed at the outer edges of paper or panel. You are coloring edges of the support which, when viewed head-on, make a very fine band of color around the front plane. And in the framed glass works the pane of glass, whether perceived as covering a colored surface or actually being colored glass, appear as a very fine, hard, flat seamless plane. If this is so, can you elaborate on drawing in your work, and this idea of work as a kind of coherent mark, or the accumulation of marks into a single image?
SB: I draw a lot and there is drawing in the invisible history of the final proportions of the paintings.
In the recent horizontal paintings you see an expanse of white with a black edge around the sides and top and sometimes a little on the bottom. When I draw, I think of this edge as linear. In the paintings it is different. The edges of the aluminum or canvas – those thin edges – bring my attention to the surface of the painting and simultaneously point to the space outside that painting support, where there is sometimes another color reflecting on to the wall.
CA: I’m curious to know how you construct your painting’s supports. Some are quite thin panels, and some are thicker with beveled backs. You use canvas or aluminum. How do you decide the approach for each work? As you told me, painting is continual experimentation — are your various supports part of this experimentation? Does each painting, or each body of work, present a new range of decisions and challenges that make each painting new for you?
SB: Yes and yes. The paintings that float away from the wall and are on aluminum panels have a different color painted on the back of the panel, so that color reflects onto the wall around and beyond the hard edges of the painting, like a halo. This is another manifestation of luminosity and it is still part of what I’ve been doing for many years, which is recombining traditional art materials as a way to question where painting truly occurs. In the case of the stained glass pieces, I paint a stretched canvas white, have it framed, placing stained glass in the frame instead of clear glass. This results in a framed painting not colored by paint but by colored glass, so where is the painting and where in space does it occur?
The floating aluminum paintings have paint on the front plane and on the back of the aluminum, and then there is the surrounding wall, which is a support for reflected color from the back of the aluminum. Paint and color are not only on the surface of the support, but on the wall and out into the atmosphere. It’s sculptural, slightly three dimensional, floating away from the wall, and it is also a painting.
CA: That’s what you mean when you wrote before, “To give the experience of how painting is not limited to a picture plane, I sometimes use other materials along with canvas and paint.”
CA: Color and light are very important to you. You get colored light on the wall from painted edges and the colored backs of panels, and you also get colored light off the glass. At the same time the framing in some of the glass pieces seems to be containing the light, holding it in.
SB: Of course, color and light are interchangeable. They exist together. In some of the paintings, you are not always sure what color you’re seeing. It changes depending on where you are standing, the light in the room and different materials give different experiences of color.
CA: In your MINUS SPACE statement you said, “My other concern is for abstract painting and the experience of its power. I choose limited aspects that will open up the force inherent in abstract painting. I’ve found that to uncover this essence, by shearing away the extraneous, the painting becomes more powerful.” This provokes for me a number of questions about the power of abstraction and what you call its inherent force. What do you think is extraneous in painting, and how have you identified this? Why does paring painting down to some essence make it more powerful? What are you then giving the viewer and what are you asking them to do, and how is this exchange a meaningful, powerful experience?
SB: Arriving at a painting’s essence is not so much about taking things away as it is about distilling to its essence. Distilling is to uncover or reveal the essence of painting. If it’s diluted it doesn’t have the same strength or power. I have to be careful when adding or including that it is not diluting the intention of the entire body of work that I’m working towards establishing.
Viewing painting is not a passive activity. We all have to drop our expectations and surrender to what a painting is about. We must know to surrender. Then we must decide to surrender. And then we must actually surrender. We surrender to the work – to not have any notions or preconceived ideas, to prepare ourselves to receive whatever it is we need to receive from the work. I receive much more from exhibitions, and am happier, when I can step out of my ego to appreciate what is in front of me in the moment. It’s not about liking or not liking something. I look at a painting. I take it in. Viewing art is cumulative, and viewing over a period of time I become inwardly informed.