It’s not easy being a girl.
Lately, I’ve noticed posters up in the New York City subways: portraits of young girls beneath the heading, “I’m a girl: I’m beautiful the way I am!” These posters, part of a Bloomberg-led initiative, states on their website, “This Fall New York City recognizes that girls as young as 6 and 7 are struggling with body image and self-esteem.” Being a girl has become more and more dangerous. The poster campaign is a kind of protective force for girls, a sort of Big Sister for girls — protecting them from the ravages of American culture with its Abercrombie & Fitch thongs for 10 year olds, and Victoria Secret campaigns aimed at pre-teens. More often than not, when I see young girls they don’t look like children. They look like tiny women wearing miniature versions of women’s clothing, painted nails, and make up.
Walking into Sarah Cain’s current show, Burning Bush, at Galerie Lelong is to be restored. Walking into the gallery is like walking into an eleven-year old girl’s birthday party with Tavi Gevinson, a pink donkey piñata, confetti, Mylar balloons, My Little Ponies, a floor of beads and jewels, and a giant, sheet cake with pink, mint green and purple frosting frosted on it. While listening to Courtney Love’s song “Doll Parts,” “I want to be the girl with the most cake.”
The title of Cain’s show, Burning Bush, seems, at first, to signify that the show, itself, is a “burning bush,” meaning: a sign from above. I’d say the show is a sign; that the title of the show means to say that the show, and Cain’s work, have something important to say about the current state of girlhood and being female in our culture. But that isn’t all. In the Bible, the burning bush is a plant that, though engulfed in flames, does not burn up. In Exodus, where the reference is taken from, God tells Moses, when Moses shows God the burning bush, “ Where you are standing is holy ground.” This, too, seems apt. Cain’s work is a tribute to being a girl, to being female. Her works are reliquaries of a sort. They pay homage to the ephemera of girlhood, the pretty plastic bits and shards we leave behind when we leave that world behind.
Cain’s work is risky. She does things with paintings she ought not: shredding canvas into pretty frosting like ribbons, hanging crystals and jewels, Mylar balloons and confetti onto the canvas, using tiny colored beads to decorate the work. To decorate is risky. And yet there is a secret power in Cain’s work. She’s the lead girl of the girl gang. She’s the one who wears the frilliest slips and dresses, braids the other girl’s hair, tying ribbons into it. And when the tremors of exploit and violence arrive, Cain would be the one to step forward. Her paintings say just this. She is not afraid to be “girly,” to, in fact, reclaim the ruins of girlhood: the ephemera of girlhood: hula hoops, jewels, tiny beads, confetti, Mylar balloons, ribbons, and cake. She returns these objects to us in her work, restoring the magic back where it belongs.
In interviews, Cain has expressed her admiration for the California poet Jack Spicer and, in particular, his idea of the artist being an instrument for a higher power. “The poet is a radio,” he says. This sense of the spiritual or the occult threads throughout much of Cain’s work. “Glory” is a large matte salmon-pink painting with a series of eye-like slits, each slit lined in tiny colored beads. The eyes, of course, look like the occult symbols for The Eye of Providence, the symbol for the all-seeing eye of God. In the center of the canvas is a child’s hula-hoop, which serves as a kind of separate window. Within the hula hoop is a mess of paint splatters, splashes, streaks, and strips in pale pink, crimson, baby blue, and blood red. The painting can be seen as a kind of window into the psyche. Within the window is chaos, a yet-untouched feralness. The toy holds the window in place. It protects the gentleness, the vulnerability. But also, the “window” looks like a mandala. The chaos is the universe, is the world. Surrounded by a canvas of seeing eyes. The hula hoop is protected, the feralness of girlhood is protected.
“Kiss” (2013) is a large rectangular shaped painting broken into three parts. The top section is a painting of multi-colored spheres, each sphere bordered with thin thread, floating over a pink canvas with, and a giant red X. The middle section is a black strip of multi-colored eye slits. The bottom portion is a series of ripped canvas hanging over the white canvas. Both canvas and ripped strips are airbrushed green, blue, orange, and red. The painting has the appearance of a multi-layered cake with the three disparate “layers” of painting. In poetry, when a poet uses layers of language, this is a signal to the reader to read the poem with multiple meanings. I’d say the same thing here for Cain’s work. The layering serves as instruction to the viewer to read the work with many layers of meaning.
Along with other female abstract painters such as Charline Von Heyl, and Jacqueline Humphries, Cain is working with and against abstract painting. Cain paints beautiful, playful abstract paintings and yet subverts them by adding strips of ripped canvas, beads, jewels, and string tied into pretty bows. Abstract painting has been a man’s sport. The Abstract Expressionists were a macho bunch. For a female painter to continue in this lineage is an act of protest. To do so and decorate the work with frill and ribbon is subversion. Cain does this and more. In her piece, “New Logic” (2014), a large rectangular canvas, she takes ripped canvas, painted soft lavender, and staples the strips to the sides of the paintings, framing the work in a soft canvas ruffle.
In “Hole Punched” (2014), another large piece, Cain has literally “punched’ holes into the canvas. The piece is another painting within a painting: one painting is a large square of stripes moving vertically and horizontally. Outside this painting is a white canvas air brushed royal blue. The idea of boundaries and windows, frames, and paintings with paintings is a recurring theme and begs the question: what is a painting? Peering into the holes in the canvas, one sees the bones of it. Painting has been “undone.”
The paintings in this exhilarating show go against what contemporary paintings are “supposed” to be. These are strong paintings that incorporate weakness and vulnerability. Risk is something we don’t see often enough in contemporary art. The paintings in this show are risky. They are wild and, simultaneously, light, and playful. While I was at the gallery, an older man was laughing while looking at the work. He turned to me, several times, and said, “These are great,” pointing to the painted feathers and beads on Cain’s works. That Cain’s work can be subversive, frilly and fun is no small feat. She stands, with her incredible work, inside the fire. But neither she nor her work are burned.
Sarah Cain’s Burning Bush continues at Galerie Lelong (528 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until March 15.