Portland-based artist Sascha Braunig makes wonderfully dark paintings that are filled with color and light. She paints feminine faces and bodies that bend one’s vision and nod toward dreamlike states, 1980s science fiction, movies, and the surreal. Representation is lost in these images that are instead defined by pattern, form, and color. In her words, she is “fascinated by analog special effects in films like The Thing and Videodrome”; her work captures a similar aesthetic that is reminiscent of a 1980s approach to violence and flesh.
Braunig, who studied at Cooper Union and holds an MFA from Yale University, was included in the most recent New Museum triennial, and is currently in a group show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Cleveland (MOCA). She also has an upcoming solo exhibition at Kunsthall Stavanger, Norway, where she will display both her paintings and drawings.
Over the course of a few weeks we corresponded through e-mail and discussed how her work has progressed from model making, to painted portraits, to depicting more body-like forms. Metamorphosing between figure and abstraction, her paintings have an intoxicating quality that is uneasy and charming, creating a comforting darkness that haunts you.
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Samuel Jablon: When I first saw your work you were making these exquisite models and painting from them. Do you still start there?
Sascha Braunig: I always start with color studies and ink drawing, and then I build a model for reference. When you first saw my studio, I was building very elaborate models — mannequins that were a 1:1 scale with the painting. They were ornate, but composed of the lowest dollar-store type materials: paint, plaster, sequins, glitter etc. After a couple of years working this way, I felt that I was becoming a fetishistic still life painter, so I gradually transitioned to building the models out of things like modeling clay and thermoplastic that can be reused and repositioned. I’ve also become more comfortable with my own formal vocabulary, and this allows me to invent and distort things.
SJ: Is camouflage important to your work? Have you ever looked at dazzle camouflage?
SB: Yes. The figures from 2010–2013 were like vacant bodies: all decorative surface. I thought of these skins over the figure as being porous armor, or yes, camouflage — but a flimsy, mortifying kind of camouflage, one that didn’t really protect the interior from its encroaching milieu. Now the work has become more explicitly about the subject embedded, entangled in or even infecting its social, virtual, or physical environment — the boundaries between the two are barely there.
And recently, I’ve made a number of paintings where the whole space of the canvas is occupied by a sort of engorged body — the painting almost becomes a pillar, an object unto itself, and in this way, the painting/body is totally uncamouflaged in that it starts to intrude into the viewer’s space. I have seen razzle dazzle. I love the perverse idea of rendering a massive ship indecipherable through the most garish ornamentation.
SJ: Would you say that these are self-portraits?
SB: In a way, yes, but I also aspire for them to be ur-subjects, actively engaging with the confines of painting. They spring from the history of the depiction of the feminine in painting and visual culture, but I hope they also strain against it, even as they adopt its language. In that I am ‘female,’ I have, for better or worse, fashioned parts of my own self in conjunction with this exhausting history. I’m talking about its crudest, most nightmarish levels, like 1990s-era teen magazines.
SJ: Could you talk about the difference between your sculptural masks and the paintings?
SB: I started making masks as props for videos in grad school circa 2007. It was fun to get away from the canvas, and the mask allowed me to remain within a comfortable ‘face-out’ zone. I taught myself some things about mold making and I created a visual vocabulary based on clay that I’m still using. Masks obviously coincide with my interest in illusion, artifice, and costume-as-body. Many of the models are still essentially a bust wearing a mask. At a solo show last spring, I exhibited a cast bronze mask that was the basis for the painting “Chur.” The painting was shown in a different location — I liked this barely noticeable dialogue between source and representation happening across the city.
SJ: It’s been amazing seeing your work evolve over the last few years. Could you talk about the work in your exhibition Pillar at the Rodolphe Janssen Gallery in Brussels last year?
SB: The group of paintings in Pillar showed the body in various situations: stretched and pinned to a frame, as in “La Maitresse,” emerging towards the viewer from a mirror-shaped canvas, as in “Extrovert,” or caught in the act of manipulating her own body, as in “Waist Jenny.” I’m trying to make explicit the questions I ask myself: Can the figure bossily occupy the restraining space of the canvas? Can figure and frame start to coexist in an interweaving, almost erotic relationship?
SJ: Your color choices are really beautiful. How do you decide which colors to use?
SB: Color is one area that, for me, is pure, fun intuition. I usually work without color to develop an idea, and color studies come next in a gouache or oil sketch. I make choices based on what color I want to see and feel in the painting space, what the form seems to demand, what colors I’ve used already in the group of paintings I’m working on, and maybe other artists I’ve been looking at. I think I’ve been traveling more esoteric color avenues, but it’s always a struggle to look beyond your own natural predilections.
SJ: Is film important to you? If so, which films?
SB: Yes. Formally, I’ve been influenced by the dramatic hot/cool lighting aesthetic of B, horror, and some art house films, and as they’re filtered through works by Cindy Sherman, Tony Oursler, Mike Kelly, and Ericka Beckman. Though these aren’t necessarily my favorite ‘good movies,’ I’m fascinated by analog special effects in films like The Thing and Videodrome, and also in disturbing sleaze like Basket Case and Street Trash, in which a poison liquor transforms winos into rainbow-hued living (dying) sculpture. The uncanny transformative power of cinema most closely resembles painting and sculpture in the living silicones and slimes of the gross-out effects puppeteer.
SJ: Could you tell me about the content and source material of your work?
SB: These paintings started out as a direct attempt to contribute to a portrait tradition in painting, but rather than depicting real people, they were only provisionally sentient people-shells — their vacancy was derived from fashion photography, as was their artificially hypertrophied surface. As they become more active within the frame, they’re now emerging from my thinking loosely about the history of artists’ muses, both real women like Unica Zürn and Dora Maar, and unstable characters from fiction, like Jane Eyre’s attic-haunting rival, Bertha Mason. There’s also the parallel to modern history of women artists using their own bodies — pathological proto-artists like the Countess di Castiglione and trailblazers like Claude Cahun and Madame Yevonde. Because I’m a painter making a figurative image, I do feel implicated in the history of the invocation of primal women-beasts à la Picasso or de Kooning, but my impulse is to develop oppositional images from within that entanglement. At this moment, my aim is that the paintings’ figures seem to be owning the situation of their own fetishistically stylized representation.
Stranger continues at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA) (11400 Euclid Ave, Cleveland) through May 8. Sascha Braunig opens at Kunsthall Stavanger (Madlaveien 33, 4009 Stavanger, Norway) on May 26 and continues through July 10.