LOS ANGELES — The Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena has assembled the largest show dedicated to multidisciplinary artist Sara Kathryn Arledge since her death. Sara Kathryn Arledge: Serene for the Moment is a stunning example of exhibition as advocacy. It not only displays a wide selection of Arledge’s work, but also makes a strong case for her as an overlooked artist deserving reevaluation and rediscovery.
Arledge, who lived from 1911 to 1998 and spent most of her life in Pasadena and Santa Cruz, was an art professor, experimental filmmaker, and painter who primarily utilized glass and paper as mediums. Serene for the Moment presents all of her films, a digital slideshow of her glass paintings, and more than 80 of her paper paintings. Grouped by subjects (animals, dancing figures, sexuality), the painting descriptions also bear quotes from Arledge’s various notes and professional writings, sprinkling bits of her personality throughout the gallery.
Arledge pioneered cine-dance — dance choreographed specifically for film — in her most famous film, Introspection. Made between 1941 and 1946 (production was put on hold when most of her crew was drafted into World War II), the short features eerie, oneiric images of bodies in motion, often viewed through kaleidoscope-like duplication. Her other most notable film, 1958’s What Is a Man?, is a satire in which everyday interactions between men and women play out through nonsense dialogue, highlighting the absurdity of mundane conventions.
This theme of the normal being turned into something more fantastical recurs throughout Arledge’s art. Much of it straddles the line between figurative and abstract. Her paintings, like her films, bring out the particularities of movement, or the mental processes undergirding the everyday. “The function of the artist is to bring to conscious awareness the harmonious nature of our non-conscious mental process,” she once said.
Arledge also sought to “extend the nature of painting to include time,” incorporating cinema technique into her framing of movement, particularly in drawings related to dance. She likewise made animations composed of paintings on glass slides in sequence. They are languid, ethereal cousins of Stan Brakhage’s films, ambiguous and fascinating to watch.
The exhibition includes numerous “behind the scenes” materials. There are storyboards for unproduced films, personal and professional notes Arledge wrote throughout her life, an explanation of her process for glass slide paintings, and a detailed biographical timeline. Mental illness colors much of Arledge’s life; she was involuntarily committed to mental institutions at multiple points, and her similarly troubled only son died by suicide at a young age. That specter hangs over some of her work — in What Is a Man?, one scene has the lead character meeting a “Sighcryatrist.” Many of Arledge’s notes interspersed throughout the exhibition speak to a similarly wry view of the world around her. One reads: “People would rather kill each other than watch my films. (At least more of them do.)” Another: “‘There’s no air there.’ ‘What do you mean there isn’t any air there?’ ‘Well, I didn’t see any.’”
During her lifetime, Arledge’s films were shown by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Pasadena FilmForum, and the Independent Film Festival in Santa Cruz. Her paintings were exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Art. But Arledge still deserves a much more prominent place in the conversation around avant-garde film and painting in 20th-century art. The Armory is working hard to promote her, having previously featured her in a group show a few years back. Its imprint Armory Press is collaborating with X Artists Books to publish a book on Arledge, currently set to come out this fall. All this will hopefully precipitate a renewed interest in her fascinating painterly and cinematic visions.
Sara Kathryn Arledge: Serene for the Moment continues at the Armory Center for the Arts (145 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena) through May 12. The exhibition has been organized by Irene Tsatsos, the Armory’s Director of Exhibition Programs/Chief Curator.