Sarah Cain

The Los Angeles-based painter is making her mark through her adventurous approach to abstraction.


Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for color, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential. – Vasily Kandinsky

Beneath the harmony, color, and exclamatory beauty of Sarah Cain’s abstract paintings, are layers of passion, defiance, and a love of music and the written word-all stirred together in a manifestation of potent visual lyricism. Cain rightfully claims her own distinctive place as a young contemporary painter whose abstract vocabulary grows out of a heady mix of genres, embracing the immediacy of graffiti, the vibrancy of color field, the spontaneity of gesture. Adding dimension-both metaphoric and literal-her architectural interventions take ownership of space, creating an immersive painted experience for the viewer. Similarly, her painted objects and furniture can be perceived as a form of sculpture. Cain’s work spans a dynamic range and aesthetic from in situ architectural painting to detailed illuminated manuscript on an intimate scale. She finds ingenious ways to juxtapose elements from these two extremes-intertwining themes and motifs from each in unexpected ways. Across all the formats Cain embarks upon, she infuses a pulsating energy and an impeccable instinct for color.

Still settling in to her new Highland Park studio last November, two months after moving in, her walls were hung with six canvases in progress, in preparation for a busy schedule of upcoming shows and art fairs. First, in New York this March, where her work will be exhibited with Galerie Lelong, at the ADAA fair, as well as a booth with Honor Fraser Gallery at the Dallas Art Fair in April. Her next solo exhibit at Lelong, her Chelsea gallery, is scheduled for September.

While the new paintings showed a connection to her previous work, they also reflected shifts, a departure. One of the canvases integrated pieces of coral the artist collected on a beach in Hawaii. Collaged onto the surface, the coral, and the shadows it cast on the surface, provided a focal point for developing the composition. The concept is a thematic extension of her use of sand and seashells in the work, Waves (2015), featured in “Bow Down,” her show at Honor Fraser Gallery in Los Angeles last summer, which included the large site-specific painting titled Bow Down, in addition to canvases and painted furniture. She has previously incorporated clothing, beads, crystals, glitter and other materials into her work, and harnessed objects like sheet music and palm fronds, making them the ground upon which to paint.

Another painting in progress, Future Ways (2015), was since shown at Art Basel in Miami with Anthony Meier Fine Arts. In this piece, Cain incorporated cotton rag, imitation silver leaf, paper clips and nails. The work is dominated by a crosshatched matrix of blue, green and silver hard edge stripes superimposed in a grid pattern over a background of gestural marks and drips on vertical sections of color. A paper clip chain forms a delicate diagonal line. Bands of painted cotton rag are festooned across the surface, an element of collage. Cain paints her canvases mounted on the studio wall, rather than on a horizontal plane, partly to avoid the interfering paws of her resident studio cats, but also because, for her, a vertical lane seems natural. She’s become habituated to working on walls in her architectural interventions. In these dynamic monumental works, she tackles interior gallery spaces, imprinting her vision on the walls, sometimes allowing the compositions to bend onto the floors. Such was the case in her Honor Fraser show, as well as her recent museum exhibition, “The Imaginary Architecture of Love,” at CAM Raleigh, North Carolina, which opened in October and ends January 3.

Her work encompasses the range from gestural, loose and playful marks to controlled repeated lines and shapes that define sections of composition, like measures or bars of music. Tightly defined, carefully rendered circles, large X’s or other repeated motifs may dominate the surfaces-framing areas in a deliberate way. The X’s have multiple symbolism: In a video about the CAM Raleigh installation, Cain referenced them as having been construed as kisses, and how she likes the connotation, “X marks the spot.” Whatever their meaning, ultimately, these marks succeed as a compelling device for delineating space.

Beads, cotton rag, acrylic and glitter on canvas
22″ x 18″
Photo: Joshua White/ Courtesy: Honor Fraser, Los Angeles

Particularly in the large architectural paintings, Cain shifts gears with an adroit sleight of hand, from squiggles and splashes to tight deliberate marks. “I think it’s about just letting myself go and making a mess and then reining it back in,” she says. “It’s a lot about balance and negotiating and navigating the space, and in order to understand or break down the space, you have to let go and get really wild. It’s the same with a painting. If you don’t really risk it, you’re not going to break through… I think it’s mostly about just making the space my own.”

It doesn’t make much time for Cain to claim that space. At CAM Raleigh, two weeks were allocated for her to paint the 4,000 square foot gallery-closer to 6,000 square feet, the artist noted, considering the lobby. She completed the project in nine days. While her painting conveys spontaneity, she approaches it with serious intensity and careful forethought. The work is largely improvised, but Cain prepares a material list and thinks about the space for months before beginning a project. Even so, she notes, a sense of urgency makes the work really come alive. “I want it to be immediate. I want to be in the present tense and for the viewer to have to emotionally and physically take it on. People can just walk by paintings fast in a museum. There’s sort of this tomb-like feeling to objects. But with a work on site that’s engaged and made right there, you enter viewing them in the same space as (they were made), so it’s a real immediate experience.”

While painting the CAM Raleigh space, Cain took breaks, resting on a mattress provided for that purpose. Ultimately, she couldn’t resist painting the mattress, as well-like a three-dimensional canvas. She had it mounted on the wall, integrated into the overall composition. As part of her in situ work, the artist usually makes benches for people to sit and view the painting. Expanding on the mattress theme, instead of benches, she had mattresses installed.

Neatly arranged on her studio worktable, a series of small paintings on the inside of re-purposed book jackets awaited completion. Almost the antithesis of her canvases, murals and architectural work, these detailed compositions are inspired by Cain’s love of painting in the tradition of illuminated manuscripts. Small elegant works, they feature tighter graphic composition and a palette dominated by jewel tones. The inside of the book jacket is a small confined place, but it also has dimension because of the shape, substance and form-with the folds of the spine in the center. “It becomes sculptural and it’s a nice surface too, painting-wise,” says Cain. “I’m always about the surface.” While painting, Cain has often listened to music, particularly hip-hop, wearing headphones in public places to tune out distractions. “When I did the Raleigh, I was listening to Kendrick Lamar, really good l
oud aggressive stuff,” Cain recalls. As she is often immersed in song, it makes sense that the artist frequently uses lyrics to name her work. Music provides theme, as in “The Imaginary Architecture of Love,” the title of a song on the album Hush Hush, by Cain’s friend, Christopher Kline, who grew up in the same small town. “Bow Down,” the name of her show at Honor Fraser, was adapted from the Beyoncé song, “Flawless.” The reference to “Bow Down” alludes to a version of the song that includes an excerpt from the talk, We Should All Be Feminists, by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is Cain’s underlying intention to make a statement as a female artist in the historically male-dominated world of abstract painting.

Acrylic, gouache, seashells and sand on canvas
60″ x 48″
Photo: Joshua White/, courtesy Honor Fraser Gallery

The back door of Cain’s studio opens onto a balcony overlooking a yard with a citrus orchard spilling down a gentle hill, a variety of exotic flowering cactus in different stages of bloom and bushes of sweetly scented yellow jasmine. The backdrop of Mount Wilson in the silhouetted San Gabriel Mountains, appears in dramatic relief on the horizon. A steep staircase leads down to the house, which is flooded with ambient light, the walls covered with artwork by Cain’s friends. The artist has travelled far since her childhood in upstate New York. Born in 1979, she wasn’t exposed to art growing up, but came upon it by self-discovery. “I figured out I could look at anything and draw it, in like, eighth grade.”

After dropping out of high school and attending a foreign exchange program in France, Cain found a community of artists in upstate New York, who mentored her and nurtured her talent. “It was just like this hotbed of awesome older women who sort of took me in,” she says. She is still close to painter Martha Lloyd, now in her 90s, and poet Bernadette Mayer, who recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship. A poem by Mayer, titled Dear Sarah, appears in the catalogue, “Sarah Cain: The Imaginary Architecture of Love,” published by CAM Raleigh last December. In the poem, Mayer references the color in one of the artist’s paintings: “in honor of the painting of yours I have here, It’s like seeing a rainbow in the middle of the forest”

Given the range of media Cain employs, and her agility traversing from painting to installation, it’s not surprising she originally signed up to study new genres in art school. She earned her BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and her MFA from UC Berkeley. In 2007, she relocated to Los Angeles from the Bay Area. Cain acknowledges a diverse list of artists who have provided inspiration-Janine Antoni, Eleanor Antin, Gordon Matta-Clark, Cy Twombly, Richard Tuttle, Steven Parrino, Giorgio Morandi, Fred Sandback, Jim Hodges and Mary Heilmann. “Everything influences my work. Everything I see, everything I hear, everything I think… the end product though, I’m really severely on top of making sure it’s my own. In order to let it be a finished work, it has to have gone through stages of processing out and defining my own thing.”

Cain also writes poetry. Her astrologer told her it’s what she is meant to do. “I’m a double Aquarius,” Cain says. Her soul-baring poem, “How to make a painting,” which appears as an introduction to her 2012 monograph, includes revelatory thoughts about her process. She explains that one of the phrases she used, to gypsy the forever, “is about letting go of expectations.”

In the lines, “the scary way, distress, discomfort, abject,” she is not suggesting the act of painting itself is difficult. Rather, that painting is her way of processing life. “It’s funny because people talk about happiness and joy and my colors being so happy, but a lot of it is anger, and working through really grueling situations. I think painting is a way-I mean it is a meditation-but it is my way of balancing out and leveling out.” Cain explains. “The work is about navigating life.”

If Cain’s art is a vehicle for navigating life, she appears to be able to drive with a sense of fearlessness. “I have plenty of fear walking through a parking structure late at night, but I have no fear with painting. In one respect I don’t really have a choice. I know that’s why I’m here and what I have to do, so that’s what propels me. Also, I really do want to contribute something to painting and push it further. I’m not interested in repeating myself or anything I know out there, so there’s the desire to always reinvent something, and to keep growing as an artist.”

Lead Image:
Installation view Sarah Cain: The Imaginary Architecture of Love
Photo: Art Howard CAM Releigh, courtesy Honor Fraser, Los Angeles