Sarah McKenzie

“Entry (Mitchelle-Innes & Nash), ” 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36” x 36”
Photos: Nico Toutenhoofd, Courtesy: David B. Smith Gallery

Painter Sarah McKenzie, who now lives in Boulder, Colorado, earned a BA at Yale University in 1993, and later attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, where she completed her MFA with a specialty in painting in 1998. She feels her career as an artist began around twenty years ago-give or take a year or two. “Finding your feet after graduate school, is such an interesting, transitional time,” muses McKenzie. “I always say that the first really professional and serious body of work I did was produced in Denver when I started doing the Aerials in 1999.”

The Aerials began a sequence of series based on the built environment that has persisted as her key concern up until the present time. The Aerials are depictions of the landscape based on views from the air. These are not the romantic, bucolic vistas that have dominated the landscape-tradition in painting, but instead capture the less picturesque imagery of housing developments, most of which have been captured at the time they were still under construction.

These paintings, some of which are grisailles but most of which have been done in a range of colors, introduce several painterly approaches that McKenzie has embraced repeatedly. First, of course would be the dialogue between the damage to the landscape and the beauty of it. Second is the way she applies different painting methods to different parts of the canvas, with smoothly done passages applied to the buildings, for instance, and with brushy expressive parts used to convey the plants and trees. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the way McKenzie’s compositions have an overall abstract quality owing to the way she arranges the formal elements to emphasize the linear components of the scenes such as the pattern of the streets and rectilinear shapes of the structures.

This last characteristic, merging representation with abstraction, has increasingly been pushed to the forefront of McKenzie’s paintings as seen in the three subsequent series that she has created since then. The Aerials were succeeded by the Constructions, which are more or less close-up views of construction sites. The earliest of these are tighter versions of the Aerials but eventually McKenzie depicted the scenes from ground level, as opposed to the air. The compositions are almost wholly made up of linear expressions conveying the partially built walls and floors at the sites.

The Constructions seamlessly gave way to the Windows series, even though the scenes she was depicting in these new paintings were the polar opposites of her previous work in terms of their subjects. In these paintings, McKenzie did not capture new construction but the often broken-out windows of the old Gates Rubber Company factory complex as it awaited demolition. “I was really excited about those grid-paintings,” McKenzie explains, “because they took these ideas I had about abstraction, architecture and painting to its ultimate end point. So I thought, where do I go next?”‘

This was in 2014, which is also when McKenzie launched her latest series, White Walls, that she presented this summer in an exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, and in a striking solo this fall at the David B. Smith Gallery in Denver. The paintings and works on paper that are part of the White Walls group represent both a smooth continuation of her interests and a completely new approach to subject matter. The idea for this latest series occurred to her when she attended Frieze London, a significant art fair; she was struck by the appearance of the gallery booths, which were luxuriously appointed tents. At first, she did exterior views of the tents but these quickly gave way to her interest in conveying the interiors of museums and galleries. In the earliest of these White Wall pieces, the art on view within the space has been minimized or avoided, with McKenzie zeroing-in on a doorway or pillar. But in the paintings she’s done this year she fully takes on the task of including the paintings that are on display, and effectively apes their varied styles, which are set against her own signature style used to complete the rest of the image.

Since the White Walls pieces concern the rendering of the interiors of art exhibition spaces, McKenzie’s intentions leave the concerns of traditional realism, and enter the realm of conceptual realism. In these works she addresses the presentation of art in our society, and therefore the elegant white rooms are not simply renderings, but they address the very nature of the social construction of art.

“Sarah McKenzie,” a solo show of recent paintings, was on view at David B. Smith Gallery, in Denver, CO. From September 9- October 8, 2016.

“Sarah McKenzie: White Walls,” was on view at the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art (IMOCA), in Indianapolis, IN. From June 3- July 23, 2016.