Abstraction means: to induce from a concrete example a general concept. In themselves, both the abstract and the concrete are tricky. The merely concrete and particular is insignificant and evades definition, the merely abstract is empty or an illusion/delusion. Yet, in order to be productive, to understand the world and to create, the human mind needs to operate within the spectrum of abstraction and concretisation/substantiation, mirroring themselves in each other. (Note: as I am now done with this note, I cannot find a further possibility to refer to that introductory remark at another occasion in the text, so that it is actually useless, but for some reason, I´ll just let it be.)
Abstract painting – with the first true abstract paintings made by Frantisek Kupka in 1912 – set in at the beginning of the 20th century. A specific desire behind abstract painting was to make visible and tangible the human mind itself – as well as to expand and to broaden it, not only via the means of art and painting but also via science and via spirituality, therein also broadening the understanding of the world. The main figures behind abstract painting, Kupka, Kandisky or Malevich, were deeply intellectual, introspective and spiritual persons. It seemed an undertaking in diving into the depths of the mind and throwing up something new, something enigmatic, that, via its abstract forms, is able express the inexpressible itself: the depths and the frontiers of the mind, as well as the horizon of our understanding of the world, and of what possibly could lie beyond that horizon, or beyond that world (therein both the primordial and originary as well as the „spheres“ and the „divine“). Malevich´s Black Square seems to express a wormhole of introspection, a vibrant intensification of introspection, where you mentally destroy or leave behind common knowledge and understanding in order to come out in a new region of the universe with something new (in the case of Malevich it would enable him to later come up with novelties in figurative painting, while Kandinsky stayed inside the abstract realm and Klee coming up with a childlike and virgin amalgamation of abstraction and figuration). Abstract Expressionism would try to express the divine and untouchable via abstraction and make it tangible, reduce the content in order to open up and expand the mind and the spirit; Minimalism would reduce and shape a content in order to express a metaphysics of (enigmatic) presence and coexistence of man with (objects within) the world. Gerhard Richter´s grey paintings from the 1970s by contrast were about using (monochromous and monotonous) abstraction not to express the „spheres“, the „divine“ or anything metaphysical, but to flat out express its opposite: mindlessness and indifference. From that time on, grand narratives, respectively undertakings of art as a spiritual, intellectual, metaphysical endeavour have become falling apart, with interesting things popping up here and there, yet they remain localised. And new impulses to abstract painting seem even rarer.
Sarah Cain (b. 1979 in Albany, New York, resides in Los Angeles) refers to herself as an abstract painter. Like Duncan Wylie she is no super famous artist today, yet she is the coolest thing I have seen in painting since Duncan Wylie (whom I discovered almost ten years ago). Her art is described as „like seeing a rainbow in the middle of a forest“ by poet Bernadette Mayer. I have to say, such a stunning effect it also had on me. It is a combination of mastery over color and (some innate, finally intellectually indecipherable) mastery over form that produces something mesmerising. A highly sensitive person (i.e. excessively open to perceptual stimuli of all kind), Sarah Cain makes dense paintings, in which there is, nevertheless, astounding room for maneuver. I cannot think so quickly of other painters, at least not in the contemporary period, that have such a room for maneuver in combining colors and forms, and, moreover, that produce such astonishingly exact yet unforeseeable results without an apparent underlying formula, since you actually seem to have but a potpourri of stuff and of elements. There are gestural brushstrokes which often make strict rectangular or geometric (i.e. supposedly anti-gestural) forms that are present in most of her paintings, and which I like because they signify the upright, and the challenging and the (near) sublime, they are stern; and they are contrasted with floating forms, waves, or splashes which creates some kind of interesting harmony (between some kind of opposites). There are often (seemingly unmotivated) big black dots that seem to have no function (apart from creating a hole) but that Sarah Cain, as she confesses, herself likes a lot. There often are textiles or objects included in her paintings and one of her innovations was to expand the painting over the edges of the canvas, into the surrounding, which so becomes part of the artwork. Therein, her paintings also become sort of environments, and often she directly interferes with the environment as she does graffiti, paints whole street corners (for instance a street corner in L.A. where there is the epicenter of the city´s trans-prostitution scene, i.e. making the queerest corner of L.A. even queerer), or paints glass windows (most recently at San Francisco International Airport). All of this seems to happen quickly and fervently, yet out of a position of coolness. Sarah Cain seems to just stand there, or do yoga, then get the brush, paint all over something stunning and indisputable, then walk on. Sarah Cain comes, paints, and wins. So it seems. Sarah Cain´s paintings are – without any obvious formula – extremely robust and stable. Unlike most other productions in art, they are able to stand on themselves. They are, above all, extremely tasty. Very tasty stuff – that cannot be actually explained, but that wins over the intellectual, the critic, as it just is (and needs no addenda). It is true that that this art seems not deeply intellectual nor metaphysical either: the introspective element, the introspective endeavour doesn´t seem to have omnipresence (yet Sarah Cain is still young, and, for instance, Barnett Newman came up with his excessive stylistic contemplations later in life) (my neighbour Wolfgang ruminated that there may be less density and presence in her paintings in the future, but more of a meditative restriction and absence). Yet there undoubtely is an expansion within abstract painting, and you may find that in this combination of elements you may have a display of the totality of the human mind, and it is playful, it is colorful, and it is innocent. Sarah Cain is a GREAT painter and she is a VITAL figure in the history of abstract painting.
Thus spake Zarathustra