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Making Paintings Without Making Any


It’s the oddest thing. I have seen a lot of painting shows, some of them longer than others, but in most cases, I have never thought of them as painting exhibitions. I thought of them maybe as “let’s save the world with my objects for sale” or perhaps as a “viva la revolution!” kind of thing. Then, yesterday, I went to Sarah Sze’s Timelapse show at Guggenheim. And, a day later, I woke up and realized that Sze’s installations have, indeed, to do more with painting than the majority of the so-called painting shows. Somehow, contemporary painting became out of touch with painting whatsoever. But Sze took all the things that had been left out of painting and put them back in with her work. 

Even as I write this, I understand that claiming Sze’s installations as paintings is a bit exotic for the present-day art world. But in truth, this setting of unrealistic vacuum where contemporary painting exists, makes me wonder just how, when, and why things went so badly that I have to find paintings far away from their category. 


On a gloomy Wednesday morning, I took a train uptown and played Bob Dylan a dozen times. Maybe because it wasn’t a painting show, I didn’t expect anything at all when I walked into the Guggenheim where Sze’s installations share the space of the museum with another major show at the moment, which highlights works of Gego, or Gertrud Goldschmidt.  


As soon as I made my way up, I experienced the paradigm shift. All the installations of Sze are connected to the whole, but you can also experience each one of them on its own. I couldn’t fucking believe it. Quite mesmerizing, the configurations are constructed out of mundane objects that we all have in our apartments, or as artists in our studios. By attaching all the things together, Sze generates a connected disorder that keeps you still by its magic. I looked and the more I looked, the more I wanted to stay there forever. 


Because Sze’s work is an open discourse without resolution. With this critical dialogue, the artist articulates a philosophical debate of what a painting can be rather than simply holding its spot in the marketplace. This is one of the main segments that this exhibition of Sarah Sze supplies in opposition to the majority of contemporary painters. 


So, having told you this, I must say Sze’s work leads the viewer to see things that are not really there. The elements of the installations function as pictorial components. The objects imply things, consequently, the installations construct an image in the viewer’s mind. And what kind of objects does the artist incorporate into her work? The elements of Sze’s configurations can clasp the painter’s heart. Around the installations, you can find the vast majority of tools that are around every painter’s studio - different types of tape, paint, containers, hardware, levels, ladders, clamps, rulers, tape measures, jars, painting mediums, etc. Sze’s work conveys an unconditional love for painting. 

Sze does not produce polished objects. On the contrary, the artist highlights the process of how all the things have been made or attached together and celebrates the idea of a journey as well as what went through her mind. Thus, Sze creates an articulated disorder that breaks dimensionality. The mess of the physical components produces a mesmerizing reality in the viewer’s eyes - but that reality the viewer sees inside their heads. In front of them are still objects that function like paint on a flat two-dimensional surface. 

Anyway, I suspect that many of my unhappy colleagues are appalled by the fact that I criticize contemporary painting for its senseless approach that has nothing to do with the discipline and its focal concerns - the ability to possess physicality, metaphors, references, spirituality, and poetry. Well, they should see Sze’s exhibition in order to understand that it is all still possible to do in painting. All of the aforementioned things are in the work. 


In our contemporary reality, painting lives in this vacuum of crying for help. But the installations of Sarah Sze provide rising hope in the possibility of painting and expansion of its boundaries. Love it or hate it, you cannot take justifiable hope from people who still believe in painting and its potential. So right here, in front of my laptop, I found the answer to Christian Wulffen’s question that he would often ask me in undergrad - “how can you make a painting without making a painting?” Sarah Sze just demonstrated how. 


Alex Vlasov

June 2023


Sarah Sze: Timelapse, Installation view, 2023


Sarah Sze: Timelapse, Installation view, 2023


Sarah Sze: Timelapse, Installation view, 2023


Sarah Sze: Timelapse, Installation view, 2023


Sarah Sze: Timelapse, Installation view, 2023

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