Sarah Faux is a Brooklyn based artist. She received her MFA in Painting from the Yale School of Art in 2015 and a joint BA/BFA from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design in 2009. Sarah's paintings propose an irresistible blend of figurative representation and gestural abstraction. She crops her subjects to focus on specific body parts, pulling the audience into an intimate, first-person perspective. We spoke with Sarah about the early childhood experiences that still influence her practice, posing uncomfortable questions and an enduring love for her craft. See more of Sarah's work here.
What was your childhood like and what were some of your early influences?
I had health issues as a child and was sick a lot. I ran high fevers, and I had weird hallucinations. But at the same time, I was a pretty happy kid. So there has always been a sort of duality going on within my body, and that's one thing that has influenced my work. When I started making art more seriously, I went back to that place. The seed of the body of work that I'm in now came from trying to process feeling out of my body, having this disconnect between things that were going wrong in my body that I had no control over and that were invisible to me.
Are you the only artist in your family?
There are a lot of artsy people in the family, but I didn't have any examples of artists specifically. My grandfather was a composer. He was somebody that I talked to a lot, especially in high school and college. We would trade notes on how to compose a painting, how color functions, and then how to compose a symphony with the tonality of different instruments, compared to the saturation or hue of different colors and how they interact. Very abstract conversations. It was a really wonderful thing to see that people in my family took me seriously from a young age.
Was there a moment when you maybe wanted to do something else or were you super set on art?
When I was in college I wanted to have a broader education than just art school. I started at the Rhode Island School of Design, and ended up taking all my academic classes at Brown. I transferred to Brown for a while and did comparative literature and semiotics and other courses that were informing my painting practice. That's probably the only moment I strayed from painting. I remember being asked what things influenced my paintings, and then mentioning Virginia Woolf and the idea of the collective unconscious because I was reading a lot of literature on my own. The things that I find the most inspiring and that motivate me to make paintings are not necessarily other paintings, or art history, but they're coming from different media.
You have a stunning sense of color. Did you have that appetite for color from very early on?
I wasn't really aware of the ways in which I engaged with color and how much that came through in my painting until I got to grad school. Everyone was suddenly talking to me about the meaning of my using a specific color, or saying I was a colorist. I didn't realize that yet, I thought everyone was probably equally interested in color.
I do remember when I was in high school and started taking painting classes. My paintings of people would have a thousand colors. I'd paint a face and instead of just mixing up a big pile of the primary overall flesh tone, I would look at every single shadow and go "that shadow is a little blue, that shadow is little purple, that shadow is a little red" and mix every color. A lot of things that people tried to help me with that were considered problems in my work when I was going through school ended up being things that make my work more unique now.
You went to Brown, you went to RISD and you went to Yale. What was the art school experience like for you?
I loved RISD, it was fantastic. I was surrounded by people who were so committed to making work, natural makers, people who were compulsive and needed to make things. We all got each other. But I remember feeling very easily influenced by my professors - I don't think that I was more influenced than other people - but I felt like I had too much influence on my work. So after RISD I wanted to take a long time before going to grad school.
Being on my own was exciting, I spent a long time painting in a little closet sized studio with a bunch of friends from undergrad, making things and trying to get them out into the world. I feed off getting responses a lot. I want to know how someone is experiencing my work because it's always slightly different from how I experience it. I organized little DIY shows with people and eventually ended up making a group of paintings that I was pretty proud of. After five years or so I applied to grad school. I felt I had grown a thick enough skin that I wasn't going to be too influenced.
Were you living in New York?
I was living in New York and it was hard to make rent, so I was working a lot of different jobs. One of my favorite jobs was working at Henri Bendel's, building displays for the windows. All the people who worked there were from different art schools. I was meeting all these people that I hadn't known before, but they were all trying to figure out what kind of artist they wanted to be, or if they wanted to be a professional artist. We were building stuff all the time, it was extremely fun. It was like Project Runway where they would tell us "OK, tonight we need to make dresses out of candy", and within the next eight hours we'd work on that and put it in the storefront.
I was also working for artists, which was wonderful in its own right. And I had a job as an installer at a gallery and one as a bartender at poetry readings. Even though each gig was cool in its own way, juggling all of that was also overwhelming. That played a part in wanting to go back to grad school too.
Yale's program is super intense, but I loved it because my classmates had very different goals artistically. People came with really different motivations for what they wanted their work to do in the world. That was extremely inspiring. I learned a lot about my own work from having very intense critiques too. One of the biggest things that I took out of the program was to strive for something in your work that's a little bit out of reach. Something you can't quite achieve yet.
Has your current body of work evolved over time, or is it something that started more recently?
I see it as a fluid process where if I make a show, maybe that's its own little body of work. But I haven't deviated in any major ways from the main things that I'm interested in. If I'm making paintings about the body and sexuality, for example, I have a different relationship to my body and to my own sexuality than I did 10 years ago. So to make a painting that has related themes but is seen from a new moment in time, is completely different. It never ceases to be interesting to me.
However, every year I try to do one thing that's a little outside of my practice and that will bring some freshness into what I'm doing. I recently did a residency at a print shop, making monotypes. In order to make the monotype, I had to have content to draw from. So I did tons of drawings from life. Drawings of friends and lovers, exes, the people around me, and myself, and all kinds of things. Doing it in monotypes I was able to translate those drawings into color in a really direct way. Every time I work with another medium it influences my oil paintings.
Your paintings have a very tactile, very rich quality. Do the materials you use inform the work in any way?
I'm always driven by material. I love seeing one color of paint pass over multiple surfaces. Just seeing a color go from a slick surface to an absorbent surface, when it appears very light and shiny and then it gets really soaked in and dark. I like when the surface is shifting underneath the brush strokes, I think it destabilizes the space and the painting.
Recently I've been painting on absorbent grounds that a friend of mine helped me develop. This material takes the paint exactly how I want it to. I spent a whole summer experimenting with grounds, and now I have one that I really, really like. It allows me to paint really quickly and in layers, and whatever touches the surface first will stain it immediately, so I can be really, really loose. And then if I remove the paint or scrape it, I'll get a stain from the original paint.
How did you arrive at painting mostly female figures? Was that something that you were intuitively doing?
I started by doing a lot of self portraiture, I was my most available model so working with my own body was how a lot of my thinking about the body developed. I did a series of self portraits in bathtubs because I liked how in the bath a body is below the surface and above the surface. Your body parts might be a little abstracted already, naturally fragmented because they're popping up from the water.
And I think a lot about gender and femininity. It's something that I'm very interested in, figuring how to take on a feminine sensuality, a sexuality that's complex and that has its own interior erotics to it, some of it very celebratory, some of it not. But I enjoy painting men as well. And my models are all across the gender spectrum. I think there's a certain fluidity because my work is abstracted, so you're seeing the figure, but abstraction subverts a lot of gendered markers. I once made a painting of a girl with hairy legs, and everybody looking at the painting kept saying it's two figures because they couldn't connect the hairy legs with the feminine torso. There's some friction there that I'm interested in, putting the gendered signals out there, but not allowing them to sit in the comfortable places that they usually sit in.
One of the things that I love most about your work is this blend of abstraction and figuration. The line is so, so fine. A lot of your works represent isolated body parts, almost like close ups. How did you get into painting like this?
A lot of it came from wanting the viewer to feel like the figure was part of themselves, to feel implicated in what's going on. I never felt comfortable with painting a completely whole, decidedly feminine body. To me it feels like once a body is complete, and you can see their head, their feet - it's separate from you, the viewer possesses that person. If you talk about the male gaze, there is a feeling that a domineering eye can have a certain ownership over what it's looking at. I don't want to engage in that type of looking. I've always wanted my paintings to create a sense of closeness where the figure is larger than life, cropped, and you're having a view of it that you would only be privy to if you are participating in something with this person. You're in an intimate relationship with them, or your own body is in the painting.
I do a lot of paintings that are from a first person point of view and present themselves as abstractions. But people tell me as they start to deconstruct the image that they're seeing a body part and they're starting to place their own body in that position to figure out "where am I in space, what is the rest of the form". That's gratifying to me, I want it to feel like you have to be involved in decoding what's going on.
Your paintings are visceral, they attract and pull you in. But there's also a level of guess work involved. Do you want to challenge the viewer, are you interested in their interpretation?
I am, and I have figuration and abstraction in my work but I don't think those are binary poles. I think they're always interwoven in every painting. I have pushed in both directions where I've gone more towards abstraction, and I've gotten more towards a legible image. I find it most captivating when I'm able to make something that is hovering on a borderline, where somebody who looks at it might be able to construct something, but maybe it will slip away. That effect connects to the kinds of experiences that I want to depict. Moments of touch that have a certain vibration to them. I do like being right on the edge, and I really enjoy hearing how people are looking at what I'm making. It's fascinating to me because sometimes it's very different from what I think they'll see.
I've definitely made a lot of paintings that make people feel uncomfortable when they figure out what they're seeing. And I enjoy that, too. I made a painting that had a big hand in the foreground, and the hand penetrates the body that's in the painting. A straight man was looking at the painting and then said, "I feel really weird about this, I don't know if this person is consenting to me penetrating them and looking at them in this way." And I said, "OK, that's good. You should be worried about that, that's a good thing to think about." If I'm putting somebody in a position where they are processing something about the act of looking, that's very important to me. I'm not trying to make a statement about what feminine sexuality is or how bodies are in the world. I'm trying to create a set of circumstances where those topics come up.
You previously said that you enjoy conjuring out of body experiences. Where does this interest come from?
Definitely early childhood experiences started that interest, but then it's also interesting being in the world as a woman, being seen as both an object and agent in many different situations. I like being treated as both. Not every time I'm objectified is awful. Sometimes it's awful, sometimes it's very arousing. There's a dual side to that position in the world, and I think that has an out of body quality too.
It can be fun to play with ideas of power, but maybe you actually want to be mostly empowered and in loving relationships. There's this disconnect between the imagined structures of sexuality and then the real lived experience. And I always want those dynamics to come into play within the work that I'm making, where it ends up with a feeling of complexity that's closer to real experiences.
What has been one of your biggest challenges so far?
The way that I've been able to grow my work has been very slow and incremental, and I have a desire to include more and more types of imagery, different palettes, more types of materials, more visual information. But it takes a while to incorporate a new element into the visual language that I'm working in and allow it to feel like it's on the edge between abstract and legible. That is a forever challenge within my practice - not giving up hope that I can keep incorporating more, but being patient with myself.
Are you working on anything specific at the moment?
I was doing a residency in Shanghai that was going to run from January through March, and then have a show there in March. Because of the pandemic, that did not happen, so I came home at the end of January. The show will probably happen in October and that's exciting. I am now finishing that body of work, which is going to be all monotypes and cut-out collages.