Building on Canvas: Sarah McKenzie and the New American Landscape

Building on Canvas: Sarah McKenzie and the New American Landscape

In recent years, the art world has played host to a number of lively explorations of architecture and the built environment. (In 2006, The New Yorker went so far as to snipe, “Painting about architecture has become popular to the point of excess, much the way seventies artists went overboard on the cube.”) By looking at architecture through the lenses of politics, psychology, humor, and more, artists have been helping to enrich the conversation about the field.

Last week I sat down with painter Sarah McKenzie, who was in New York for the opening of her new show, Building Code, to discuss her thoughts on art and architecture. McKenzie, who first came to public attention for her aerial views of suburban developments, currently uses images of construction sites as her source material.

The interview after the break.

SW: A lot of the shows you’ve been involved with in the last couple of years have dealt with architecture, suburbs, planning, etc. Why do you think that artists and curators now are interested in that kind of work?

SM: Well, suburbia specifically… I remember seeing this article, I think it was in The New York Times Magazine maybe two or three years ago, but it might have been more than that. I think it might have even been written by David Brooks. It was about how we are an economy, or (laughs) we were an economy, based on home building. I was already painting the aerials of suburbia at this time, so this obviously hit home for me, but I do think that he was really right in summing it up that way. I don’t know that people in New York feel it, but when you live in a place like the Denver metro area where over the course of ten years you just watch a landscape completely change from all this sort of big open space to suddenly these vast developments of new homes, you realize how much that local economy is driven by developers and builders and architects. So I think for a lot of artists it’s really just a reflection of that constant, ubiquitous new development that you see everywhere that you go. I think that’s why it just sort of crept into the art world.

I was just talking to another artist at lunch about what’s going to happen now that the economy has shifted, and obviously the mortgage crisis. Those new developments that have been built within the last couple of years in Colorado, I think they’re having a hard time finding buyers, and we’re certainly hearing the horror stories of what’s happening out in Las Vegas and Florida. I assume it’s going to change the way people see my work, and it’ll probably eventually change my work, although I don’t know how yet.

But guess I just think that construction is something that’s very pervasive in our lives. You can’t drive down a road without being aware of it. I kind of came into this in grad school. I was painting abandoned buildings in Detroit, and then I moved from southeast Michigan, which was a very depressed economy, especially Detroit, to Colorado, which was a booming economy at the time. And so to me it was just the juxtaposition, these two things coexisting in America, these really damaged old midwestern industrial cities that are falling apart and then these booming suburbs. So to me it was a natural thing to go from painting one to looking at another.

SW: Do you see yourself as working within an art-historical tradition of architectural painting? Or do you ever think about that?

SM: I think about art history, but I honestly think more about my work in the context of abstraction. I wouldn’t say that I really look at historical paintings of architecture. I look a lot at contemporary paintings of architecture. I’m very much influenced by the Leipzig school coming out of Germany. There are a number of artists that are part of that movement that have done really interesting things with architecture and paint and the way that an architectural space can relate to a painting space. But that’s not really historical. So in terms of the history I look at I’m much more thinking about abstract minimalist painting from the 1960s and 70s, even abstract expressionism in terms of certain moments when I’m thinking about handling a certain mark in a certain way. That’s the thing about especially the most recent paintings. They’re definitely about architecture, but they’re also about painting as a material and the way that decisions are made in the process of making a painting.

SW: So the work about architecture that you’ve been influenced by that’s coming from Germany-do you find it’s really different just because the architecture is different?

SM: It’s much more postwar industrial architecture, more urban. My source material is definitely coming from a suburban environment, so it’s definitely different. There’s one artist in particular, Matthais Weischer-seeing his work, it’s more like it gave me license to pursue something that I was sort of already interested in. I think my most recent paintings of the interior spaces are more like his work than the paintings of houses that have been framed in in wood.

SW: Do people around the country-or the world-react differently to your work depending on their feelings about the subject matter?

SM: I don’t know. Well, I will tell you one anecdote, but I don’t think this is even so regionally specific. This was ages ago, like 2000 or 2001, when I was still doing the aerials. I had a show and there was one painting that showed three or four houses on pretty large lots. There was this little segment that had been cut out of this farmer’s field, so the painting was mainly these big bands of color of the way the farmer’s field had been planted. And right in the center there’s this weird cut-in of these five very large lots, each with a single house. I’m guessing that each of these homes was sitting on at least a couple of acres each, if not more than two, and they were probably multi-million dollar homes. And then a lot of the other aerials I was doing at the time were much more jam-packed, with smaller houses on smaller lots. And I remember this, he’s actually a family friend who came to the show, I remember him looking at that one painting and saying, “This is the way development should be.” And it was just so interesting to me, because the reality is that it’s much better for the environment to have people packed in densely close together. I disagreed with him, but I think it’s funny how that painting still, to this guy, and I think probably to a lot of people, just doesn’t look as bad as having a whole lot of houses crammed in together. That’s the kind of house we all sort of aspire to, maybe, the big piece of land.

I am conscious that people come to my shows who live in these kinds of houses, so they’re bringing their own very emotional connection to their own home, but I wouldn’t say that I get a different reaction regionally, not that I’ve noticed. I don’t know how people in other countries would look at it. I’m mainly talking more about the older work, which is maybe more didactic in commenting on suburbia. I don’t think that the new work really takes a didactic tone at all.

I wonder if people in other countries would look at that and think immediately, that looks like America. I mean, there’s suburbia in France. After the piece ran in the New York Times I got an email from an American who’s over in China, and he was saying how there’s this company that gets its lumber from Canada and they’re building these American-style suburban houses in China, because somehow it’s cheaper to get the lumber from Canada than to get it in China. So they have these Chinese day laborers showing up to build these things, but they don’t have the same power tools that are available easily to American builders, so they’re building these things, they’re prefab, with hand tools. And the guys show up at the work sites, and sometimes they’ll be wearing a suit and tie. They’re wearing what clothes they have. So he was just talking about the craziness of seeing this kind of house being built in that kind of environment, and how we really are being globalized, and we’re going to get those weird cultural clashes, too.

SW: Your artist’s statement talks about drawing a connection between the construction of a building and the construction of a painting. Why painting, if the idea is construction? How did you come to that through painting?

SM: Painting came before the idea for the work came… It was a process of many years to find this subject. I was always drawn to landscape and issues of place, so no matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always made paintings about place, and then when I was in grad school I got into the whole thing with abandoned houses in Detroit. I think that was the first time where I really felt like I could use the paintings I was making to reflect on some kind of larger cultural dynamic which is revealed through the form of the landscape. So that became very interesting to me: the way the built environment reflects who we are as a society and a culture, and the history. I don’t know if you’ve been to Detroit, but it’s crazy. Half of the city, if not more than half, is abandoned, so you just drive around and everywhere you go you just see empty buildings. I mean, the downtown is empty buildings. It’s crazy. So you go there and you’re like, ok, why does it look like this? So it became a question of, how can I use painting to tell that story? And then it just kind of evolved from there.

I think that as time has gone on I’ve become increasingly invested in the activity of making paintings, as well. The new work is as much about painting and how one might make essentially what I think are abstract paintings in this cultural moment as much as they are about construction and architecture and all of those things.

SW: I’m from the suburbs and don’t ever want to live in the suburbs again if I can help it, but I don’t hate them, and can understand why people live there. And looking at your work I kind of get that feeling from it; it’s not like American Beauty or something where you’re like, ‘The suburbs are bad!’

SM: I don’t ever want to live in a subdivision either, but I’m also not really comfortable with making that pejorative of a statement. Mostly I’m interested in the question of why they exist in the form that they do. Not that I think that I fully address the why in the work, but I think it’s just interesting that over the last fifty years this has come to be the standard way of building new homes. I’m dismayed by it, but I think that my art is more about saying like, huh, look at this, than actually trying to clearly pass judgment. I think partly that because my mom is a land use planner and I grew up hearing about zoning laws, I understand the complexity that goes into deciding how a town is going to be developed and what land is going to be set aside for which uses. I can see how some things that seem like really good ideas when a local planning board is passing those zoning laws can really turn out to be problematic down the road. I think to some extent that’s what’s happened with how we build.

SW: Yeah, I think it’s an enormously complex issue, but it’s interesting to look at other countries and think it doesn’t have to be that way.

SM: It’s true. It ultimately is governmental. I know a lot of people who live in suburbia, and I understand why they live there. I think that for the amount of money that they had to spend in trying to find the right home for their family it was the right decision at that time, and I understand why they love their house. It’s their home. Even if you have a god-awful three-car garage taking up eighty percent of the facade of your house, once you’ve moved into that place and your stuff is there and your family memories are there it’s still your home. So I understand why people get defensive about suburbia.

SW: Where do you see your work going in the next few years?

SM: Umm… this is such a lame answer! I’m trying to think if I can give you a better answer than what my instinct says. You know, honestly, I feel like it’s just within the very last year, in 2008, that’s I’ve really started making the paintings I want to be making. So, like I said, it’s a lame answer, but it’s sort of like, more. More variation in the paint, bigger paintings, pushing what’s going on right now. I have a couple of photographs that I’ve taken of the exteriors of much larger urban buildings under construction. I no longer feel like I’m just painting suburban structures. I would say that the work that I’m doing now is about architecture, but not necessarily suburbia. Some paintings are about suburbia, but in general I don’t feel like I’m commenting on suburbia anymore. I think that I’m making paintings kind of about potential, potential of something that’s underway but has not yet been completed, so there’s still all this opportunity. I was thinking about how often when see a building under construction I get really excited about what it looks like structurally in that really fleeting state, and then I’m ultimately quite disappointed at what it looks like when it’s finished. I actually think it’s a similar experience for me making paintings, where about halfway into a painting I’m always just in love with it and I can see the potential for what it could become, and I get really, really excited. And it’s not that I’m disappointed by the final image, but I think that in completing a painting or completing a building or whatever there’s always this process of shutting down certain opportunities or shutting off certain potential outcomes. There’s always kind of a loss in the completion, and I really kind of love that moment where everything’s still in flux. So I think that’s there in the work too.

Sarah McKenzie’s work will be on view at Jen Bekman Gallery in New York City through April 4, 2009.

About this author
Cite: Sarah Wesseler. "Building on Canvas: Sarah McKenzie and the New American Landscape" 25 Feb 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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