Published  22/10/2021

Sarah Sze

Sarah Sze

The boundaries between painting and sculpture are blurred in Sze’s works, where pictures within pictures become portals into another world that only the viewer can enter

Sarah Sze. Double Take Apparition, 2021 (detail). Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, diabond and wood 262.2 x 328.2 x 7.9 cm 103 1/4 x 129 1/4 x 3 1/8 in © Sarah Sze Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Victoria Miro, London
12 October – 6 November 2021


Sarah Sze, who was born in Boston in 1969, completed a BA at Yale University in 1991 and an MFA at the School of the Visual Arts in New York in 1997 and has a background in painting and architecture. While the current exhibition operates between painting, collage and sculpture, Sze’s work extends beyond these mediums to include drawing, printmaking, video and installation.

Installation view, Sarah Sze, Victoria Miro Gallery II, London, 12 October–6 November 2021. © Sarah Sze, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

If this exhibition of Sze’s work at Victoria Miro proves anything, it is that she blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, between two- and three-dimensional work, so effectively that we barely notice it. An accumulation of materials forms an accretion on the canvas, seeming to spin vortex-like, generating flux and force despite the delicate nature of some of the material – the head of a sleeping figure, a hand outstretched as if asking for help, another hand pointing in wonder, a bird in flight, and a fragile network of painted lines that seems to create a web of cracks and fissures across the image, while collaged paper appears to stick it back together again, holding elements in place, but only just. It is as if the image could develop in either direction, achieving more permanence or disintegrating entirely. As Sze explains: “I see both painting and sculpture through the lens of collage and look for a state in which a work is both becoming and degrading before you. I’m trying to find the moment that feels volatile or live.”

Sarah Sze. Imprint, 2021. Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, diabond and wood, 289.6 x 193.1 x 7.9 cm (114 1/8 x 76 1/8 x 3 1/8 in). © Sarah Sze, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

The wall-based works in this exhibition, such as Imprint, Crisscross and Crisscross Apparition, all made in 2021, explore the unique qualities of each medium in dialogue with another. Elements of the image bleed into one another, generating new states of being. For Sze, this reflects the way that we experience images in contemporary society where television, computer images, books, advertising and human imagination all inform how we experience the world. In creating these large images, she explains how she responds to each moment of the creative process in order to activate the image. Internal structure and instability come together to create images in flux. There are pictures within pictures, and portals into other worlds that are activated only by the viewer.

Sarah Sze. Crisscross, 2021. Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, diabond and wood, 289.5 x 362 x 8 cm (114 x 142 1/2 x 3 1/8 in). © Sarah Sze, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

The viewer’s presence in this exhibition has been considered deeply by Sze: “Within the long gallery, the paintings create a corridor of paired images hung opposite one another. Moving through the space ignites an awareness of physical presence – one’s body is captured between each painting pair, with the paintings themselves hovering at the periphery of vision.” Of course, the use of the term painting is, itself, rather limiting considering the plethora of materials she uses. Sze also understands her paintings as portals of discovery, which have two important aspects, both of which are aided by the presence of the thick painted edges of the canvas. In this way, the images direct us inside the architecture of the building in which they hang, and inside the spaces of our imagination. This makes more sense when we consider how Sze views painting and sculpture. She says: “Sculpture takes up space, painting creates it.” That is clear in this exhibition as the paired paintings suck us into worlds we can only imagine. Sze again: “This choreography of space echoes the paintings’ play with deja vu, memory loss, peripheral vision and the imprinting of images in our minds and our imagination.” Repeated themes and methods are carried thoughtfully between the pairs of paintings. The experience as viewer is one of custodian, carefully conveying themes from one painting to another. In the end, this is down to Sze’s composition and the way the paintings are hung in relation to each other.  It is to the artist’s credit that the space for the viewer is experienced as an active, participatory one. Sze has spoken of art as a timekeeper, breathing life into materials and existing as a travelling message between human beings across time. In the gallery space of this exhibition, the viewer becomes the messenger between paintings, or, at least, that is how it feels.

Sarah Sze. Crisscross Apparition, 2021. Oil paint, acrylic paint, acrylic polymers, ink, aluminum, diabond and wood, 289.5 x 362 x 8 cm (114 x 142 1/2 x 3 1/8 in). © Sarah Sze, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

There are three stainless steel sculptures in this exhibition, too, all relating to Sze’s installation Fallen Sky (2020-21). This site-specific work is a permanent feature at Storm King Art Center in Upstate New York. Fallen Sky’s 129 individual elements of polished stainless steel nestle in a hillside, reflecting the sky above and the weather. Like most of Sze’s work, it dissolves boundaries, and images of the sky seem to be pulled down to earth. At Victoria Miro we see three much smaller works: Air from Air, Numerous of Windows and Return Whole, all from the Fallen Sky Series and made in 2021. They all function in the same way, varying only in their location and their relationship to it. Sze says: “The sculptures camouflage into any space and draw their surroundings into the piece. As you move around the work, they transform in real time as a reflection of your location in relation to the sculpture. They have a filmic quality in that they reflect time and weather.”

Sarah Sze. Air from Air (Fallen Sky Series), 2021. Stainless steel, 19.1 x 182.9 x 182.9 cm (7 1/2 x 72 1/8 x 72 1/8 in). © Sarah Sze, Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro.

Images are reflected, collaged, made, then disappear. Air from Air sits quietly outside, in the garden behind the gallery. Return Whole sits on the gallery floor, close to a nearby window. Numerous of Windows is positioned inside and out, bisected by a window. This series of sculptures was inspired by ancient architecture and the language of ruins. When I saw the exhibition, a dandelion (a common weed and the gardener’s curse) grew within the perimeter of Numerous of Windows, reinforcing the theme of ruins and degradation.

What underlines the Fallen Sky Series and, indeed, all the works in this exhibition, is the collaging of images, the making of new from old, and flux as a creative force. These sculptures are so shallow as to be almost two-dimensional.  Equally, the wall-based works are so deep as to be almost sculptural. While Sze plays with artistic categories and brings diverse media together, the viewer remains central, travelling around and between works, activating the space between works and in their own minds. That is made possible by the precariousness of the works, at one and the same time structured and unstable, generating a moment for creative thinking, imagination and clarity.

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