The William D. Adams Gallery at the Colby College Museum of Art is the gateway to the rest of the museum. In the hands of installation artist Sarah Cain, the gateway becomes the destination.
During some of the darkest, coldest days of winter, Cain filled the full expanse of the lobby gallery with the warmth of color. She painted a vinyl-covered floor, added splashes of color to the walls by hanging huge oil-on-canvas paintings that she had previously painted—though she altered some of them after arriving at Colby—and placed painted sofas for people to sit on.
An abstract artist who composes on a grand scale, Cain transformed the museum lobby into an immersive experience, inviting visitors to walk, sit, and interact with her installation, which she titled hand in hand.
On view until Dec. 11, hand in hand is the latest project for the Los Angeles-based painter, who proudly works against the grain of artistic tradition. Cain was scheduled to come to Colby in 2020, but her trip and project were postponed because of the pandemic. Her works are in major museum collections, and her public commissions include the stained-glass piece Walk Right Up to the Sun, at the San Francisco International Airport.
Back at home in California, she recently answered a few questions via email about the project.
How did hand in hand come to be and how did you end up working at Colby?
Curator Beth Finch invited me to do a project at Colby pre-pandemic. It was a long, patient process of having to reschedule and work around the travel as well as many other limitations that the pandemic presented. The intent at first was to only do a floor painting in the lobby, but the schedule of other shows was shuffled around—originally Colby was going to be first, but the Tang Museum ended up being first and that was a survey of a different new floor and 16 paintings (from more than) a decade. I also did a floor with paintings at Broadway Gallery in Tribeca, so seeing those floors with the paintings made us realize it’d be great to also include some paintings. I then decided to respond to them on the wall as well. I don’t plan much out besides the materials in advance, so I didn’t know what the floor or wall paintings would look like until I was actually in Maine working.
This installation encompasses much of the gallery, including the floors and walls— and even a sofa or two. What are the challenges and rewards of creating art for large, public spaces?
The challenges are mostly the physical wear and tear on my body and on everyone who is helping paint. It’s very taxing. There’s also the challenge of keeping in mind what the space will be used for outside of my art and trying to be smart about all of those considerations while also honoring the work. Working large comes very naturally to me. The reward is it opens up the range of the audience in a great way.
Were the sofas already there, or did you bring them with the intention of painting them?
The sofas were from my previous show at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College. I painted them all in a 30-minute window before a giant thunderstorm last July out in the grass of their campus. They turned out so great it felt like a nice addition to bring them in and recontextualize them.
Your art is meant to be sat on and walked on, which seems to run counter to how much of the art world operates. What is your motive for creating art that is imbued with such tactile qualities?
I’m into the accessibility of it all as well as diminishing boundaries around where art and the world co-exist.
What is the significance of the title of your exhibition, hand in hand?
It’s a line in a song lyric that another work was also titled from. I had just finished the other work, We Will Walk Right Up To The Sun, when Beth approached me. That work is a 150-foot-by-10-foot permanent stained-glass wall at the San Francisco International Airport. It’s a Nas song from 1996 with lyrics by Lauren Hill. I was going through a sun theme in titles, the one before that was The Sun Will Not Wait. The permanent work at SFO seemed to bookend a time when San Francisco was a place of home for me. I moved there in 1997. Anyway, the titles are all entwined, there’s also personal meaning in the title but that’s not really important. It also felt right for Colby because I’ve long been a fan of the Shakers’ drawings and the hand-made is essential to their existence.
Given the grayscale of Maine in winter and early spring, hand in hand feels exuberant, with all of its color and energy. Was that your intent?
All of my work has that color and energy and for that reason. I’m usually invited to places in those times of the year with a curatorial intent to lighten things up. I honestly hate winter, though, and I’m not sure I will continue doing any more onsite work in those times. It’s a real strain on my life to be in cold weather when I could be in California.
I’m curious when you began taking on these large, public installations and what led you to them. Is this a natural evolution of your work? Were you constrained by small-scale painting, relatively speaking?
I started working onsite in the late ’90s as a way to have free studio space. I was going into abandoned buildings and painting there. I was also drawn to the ephemeral and working outside of the marketplace. In the beginning, I wasn’t interested in working on canvas, but over the years the challenge of making a great painting that lasts became more intriguing. Now I go back and forth very fluidly between huge works onsite, canvases, and works on paper.
You have a little bit of history of Maine, through your studying at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. Do you have other ties to Maine—other than now to Colby?
Not really, though I would have loved to meet Alex Katz. He and I shared a friend in the late poet Bill Berkson. Bill would have me over to his house regularly when I was an undergrad. We became very good friends, and he had all these early Katz (paintings) hanging. It was my first time just being with great art in a way that collectors do every day, informally and intimately. I also know there’s a great history of cool artists working in Maine, I feel like the reclusive vibe is similar to my own.
What are you working on now, and where can people see your next public commissions?
My next public commission will be in LA. It should be publicly announced any minute, and although I’m already deep in making it, it doesn’t open to the public until 2025.
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