Sasha Pierce

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Sasha Pierce: Starry Night

2015
Kelly Jazvac, Thin, Not Flat.

Starry Night IV, 2015, silkscreen on handmade Kurotani #52 kozo paper, archival cotton paper and archival mending tape, 31.25 x 23.5 inches

Starry Night IV, 2015, silkscreen on handmade Kurotani #52 kozo paper, archival cotton paper and archival mending tape, 31.25 x 23.5 inches

A connecting thread between the artworks of Sasha Pierce is literally thread: her works of the past fifteen years reference textiles, even though they are not textiles in themselves. Early works include trompe l’oeil paintings of knitted scarves, blankets, and seemingly paint-covered rags. They look as though a piece of fabric was left on the floor and glued down exactly as it fell. However, these textiles are not textiles at all. They have been carefully formed in paint. They are both an image and a full-scale relief sculpture.

Pierce’s subsequent paintings, the paintings she is now internationally known for, continue this visual train of thought. In these works, the textile doesn’t appear as a found object resting on the surface of the canvas; rather, it looks as though a woven fabric has been stretched on a panel. Instead of brushstrokes, Pierce’s labour-intensive method of applying paint looks akin to how textiles are woven on a loom. Fine threads of paint are pressed tightly against one another. Compositionally, Pierce’s paintings also have a double geometry that relates more to quilting than weaving: one geometric pattern is parallel to the picture plane, and functions as the template for the overall composition (think quilt); the second pattern is built within this geometry and uses colour and tone to depict a different spatial depth within the first geometric pattern, like an image in a fractured mirror.

The result is a complex optical illusion: it’s physically hard to see it clearly, or know exactly what one is seeing. This not-knowing has been used to describe Pierce’s work before,1 and is also how writer Dave Hickey has described the op-art paintings of Bridget Riley. Hickey writes that the optical illusion of her work interferes with the viewer’s ability to literally see, and thus know, Riley’s paintings.2 He sees this space of not knowing as a productive site of contemplation. Pierce’s work has a similar buzzing and hard-to-pin-down opticality. But it has a further cognitive complication: it also oscillates between a simulacrum of a textile and an abstract painting.

This brings us to Pierce’s new works, produced in residency at Open Studio. They are also made with paint, but again not in the way one would expect paint to be applied: the acrylic paint is combined with screenprinting medium and pulled through a screen on to tissue-thin paper. They are made like most printed textiles in the world (although industrial screenprinting is mechanized, not hand-pulled like Pierce’s). The construction of these works has a further textile connection: Pierce has made a project of piecework for herself. The geometry of the final image is broken into repeating units. When printed, they look similar to a dressmaker’s pattern: precise shapes mapped out on to tissue. The shapes are cut out and assembled together to create the original geometry of Pierce’s composition. Yet, instead of keeping the pieces flat, she attaches them at the back of the paper to create a slight ridge: a seam, in fact. Through this subtle gesture, Pierce once again points to the third dimension of her work. These prints are things as well as images. Then there is the optical illusion. Like Pierce’s previous works, they are hard to fully see. These prints are trippy. The printed images are a swirling of geometries and vanishing points mapped onto a quilt-like geometric template. This is confounded by the slight shadow created by the ridge of each seam. The screenprinting process further extends the illusion, as the paint sits on the surface of the paper—it doesn’t bleed in. As a result, layers of ink refract light differently than others layers, and a subtle visual disruption occurs in the pattern.

So what does all this add up to? Artworks that resist being seen simply as what they are. A practice that has so many references to textiles, but never actually is a textile. It remains art. It remains “painting,” despite often not looking as such. What can happen when we consider such an everyday item such as printed cotton, or a tea towel, in the context of art, without letting it function as utilitarian design? These works don’t do the things cloth is supposed to do (clothe, warm, protect, absorb, adorn, etc.). They do what painting is supposed to do: it prompts us to look carefully, slowly even, and fully consider what we do or do not see.

The gift-shopification of Louise Bourgeois’ fabric collages comes to mind as a foil, and illustrates the rationale of considering artworks as thin (3D), rather than flat (2D). Bourgeois’ fabric collages have similar formal qualities to Pierce’s. They seem to be a hybrid of neo-geo painting and quilting. They have also been produced as an unlimited edition of coasters, now available at the MOMA gift shop. In their new status as merchandise, their thin relief as fabric collages has been made flat into a printed image and laminated on to a coaster. Here they become utilitarian design, and our consideration of them as ideas ends abruptly. They are aesthetic, but they lose Bourgeois’ powerful bite. They are like an image of sandpaper, instead of sandpaper.

If we then consider this subtle resistance in Pierce’s new print works—the work is never truly flat—an excitingly simple shift in thinking is made possible. It’s hardly a new idea, but still a satisfying one: art is a very good place to think about ideas that are not art, because art too (even painting, even printmaking) is of the world of non-art. It is not a window to elsewhere: it physically exists among us. Both painting and printmaking are thin, not flat. Pierce’s careful and exquisite work shows us this. Delightfully and paradoxically, the portal to the interior of her work is located on the side, not the front.

1 Lee Henderson. A Cloud of Unknowing. Kitchener: Old Mill Books, 2013.

2 Dave Hickey. “Not Knowing Bridget Riley.” Parkett 61 (2001). Thanks James Carl for sharing this with me.

Kelly Jazvac is an artist based in London, Ontario. She also likes to write about art. Her most recent exhibitions include Recent Landscapes at Louis B. James Gallery, New York City (2014); Anthropophotogenic at the University of Waterloo Art Gallery (2014); PARK at Oakville Galleries (2013); Why Painting Now? curated by_vienna (2013); Surface Tension at Oakville Galleries (2013); Impel With Puffs at Diaz Contemporary, Toronto (2013); and More Than Two at The Power Plant, Toronto (2013). Her work has been recently reviewed in The Huffington Post (2014); Magenta Magazine (2014); The New Yorker (2013); Border Crossings (2013); and The Brooklyn Rail (2012). She is represented by Diaz Contemporary, Toronto and Louis B. James Gallery, New York.