Sarah Bechter

Sarah Bechter

Interview by Millie Anderson 


Millie Anderson : In your exhibition proposal, your paintings are on foldable screens which stand within the space. Why did you decide to do this, particularly in relation to what you termed a ‘geography of doubt?

Exhibition view `Komisch’ Wetter Zwei`, 2021, Kunstverein Schattendorf, curated by Siggi Hofer, Photograph © Michael Strasser. Untitled (Lassie) 60×51 cm oil on canvas 2020 Untitled (baroque lassitude) 170×150 cm oil on canvas 2020

Sarah Bechter: I am a painter; I am always painting and everything I do refers to painting. But with this I started to take my paintings into the space so that, by emancipating themselves from the two-dimensionality of the wall, they become more somatic. By presenting themselves as more sculptural, the less painting (and motive) is visible – and vice versa. They reveal various parts of their motive from different angles. In space, they explore the limits of the medium through the differentiated showing and hiding of painting and motive. With there being a front and back it creates an empty space of expectation, a stage and auditorium.

This is something I am very interested in within my general practice: showing and hiding. I think this is important in art more generally; to know what to hide and what to present. By using screens, I am giving my paintings the capacity to regulate how much they show of themselves, and simultaneously point to the fact that they are in, and moreover are about, the act of showing. I find that very interesting.

I also enjoy working in different spaces, and I really like space52, which is kind of a white cube, but still has that industrial feeling – it reminds me of a garage. Yet, it still has this classic gallery floor as well as some irritations. When I do an exhibition, I like to admit the characteristics of the space. I find it interesting to look at a space and its odd features and work with them, to recognize them rather than ignore them.

Depending on the perspective or installation, the screens can take on different forms and emulate the architecture of different rooms with their ability to fold in convex and/or concave movements: embracing pillars or doubling architectural features. They can fold and cover something, and through covering they can emphasize certain things as well. That is also something I like to think about which plays a role in my paintings: thinking about a presence through a certain absence, (paradoxically?) hinting at something through absence.

MA: Along those lines – how might you hope that exhibiting in artist run space rather than a gallery might be more freeing than in an institution?

SB: I like exhibiting in both, but I really like artist-run spaces because they support experimental situations and I feel that these spaces are somehow often more concerned about questions than with prepared answers. And my work tends to be motivated by questions rather than answers. Just as I think doubt and intuition are precious tools for moving forward. Of course, I like to exhibit in institutions and galleries, and I wouldn’t want to miss out on that, but as soon as there are commercial opportunities involved, I feel it is often about serving something, serving certain answers. I am very sensitive towards these things; I like to think about it a lot.

MA: By making your paintings subjects you uproot the usual dynamic of viewer/work. Is the aim to allow your viewers to go through a sort of self-questioning?

SB: Yes, that’s always been something I’m interested in. It starts with a certain treatment of perspective, space, room in my paintings. I think I create a space where I simultaneously pull the beholders in but also keep them at a certain distance, whatever that means. This has always been an interest in my practice. With the screen this becomes more concrete; it opens the question of front and back, public and private, and its representation.

By placing the screen paintings like spectators at the corners of a room, a big part of the space remains empty. Through this the works activate the empty space in between, like charging a physical field. The works open up a space of expectation between themselves, in which beholders become involved within the field of attention themselves. This adjustment of viewers produces a change of the narrative along with it. A geography of doubt; an ever-changing situation due to the constantly changing visitors, new dynamics, constellations, structures and relationships in between the works and beholders.

In a way, the paintings are the spectators who observe and host the whole thing. The works are adaptable subjects who can fluidly respond to situations of change and upheavals, while simultaneously questioning their own form.

You see, I really like to think about my paintings as active and not just as passive material. Painterly subjects rather than just objects. By treating them as subjects, I try to react to their moods and needs, just as they react directly on mine, my touch, and my gestures. They are responding and I think they are demanding.

In my exhibition proposal I aim to gather the spectators around the work itself and turn the focus on them – the works looking back at the beholders. The less a beholder insists on a stiff point of view him/herself though, the more he or she gets to see from the painting.

MA: Do you put the onus on the beholder as opposed to the producer?

Untitled (somebody and somebody else)
170×150 cm, oil on canvas, 2021

SB: Yes, and no. It’s not always recognizing who plays what part. When looking at works you always bring subjective glasses to read them – I recognize that and want to give some space for that. I paint the paintings and they are of course subjective and personal but also once they are exhibited, they circulate in juxtaposition to different subjects.

I want to think about my paintings not as a particular sentence or statement but to do more with how that statement is pronounced, how the tone of voice is, or the rhythm and speed of the single words are. I think they hold a certain melancholy but also a humor, which help to connect to them. I don’t want to create a certain fact or statement, rather I want to cultivate a certain level of vagueness which creates more narratives of feeling and looking. It’s more subjective, of myself as producer of the paintings, but then also yourself, doing the looking at the paintings. Who is bringing which part of the narrative, or who is reading what? And here it comes back to this geography of doubt – it is always important to acknowledge who is reading or writing about a certain situation or narrative. And therefore, it is often worth to doubt.

MA: The screens certainly place the geography of the space into doubt, as was your intention. Along this vein, how important is it for you as an artist to question the architecture? 

SB: I think it’s important to recognize the space, to try to work with it, to question it, to point at it and say, ‘I am aware the situation is like this – I recognize the space is like this and I don’t just pretend otherwise.’

Also, through this one can guide visitors and beholders. You can suggest a certain way of moving in a space – the works again become demanding, asking something from the viewer other than just surface projection – asking some questions back.

MA: Who or what are your influences/who do you look to?

SB: So many things! I read a lot, I really like reading and I also love poetry. Someone I discovered recently was Mina Loy – who was a painter, a lamp designer and surrealist writer/poet. I am a big fan and it is so much fun to check out her work. As well as Leonora Carrington, whom I adore. And I really love Florine Stettheimer– she celebrates things and is not afraid of some pompous and decorative moment, I really embrace it and I really love that about her. But I’m also very lucky to have good friends who are such talented artists, and we try to do studio visits and keep up a conversation.