SARAH ALICE MORAN
SARAH ALICE MORAN
The New York City native on her love of German Expressionist film and the power of duality.
You've mentioned that certain works (by artists like Carvaggio and Hilma af Klint) that depict reflections and doubled imagery have inspired your own practice. When did you first feel drawn to those kinds of images? And what about the concept remains relevant and interesting for you to play with now?
I did a combined major of Art History and Fine Art at Bowdoin College, so art history has always played an important role in my research. Recently, as you mentioned, I have specifically been looking at Caravaggio’s Narcissus (1599) and af Klint’s The Swan No.1 (1915). These two paintings, made three hundred years apart from each other, are so different stylistically and yet similar formally; in both compositions, the canvas is divided in half at the center horizon line and the reflection of the center figure creates a circular form.
For me, this idea of reflection alludes to reaching through to the unknown, communicating through the veil or even just being able to recognize the dualities within ourselves. I'm interested in how creating shapes and dividing the canvas geometrically can create relationships within the paintings that are both psychological and spiritual.
Metamorphosis and the transfiguration of people and animals appear throughout your work. Were those themes that appeared early on for you, or did they gel over time?
I read The Odyssey when I was in the sixth grade and then Ovid’s Metamorphoses in high school and was completely obsessed. I still am. In these stories or epic poems, people, gods and animals cross back and forth into each other’s forms, magic is real and different worlds exist side by side.
I’ve also been thinking about how women were treated in many of these stories and about monstrous women in general. When are women and other people defined as monsters and who in society gets to decide that?
For example, in the painting I have on Platform, Praying Mantis, the subject has the face (and sneakers!) of a woman. As she is walking, she notices a worm on the ground and flustered, she tries to avoid stepping on it. What does that say about how she sees herself? Our own response might be to find this reaction funny or ironic, which may be more revealing when we consider what that says about us.
You got your first set of tarot cards at a young age and spoke about how tarot can be a great ice breaker in new settings, like residencies. What's one of the best, funniest or most powerful moments of when tarot helped you connect with someone else?
Tarot is often referred to as the sacred mirror–which again ties into our discussion of reflections. What interests me most about tarot is that it mediates reality, offering a lens through which we can glimpse the truth of a situation. The experience of reading tarot is very much like making a painting. Tarot suggests pictographic corollaries to your mental state, your relationships, or your situation. When I make a painting, it is a visual expression of something that I cannot see in real life but at the same time feels very real on an emotional or physiological, or even mystical level. And by making a painting of it, I can see it and sit with it, be in the world of my painting and my mind.
Also, my readings are confidential so I can’t relay any specific stories. But I can say that when I was a resident at the Anderson Ranch Art Center, I may have known who everyone had crushes on . . . but I’ll never tell!
There's a beautiful book on the sculpture of Paul Manship on your work table and you mentioned how you unknowingly absorbed so much of his work given that so many examples are located around New York City, where you grew up. Other than its familiarity, what do you think drew and continues to draw you to his work?
Yes, I’ve been doing a deep dive into the work of Paul Manship, whose best-known sculpture in New York City is the Prometheus statue above Rockefeller Center. He also designed the gates to the Children’s Zoo in Central Park, and a group of bears I used to climb on near a playground on 79th St., among others. I’ve always been drawn to them for a few reasons. First, Manship often used Greek and Roman mythological stories or animals as his subjects–clearly subjects that are close to my heart. Second, the way he articulates the forms are both simplified and yet incredibly specific–which is something I think about a lot in my work. What details do I need and what can I leave out? Third, the movement of his forms is incredibly lyrical, and by that, I mean they feel fluid, in motion and elegant. And finally, I admire that he gave as much gravitas to three playful bears meant for children to climb on as he did to Prometheus, god of fire, residing over Rockefeller Center.
You love German Expressionist movies. What do you enjoy most about the genre? And what are some of your favorite films in that category while we're at it?
As a painter, I’m a visual person, and with silent films so much attention is paid to the details of the visual without dialogue. The German Expressionist films in particular have these incredible hand-built sets. In The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the sets look like a mix between a haunted house, a high school play, and a Kirchner painting. I also love the exaggerated gestures of the actors as they try to communicate without words. As someone who paints people, I’m always studying how body movements convey messages.
In Murnau’s Sunrise, there is a scene where they laid two strips of film on top of each other to create a double image that evoked inner turmoil about a decision. Because there were so few tools available at the time these films were made, they created these incredible poetic visual inventions. And I can bring those back to my practice: with my simple visual tools, how can I do something different, something poetic? I also recently watched Pandora’s Box starring Louise Brooks who is my new obsession. It was glamorous and haunting and sad.
Your dog Pepper came to you when you felt you were really coming into your own power as a painter (and she appears in some of your works). How do you feel your work changed or evolved around the time she entered your life, and how does Pepper remain a source of inspiration for you?
I think of Pepper as my witch’s familiar. A familiar usually comes to a witch when they are coming into their own powers. Pepper came to me five years ago when I felt a huge shift in my painting. Before then I had been working in oil paint in a more traditional way. At that point, I was able to deconstruct what about that process was not working for me and what I wanted to keep and from that I stripped away all the elements of painting that were barriers to the making.
My paintings are most interesting to me when I can work intuitively and quickly, allowing my mind to make decisions about form and color from a place of deep confidence. To get to this place, I put away the oil paint which was slow to dry and needed too much preparation to even begin the process of painting. Instead, I began to use thinned-out acrylic on unprimed canvas. I loved the layering effect of oil paint, and I found that I could capture that with layers of acrylic to create colors and depth that would reflect light from within. With acrylic, I do not have to wait long for layers to dry before I paint over them, so the images and ideas can stay very fresh. The paintings became alive, and I knew that this method was what I was looking for.
Pepper herself, a cattle dog mutt, comes with me to the studio every day. She sneaks into many of the paintings as my companion here on earth and as I travel through the worlds I create in paint. She also reminds me to go for walks.