Though known primarily for her hyperrealistic work, young artist Sasha Gordon’s recent paintings are perhaps her most compelling. Gordon’s newest paintings are heavily steeped in issues of identity, and her embrace of varying degrees of abstraction creates visually stunning and compositionally nuanced pieces. We spoke to Gordon about abstraction, her artistic heroes, and what keeps her hopeful about painting in a world that seems to be turning increasingly digital.
The style of your recent paintings seems to have shifted away from your earlier, more hyperrealist work—can you explain how you came about this change in style?
When I painted hyper-realistically, I was intrigued by the human face; all the details such as the pores, small hairs, and other features that make a person’s face so distinct. I really enjoyed this style, but when I started RISD, I started learning that there other methods of painting that are just as beautiful and refined as hyperrealistic painting. I began thinking more conceptually and realized that not only do I want to show my skill through my work, but my ideas, thoughts, and experiences. I realized that I didn’t have to paint realistically to portray my ideas, that there is a variety of techniques and methods that I could utilize to get my message across, just as successfully as hyperrealism.
I love your paintings “Javier” and “Jeff”—can you explain why you chose to leave large parts of the canvas unpainted?
My drawing teacher freshman year was really frustrated with me because every week I would show up with fully completed, semi-realistic portrait paintings. I was making these paintings more painterly than before, with broader brush strokes and thicker paint, but my teacher thought I wasn’t challenging myself enough. From my perspective, I thought I was stepping out of my comfort zone because this was much less refined than my usual work. I thought I was loosening up my work, but my teacher expected a much more dramatic change in my paintings. I was extremely irritated with myself and my teacher’s opinions, but I benefited from this frustration; I started honing in on certain details of the face that intrigued me, and by leaving most of the canvas blank, it created a flow and a sense of movement. Before, I was so focused on filling the whole canvas, but what’s also significant is the negative space’s impact.
You’ve written about Liu Wei being an inspiration of yours—in what ways has he inspired you as an artist?
I’ve found it hard to relate to an artist and their artwork because many of the artists I learned about when I was younger were white, and their subject matter was white as well. It was discouraging that the only artists that I was exposed to and knew were people that I couldn’t completely connect with. When I became interested in work that was figurative and had a narrative I started doing my own research and I found a selection of POC artists, such as Lie Wei. His composition and narrative resonated with me because I’ve rarely seen East Asian people being represented in a painting as the main subject. It was so empowering and cleansing to see a work of art that has a different subject with a different experience. Liu Wei inspired me to make paintings of compositions of people that I connect with racially and emotionally.
Who are some other artists that have had a big impact on you?
I’m obsessed with Kerry James Marshall, his work never fails to leave me in shock and so deeply inspired. His impeccable technique and care for his work always amaze me, and his powerful content and composition is striking. Each of his paintings tells a story and an experience that I think many people need to observe to gain more insight into the lives of POC. I also love Cheyenne Julien, the characters she uses in her works are so creative, playful and gorgeously executed. Her technique is something that I strive for, like her glazing and textures. I’ve always loved Nicole Eisenman‘s paintings; they’re so rich with figures, colors, and textures. She is one of my favorite female artists, and I think she has created a safer space in the art community for other female contemporary artists. Although Dana Schutz is quite problematic with her piece at the Whitney Biennial, I do think there is a lot to learn from Schutz. She is one of the leading contemporary artists of today, using her knowledge to create cubist, figurative work with a great sense of color. Although I admire her work, she is an example of a white artist I cannot relate to; it was so incredibly wrong of her to tell the story and experience of a black person who she, in no way, shape or form relates to, and the fact that she benefited from this grotesque painting is sickening. It’s very upsetting when I witness injustice in the art community, but in a way, I think it fuels my, and other POC artists’ motivation to get their work to be seen to express our experiences.
I love your painting “I Left The Night The Dummy Crashed The Gordon’s Volvo,” which you said was painted from memory. Can you tell us the story behind the painting?
I have been struggling with anxiety and depression for a few years. I wasn’t diagnosed until recently. I didn’t know what my anxiety was before, I kind of envisioned it as this figure that was always in my presence. In my recent work, I have this figure, sometimes multiple, in a black, latex, plastic suit that represents my anxiety and depression, personifying it. A large part of my anxiety is my fear of death. I’ve had dreams and thoughts of possible ways that I could die, and I thought it would be interesting to see these visions as one of my paintings. Driving makes me extremely nervous, and my mother actually got into a small car crash a week before I started this painting, which triggered this idea. I wanted this painting to represent me letting my anxiety and depression take over me, for I am the figure in the latex suit in this painting. In this piece, I am faking my death, to escape reality. I replaced myself with a “dummy,” and ran away, while my family (the figures on the right of the piece) are left to see my remains. I wanted to portray how difficult it is for my family, especially my mother, to see how my anxiety and depression have hindered me, and how both them and I have no control over it.
The composition of your painting “Peel” is also incredibly complex. What is going on in the piece?
“Peel” has a very similar theme to my other painting, “The Bath”. I grew up in Westchester, New York, which is a really nice community to live in, except I always felt extremely uncomfortable with myself when I compared myself to others. Most people in my community were white; I felt disconnected from everyone, considering that I am an East Asian presenting biracial woman. I didn’t know what side of my identity I associated myself more with. It took me until recently to become comfortable and to own my Asian Identity. Now that I’m older, and in a different location, I’m surrounded more by POC women, and it has been so welcoming and comforting. In these pieces, I wanted to show my comfort with other East Asian women, because we have similar experiences and hardships. Learning that I have value as an Asian woman was hard for me to believe because I was never exposed to any other POC women in person or in the media, but now that I have been surrounded by empowering and strong women of color, it is a fact that POC women should take up space. I’ve also come out recently as bisexual, and I wanted to portray my comfort with women and this suppression of my sexuality that I grew up with. I have also seen a lot of paintings by men of women, and I think the male gaze of women has a completely different intention than the female gaze does.
How has your time at RISD helped shape you as an artist?
RISD has really helped lead me to the style of painting that I want to work in. I’ve never made conceptual work that I truly care about and resonate with until I started college, and it is an amazing feeling to express everything that I want to in a painting. It’s also a great experience to be surrounded by other artists, and bouncing off ideas from each other and gaining skill and techniques from peers. I have a different outlook on art and life in general than I did before and have definitely grown and became more confident as an artist.
In the current, largely digital era, what keeps you hopeful about painting as a medium?
I am sure that painting will remain a powerful medium. Painting has been around for years, and never fails to bring attention, shock, and leave people in awe. I know some artists use digital painting, such as David Hockney’s iPad paintings, but there is nothing like the physical act of painting and seeing a painting in the flesh. You cannot get the full effect of a painting – like observing the textures, colors, and the smell of the paint – from looking at a flat, digital screen. Painting will always be around.
Thank you so much again for talking to us, and what can we expect from you down the road?
You can expect a lot more paintings from me. I’m currently coming up with a lot of new ideas for future work that I’m excited to start working on. I’m going to start painting in different styles and possibly add some hyper-realist aspects to my work because I do miss it. I would also like to experiment with different media such as 3D materials and maybe make some films.
For more from Sasha Gordon head to her website: http://www.sasha-gordon.com/.