Los Angeles

Sarah Cain, so there, it’s air, 2012, mixed media. Installation view.

Sarah Cain, so there, it’s air, 2012, mixed media. Installation view.

Sarah Cain

Honor Fraser

Sarah Cain, so there, it’s air, 2012, mixed media. Installation view.

The main event of “Freedom Is a Prime Number,” Sarah Cain’s first solo exhibition in Los Angeles, was a room-scale installation titled so there, it’s air (all works 2012). While the piece involved an enveloping spread of paint and canvases (not necessarily conjoined) that spilled onto the floor, a twosome of dollar bills ($ thirty five and $ forty three) flanking the gallery’s entryway offered viewers a key for reading what lay beyond. Cain’s riotous additions of color and shimmering planes covered the cash so totally that only the minutest sections were left bare. These details matter. The still-visible “Eye of Providence” morphs into ocular shapes and a wonky pattern of circles as the famous unfinished pyramid (its thirteen steps corresponding to the original states; its partial architecture anticipating the inclusion of others) lends itself to an array of triangular elements. Thus do these works hinge on the currency’s latent iconography as a precursor to form, a repeating mode of drawing in which a support generates the contours of the pattern that encompasses it.

However, in Cain’s own words, her project is to be understood as “painting via sculptural ideas.” Further, she proposes that her works are “spirited.” And given her use of an old Masonic lodge in Marfa, Texas (for a fall 2011 project with the Los Angeles Nomadic Division), and her previous efforts, whose titles betray a gnomic new ageyness (“California Does Psychic,” 2010, at Sara Meltzer Gallery in New York; “I Believe We Are Believers,” 2006, at Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco), one is left to wonder whether the symbolism of preternatural agency might in fact matter for reasons other than the procedural. Indeed it takes no great leap to find in Cain’s canvases suggestions of abstraction gone mystical: Consider her often mazelike compositional organization and the frequent representational doubling of her forms as frames and portals, or how she often adorns her canvases with feathers or oversize necklaces as though strings of prayer beads. Cain’s interest might lie in the transcendence of materiality, but she nevertheless redoubles her claims for the presentness of things and our relationship to them in the here and now. This tension animated so there, it’s air, with the installation’s floor-bound portion inviting approach to wall-bound passages of gestural painting only to be interrupted by giant X’s and a stretcher facing the wall, even while a halo and concentric band of rectangular lines illusionistically promised the opposite. Meanwhile, a lone palm frond cast real shadows on the floor, as did a white gallery bench and a small rock lying beside it. Both the rock and the palm had been embellished with decorative surface imagery, making explicit that everything in the room—and even the designated “paintings” themselves—could be taken as “objects, painted,” before all else.

In adjacent rooms, eight additional canvases hung on the walls in a more conventional fashion. Yet, collaged with sticks and bows (Mister), appended with hidden Velcro (yoni wolf and Abandon), festooned with saccharine heart-patterned shoelaces (crying in public), trimmed with plastic bags (carnival cruise), or just painted (the exes), these freestanding works similarly declared a state of transubstantiation unfulfilled. Some of Cain’s materials were particularly evocative in this regard: For example, glitter, as implemented in Abandon Everything Again, summoned the feats of illusionism—the reflection of the world as manufactured representation—without ultimately affording its gifts of deep space. Instead—and here is where the charge for the paintings being spirited might begin to take hold—Cain, in draping pendants from her vertically oriented, human-scale frames, conjured a kind of anthropomorphism if not outright animism. Following the statement “These paintings are spirited,” she baits: “Interpret that however you want.”

Suzanne Hudson