Sarah Sands Phillips
Sarah Sands Phillips is a Toronto based artist who explores the materiality of the medium, its limitations and pushing the boundaries of what any given media can be or become. In layman term, Sands Phillips seeks to test the grounds of painting, photography and film by manipulating the rules of set medium. Photographs are rendered down to their most minimalist, purist form; canvases are manipulated with various materials and rigorous processes (such as ripping, tearing, etc) to then create delicate, soft paintings; film is experimented with fragmented shots, layering, and collaging. Her work confronts what these mediums can be as she navigates into the unknown, creating a new sense of feeling, understanding, and viewing art.
ET: Something I have noticed throughout your body of work is the dichotomy between process and outcome. What I mean by this, is, your works are rendered to appear delicate, soft, minimalist – timid in a way, which negates the rigorous process of how these works are created (through sanding, ripping, burning). Can you speak to this dichotomy? Is this intentional? Why create this juxtaposition?
SSP: My work speaks to conditions of time and the body. Evidence of the body is one of the elements I look for in materials and one of the qualities that connects my various series together. I have a process-based practice and work very intuitively. I think a lot about the memory of objects. All of the work I make involves time-sensitive processes, and while the techniques I employ are often rigorous, they are also fragile processes. I am very careful not to disturb the integrity of the materials I use. I have never burned work before, but it is an idea in the back of my mind. I have always loved Yves Klein’s fire paintings, for being both beautiful and hilarious. My paintings on panel are made very traditionally, usually with oil paint on treated linen. Their subject matter ties them to my other work, addressing time and touch without disturbing the strength of the surface. I make sculptures, collages, photographs, and films from degraded materials that inevitably look and behave like paintings insofar as they contain many of the same compositional rules and techniques. Often I’ll attach certain sets of constraints to different series - I don’t select just any material, or any single gesture. I’m interested in taking what is recognizable, given, or understood, and attempt to reveal what is beneath it, breaking it down, dissolving it into the intangible, into poetry. The physical transformation of materials, as action and/or content, becomes one way that I’m able to speak to this.
ET: Correct me if I am wrong, but your work tends to be heavily influenced by Canadian landscape and histories. Do you find a sense of inspiration from this? If so, why?
SSP: I was having a conversation about this with someone the other day, on how the land seems embedded in the Canadian psyche. While I don’t set out to create landscapes in any way, I can’t deny the influence. One body of work that directly connects with this idea of the land is my ongoing Photographs of Canada series. They are photographs I find from books on the Canadian landscape that I carefully sand into abstraction. Despite their title, while they begin as landscapes, that is not how I see them upon completion. I started making them during a time in my life when I was thinking a lot about identity and I honestly felt disillusioned by what it meant to be Canadian. I can’t say that is what the series continues to represent, but that was its beginning. At the time, the act of erasure felt reparative, and was revealing something more real to me than these images of farmhouses, mountains and plains. While one goal of my work is to obscure or eliminate the connections one might make with certain scenes or structures, various reoccurring elements are inevitably read as fields, skies, horizons. I think that is a reflex in the viewer, a lot of my work is empty in a way that makes people uncomfortable, so the instinct is to find something known.
ET: I think one of my favourite works was in It Was There –an exhibition with Benjamin Edelberg. Your piece is called Endings No. 1 (Sail), and is reminiscent of Carolee Schneeman’s experimental films of painting and layering on the reel itself, thus creating a new form of film. What were your intentions on creating this piece of work?
SSP: I studied film theory and production while I was doing my BFA at Queen’s University. In 2014 I found boxes full of a family’s home movies, all 8mm and Super 8mm film. I have a collection of old film equipment…projectors, editors, cameras…so I started watching the footage, cataloging and collaging it. I love 8mm film, it is such a painterly medium, the texture and the depth of the imagery is so insanely beautiful. Endings No. 1 (Sail) was made using the last few seconds of each 8mm reel, which contain small perforations. The perforations are a numbering system and also indicate the end of the reel. Most of these end pieces were thrown away in the editing process, since each reel only contains about three minutes of footage. If a family wanted to have multiple reels spliced together these end pieces would never make it into the final edit. The process for me involved working somewhat blindly, not knowing if scenes were right-side-up or up-side-down. I guess you could say that calculated chance is a repeating factor of my working process. Each fragment was spliced together, digitized, and I animated replicate punctures to the film to obscure the faces of those who appear in it. My intention was to highlight the painterly quality of the medium, to show breaks, blurs, and fractures in each frame, to work more with collage, and to honour these dismissed, very liminal fragments of time. It’s an ongoing piece, I plan on making more in time.
ET: Could you please elaborate on your sugar paintings? They are magnificent in that they have this delicate yet loud minimalist presence and again take on the task of playing with the limitations of the canvas. I am curious is this testing of the canvas more playful or intense in what you are trying to say/do?
SSP: Painting is what I come from, and regardless of what materials or medium I’m working within, everything seems connected to it in some way. A lot of the work I make could easily fall within the field of expanded painting, and I think an essential element of my practice involves working towards its evolving condition. For me, it isn’t just a medium one works within, painting is a way of seeing. Testing the canvas is both a serious and a playful business. The studio is where I get to challenge everything I think I know. The sugar paintings are incredibly fun to make, I love that they are human in their fragility and mutability. They are mysterious in that I often have to modify the processes involved in making them. In many ways they remind me of my youth, summers spent camping, looking for rocks on the beach…winters looking through frosted windows. They were never made with the intention of holding those memories, but the more time I spend with them the more they seem to speak to that period of my life. They were inspired by a series of sculptures I was making by filling hollows of sand with plaster. Spontaneous forms emerged from the sand, and I realized that my paintings could contribute to their own existence in a similar way. That led me to work with sugar, and I modified the process to allow for sugar crystals to grow directly from paintings I had made on raw linen, canvas, and paper. Testing lasted for months, each piece takes weeks to make and is very time consuming.
ET: What’s next for you?
SSP: Up next I’m in a three-person show at Birch Contemporary in July, with Steven Beckly and Martin Bennett. It’s curated by Rebecca Travis and will run July 27 – August 26. Then I’m getting ready for a solo show in November at General Hardware Contemporary, who represent me here in Toronto.