Hide and seek: In conversation with Sarah Bechter

A leopard lies on a blood red terrazzo floor—half camouflaged, half on display. It rests midway up a flight of stairs that go nowhere, framed on either side by enveloping pink fleshy curtains. A turquoise hand rail leads the eye directly into the composition like an arrow. Austrian painter Sarah Bechter is fascinated by visual puns and the interplay and tension between things that are on view and hidden. Her paintings have a well-articulated visual language of symbols and motifs that explore and play with this dichotomy and contradiction in different permutations that evolve across works. In another painting the leopard has become a leopard skin rug, sprawled across the terrazzo, the spots of its hide dissolving into the mottled surface. In other works the terrazzo has evolved into slices of salami, and then in Untitled (getting chummy with interior), the red and white have become the stripes of a sleeve while the leopard has bleached to a pale white and begun to fade gently into the background pattern of the wallpaper.

The evolving visual vocabulary in Sarah’s work corresponds to her deep interest in the act of painting and how this plays out in relation to surface materiality. Her compositions toy with the notion of what is inside vs what is outside, and with looking and being seen. Her preoccupation with the permeability of surfaces and boundaries finds material expression through her process of applying and erasing layers of paint, and recently, experimenting with soft painted sculptural forms that extend outside of the picture frame. These painterly actions and motifs—skin and curtains in her more recent work, and the shimmering surface of a swimming pool in earlier works (and a logical precursor to terrazzo)—erode the distinction between the painting as an object and a self-referential subject. Sarah explains, “in some of my works the actual motive is the painting showing itself: The motive is the painting showing that its existence is about showing (or hiding) something.”

While the pandemic has waylaid some of Sarah’s plans, she has remained busy and channelled the uncertainty of this year into constructive projects. We spoke with her about life in Austria, finding the right balance between fussy and loose brushstrokes and the perennial symbols that feature in her work.

photo by Sophia Mairer

AMM: Hi Sarah! To start us off please tell us a little about yourself and how you grew up. Did this in any way influence your decision to become an artist?

SB: I am from the very west of Austria (Vorarlberg) and consider myself lucky to have had a rather boring and unspectacular childhood. I grew up in a little village in the countryside and from the back of my parents’ house our garden would just segue into a huge meadow. There was lots of space and one’s view could go really far. Besides we didn’t have a garden fence or anything to mark our property or stop us from just running into the meadow. I sometimes wonder whether I would be different, if I had not had this freedom. Despite the rural setting, the region has a long and rich tradition in crafts and is also well-known for its innovative architecture. There is a general appreciation for design and art, even from people who are very removed from a contemporary discourse.

I am the second of three children and my parents were kind of busy. I always had the feeling that they trusted in what I was doing and they did not make a big deal out of anything I did (neither in a positive nor in a negative way). I think this gave me self-responsibility and trust. The fact that I wasn’t checked on constantly left me with a very basic feeling of consciousness in my activities and myself. I guess this taught me something very useful for my job as an artist: doing my thing regardless of the attention I get and without being too dependent on praise (or at least most of the time, ha ha). I think it’s a good tool for making art.

I’ve always loved drawing, painting and creating something in general. And after attending a high school with a focus on art I decided to study painting. I was really lucky that my parents always supported this decision. Again, they did not worry about me or how I would make a living out of it (…), I guess they—usually—just thought I would figure it out. My mother was particularly happy, as she always wanted to study art herself but was not able to do so. Nevertheless she was painting at home and I sometimes joined her. I’ve always been fascinated by the colours and painting devices and found them very beautiful. Interestingly, my great grandmother studied at my university (University of Applied Arts Vienna) back in the 30s. She was into fabric design and sometimes I have fun thinking about this when painting curtains or patterns.

PPP (post presentation painting), oil on canvas, 45 x 30 cm

AMM: How has your art changed and evolved over the years?

SB: I think my work changed a lot in the past years, but in a way that feels totally natural to me. Rather than big steps I move forward slowly. One work follows another and reacts somehow to previous ones. Changes happen over many paintings. I sometimes know a certain point I want to achieve, but I can’t just jump there. I need to approach it slowly through a couple of paintings in between. A bit like beating around the bush for some time until you get to the point. But then the beating around would be the paintings and the bush has to be redefined as soon as you reach it. Or shifted slightly to generate new painting questions and keep things interesting. Nevertheless, there are aspects which have always played some kind of role in my works, such as some sort of narration or fiction, considering viewers and hinting at things, humour, an interest in conditions of art production and an odd way of dealing with space and distance or looking at ordinary stuff and situations in an abstract way.

AMM: Who or what have been some of the important mentors, learnings or experiences that have shaped you and your work?

SB: I guess there is no one in particular or vice versa many people. I think my art teacher in high school was important with his deep interest and enthusiasm for art. My mother too, who has a very curious mind and is always enthusiastic about learning something new. This is something I admire in general—people who have the capacity for enthusiasm for something and devote themselves to it. Thanks to our constant exchange and discourse many of my friends, who are artists too, also shaped my work. And university of course. I am very lucky to be able to share and verify thoughts, doubts, problems, working struggles but also achievements with people who are on the same page.

‘Untitled (jar of nerves)’ oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm

AMM: In your paintings over the years there’s been an evolution of motifs from swimming pools to rugs and animal skins to curtains. Each of these visual metaphors is a kind of divide or skin. Can you tell us more about these and how they are connected, blur and evolve into each other?

SB: Discovering this similarity is already a good thought. It has to do with distance I guess. I like to use objects or space in a way which invites viewers in while simultaneously keeping them at a distance (whatever that means exactly). Moreover these symbolically charged objects are all ambivalent and somehow very much connected to the ambivalences I come across in producing art. They are able to tease the illusion of several levels or space in painting (such as the bottom of a pool or the floor under a rug). I come up with these metaphors from a content-related interest and then mostly develop them formally. One thing reminds me of another and then I work with this association, e.g. a leopard skin developing from an exaggerated reflexion on the water in a pool which later turns into terrazzo floor tiles, then salami etc.

AMM: Your visual language includes sensual and mysterious symbols like cats, curtains and gloves. Have you always been interested in symbolism and using visual metaphor in your work? Please tell us about developing this symbolic language.

SB: I just really like to show something which could mean something else or more, rather than just representing itself. I love to hint at things through creating a certain ambience. As mentioned above, I develop my vocabulary formally but it is rooted in a subject interest. The leopard (and later cat) developed logically from a terrazzo floor. This pretentious object, something like a trophy, lies (or rather flies) on a similarly patterned floor. It blurs and is camouflaged in the interior. Showing off and hiding at the same time. Just as a curtain always implies both revealing or concealing. In some of my works the actual motive is the painting showing itself. The motive is the painting showing that its existence is about showing (or hiding) something. This has much to do with the painting being active and a kind of subject. Gloves are a second skin for hands and become active and three-dimensional as a part of the body. A curtain becomes more three dimensional and a kind of a body when revealed. Gloves bear a potential for activity…

‘Untitled (the unloved painting)’, oil on canvas, 170×150 cm

AMM: Let’s talk about hands and eyes—what do these represent in your recent work?

SB: Producing art (and especially painting) is largely about a subjective or a supposedly subjective moment. I am interested in this aspect, where to find it and to work with it. Or to simulate such a thing—treating paintings like subjects, giving them eyes and hands isn’t so far to seek. They are active and react to my touch (or the touch of the brush) and I have to react on them and their moods and needs. The eyes are catching the look of a viewer just in the moment one looks at the painting. They make the act of looking at them a subject of discussion by looking back. Hands have the capability of action, as well as a self-reference. They are the hands of the painting, the motive and the hands of the painter.

AMM: In a few recent works you’ve moved beyond a stretched canvas and onto soft sculptural forms. Is this an entirely new direction for you? What possibilities does this experimentation bring to your painting?

SB: It’s paintings expanding their body to space. Some works adapt to the space and their hanging in varying ways. Depending on the installation works can claim a whole wall as a part of their body, as is the case for Untitled (Hi!). Going three-dimensional is quite new to me, even though I have sometimes built benches or a stand in past exhibitions. But these elements were rather meant as a display in support of the paintings. But this is a different approach which has developed. It used to be quite challenging for me to work through something so seemingly out of context, but I’ve learned to accept and try to follow this process and treat these works as a kind of excursion—which you just do for the sake of it or to get some refreshment and change of perspective.

“Untitled (somebody with an artichoke)’, oil on canvas

AMM: What ideas and concepts are you currently exploring in your work?

SB: Subject(ive), object(ive) and fiction in my work. First person and Souffleuses (prompt). Ambience, colour, temperature. Gesture and working traces. Power and decisiveness in lightness and fragility (formal). Festivity in lightness and fragility. Painting a figure in my preferably least figurative way. Thinking of a figure in possibly the most disembodied way. Thinking of a figure as architecture, a device. Thinking of a figure as a body made out of paint and colour. Fortunately, lots to do..!

AMM: Give us a peek inside your studio: What’s your process of working? Do you start with sketches and colour tests, planning everything out, or just dive in and allow paintings to evolve organically?

SB: I don’t do sketches or plan stuff out. I’ve got a little notebook and many loose sheets for writing down ideas or objects and situations I am interested in. This has very little to do with a nice sketch book and is just some descriptive words to remember my thoughts. At the same time, I read a lot and I collect words and phrases which I like or which are important to me. This is more about the aesthetics of the words, the images they create, the associations they open up—words more in the sense of material and material properties than a means for creating a clear sentence. A bit like in my paintings, which are less concerned with particular content or clear message, and more about the language, the tone of the voice, the atmosphere, the way this thing is talked (painted) about. As mentioned before my paintings are formally and content-wise connected to each other. So, starting a new painting I react on some aspect of the previous one(s): Searching for an answer for some kind of question which occurred, reworking some weakness, exaggerating some moment or making fun of it, quoting or referencing something etc. The main source (among others) for working lies in my own work. This allows me to generate interests within and therefore tasks and reasons to continue working. As an effect the paintings communicate among themselves: a confusing, complicated debate about colour, temperature, surface, brushstroke, gesture, composition, format—so their existence is painting. I often think, I would be better off with sketches, as I always end up cleaning and overworking lots of stuff and working traces. That’s why the act of painting is literally very much connected to cleaning and reducing for me. Simultaneously I know that this is the fun part about it, just starting and trying to figure things out on the canvas. Trying to find a solution on the canvas.

‘Untitled (festive blush)’, oil on canvas, 70 x 55 cm

AMM: Do you have any daily habits or rituals that feed you creatively?

SB: Not really. I really like to think of my work as an ordinary job, so I try to work against some romanticised artist fantasy. This also helps to take stuff seriously and free it from an activity which you just follow when you feel like it. It helps to accept the days when you really don’t want to paint or occupy yourself with your work. It is a tricky thing if you don’t feel like doing the thing you like most—while always knowing that this is a total luxury—especially if you have another job too. Seeing it as a job—with all the joy and toil this includes—helps.

I’ve got quite a strict schedule of being in the studio from morning till evening— working in different ways. I have to create my own tasks and complete them as well. I am employer and employee in one and like to prevent myself from daily internal discussions about working hours with a clear schedule. The only daily habit is my commute to the studio. For me it is essential that my private and working space are separated. I enjoy having my studio a bit further and I mostly go there by bike. On my way I already think about how to start, what to do and how to deal with the painting I am working on. It is a casual way to get into the day. Besides this I read a lot, check out exhibitions regularly and try to stay active in contemporary discourse. This and discussions and exchange about painting and art in general, as well as studio visits are very important and stimulating.

AMM: You play with negative space and perspective to interesting effect. Please tell us more about this aspect of your compositions.

SB: As mentioned previously, this has to do with pulling in while keeping out, to creating a certain distance. I like to think about objects and space in an abstract way. Thinking about their form and caring very much about their surfaces they often become independent. I think there is a certain humour in my works which is generated through an odd treatment of line and surface—flirting frivolously with perspective and space.

AMM: In what ways does your art relate to your own emotional or psychological state of being?

SB: I’ve been occupying myself quite a lot with this and the old refrain of painting being very subjective. This relates to my interest in the subject/object topic. It’s a ubiquitous question; to what extent you exhibit yourself, when exhibiting works. I like to work with this and reflect on the notion of fiction. Being a painter I have the possibility to simulate a direct connection to my work and my emotional state with certain use of materials. Nevertheless, my paintings are naturally connected to my psychological state, but not necessarily in terms of some obvious narrative. Often my most personal works turn out to be the most powerful—for outsiders too. I think this has got to do with some kind of honesty and really meaning something. It’s something
I learned in painting—it’s obvious if somebody really means it, no matter whether you understand it exactly.

‘Untitled (getting chummy with interior)’, oil on canvas, 60 x 51 cm

AMM: Surveying your work over the past few years two colour palettes stand out: blue and pink. While the gendered connotations of these shades don’t seem to have a direct bearing on the subject matter, it would be interesting to learn more about your approach to colour in your work.

SB: It’s funny that you start your question with a gender related thought. Being an artist, you always come across this theme— when your work gets judged in some gender-connected categories or people imagine your gender as obvious in your work. I’m not working with this directly but I guess it plays a role, as it is a subject I’m dealing with and reflecting on in everyday life on a daily base. Furthermore, it is really important to me. In older works I’ve been eager to have some kind of sober, austere atmosphere. Cold, chalky colours seemed appropriate for the mood I wanted to create. In my recent works I move away from this and allow myself to celebrate colours with more subtlety. I used to be afraid of being too “decorative” or “sensual” in my painting—adjectives with a feminine connotation. I am well aware of the supposed difference between me and fellow male colleagues painting decorative patterns. Yet I can’t deny my love of painting them sometimes and being “pretty” in a painterly manner. So, I try to work with this and make it my own and overcome these stereotypes in a productive manner. Colour is really important and a very physical, perceptible and sensual thing. I use it to give a general impression or hint. It has and creates a certain temperature, light, time. There are colours which seem to have an urgency, while others are more silent. Different colours have different weights and saturations etc.

AMM: The hand and arm motifs draw attention to the gestural quality of the brushstrokes and pigment in your paintings. What is your relationship with surface and materiality of painting?

SB: I really like to have lots of layers but I am keen on thin surfaces. I sometimes use pigments in a transparent grounding, to save one layer of paint but still have a colour underneath. Similarly when I just use transparent grounding—I already count the colour of the canvas as a first layer. I think one of the most pleasant and exciting things about painting is to combine layers of different colours and get a result which is not always predictable. It feels a bit like creating and solving a puzzle at the same time. So, it is very much about trying to bring these two formal preferences together: many layers but thin colour surfaces. It’s a lot about applying colour and then wiping loads away again, rubbing the colour into the canvas or the layer underneath. Like merging the different layers together, trying to make them one homogenous layer while still showing the accumulation of layers. I also try to treat things differently in a painterly manner—some parts are worked out rather precisely, while others are painted more roughly or loosely. I come across different painting problems and try to work with them, such as how to paint a big surface, where nothing seems to happen, in an interesting way etc. In my recent works I have been thinking quite a lot about gesture and gestural painting and I want to be precise when working with this. It is a very charged topic. I want my gesture to be rather festive as opposed to aggressive; nonchalant instead of forced and loud.

AMM: What are the hardest things for you to get ‘right’ in your art?

SB: Currently, my challenge is keeping a formal balance between power and decisiveness and lightness and fragility in painting. I often work on parts for a long time till I am satisfied and it’s a very fine line not to end up in some forced and uptight space. Concerning working process, it is doubts and a healthy way to cope with them. On one hand I have to fight them to be able to continue working, while at the same time I have to cultivate them, knowing they are a precious and important aspect of developing my work and thoughts.

‘Untitled (Hi!)’, oil on canvas, 45 x 30 cm, dimensions varying

AMM: Has the pandemic had an effect on your wellbeing? Have the unprecedented experiences of this year influenced your art at all?

SB: Sure! Being your own employer is sometimes tough and can lead to some dramatic questions about whether what I’m doing actually makes sense. In my work I don’t have a job in a conventional sense, but any project I look forward to and work on is a kind of job. There are very few each year but they are of great relevance for my motivation and drive. So, when my residency and my solo show got postponed to some indefinite future date, I found myself confronted with this question in a new dimension. I had a very tough time finding a reason to paint so I tricked myself and worked on a portfolio, website and all the stuff I always postpone. I felt very good and productive about getting these unpopular tasks done and it helped me to get back into painting quite fast. I think that being an artist one is already kind of used to being thrown back on one’s own devices. The capacity to be able to be self-sufficient is an advantage in any situation of crisis.

AMM: You were supposed to go on a residency in New York this year. What were you looking forward to from that experience?

SB: Luckily the residency programme is flexible so I’m still supposed to go there for a month as soon as it’s possible again. I was engaging with Florine Stettheimer’s work and her social life and the salons she held in the 20s in NY. I’m fascinated by her and her network. I am going to rent a flat with a studio and work on my paintings for the time of the residency. Simultaneously I will check out exhibitions and meet people. At the end of my residency I will host a salon and show my works in a studio exhibition. It’s a conceptual work juxtaposing the physical paintings to the network or social context.

AMM: What is the Austrian contemporary art scene like? Do you feel at home in it?

SB: Yes, I do feel at home. Vienna has quite an active art scene, maybe because of the two art universities. I consider myself very lucky to be surrounded by a great and active art scene with so many off spaces. Many of my closest friends are artists and many of them painters too. It is such a luxury to be able to exchange thoughts, problems, input and so on with people who understand. Still, Vienna is not very big so every now and then it gets a little cosy and I feel like getting some air—for example in NY.

AMM: Do you have any new projects coming up? What’s next for you?

SB: Im currently working on my upcoming solo show in October. It’s in a very peculiar and beautiful off-space in Vienna, called Pilot. Besides this I will be showing some works in a group show at Haus Wien and Kunstverein Schattendorf in autumn, as well as at Kunsthalle St. Gallen, which I am also really excited about. And I have another duo show with an artist friend later this year at Edition Doppelpunkt, an artist run Space in Linz. It’s a collaboration I am looking forward to very much as well.

Find out more about the artist: www.sarahbechter.at

Interview by Layla Leiman for ArtMaze Magazine.

‘Untitled (pompous posturing)’, oil on canvas, 60 x 50 cm

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