This week, Sirens founder Charlotte Latham caught up with artist Sara Berman (b.1975) in her studio in North London. Having previously worked as a fashion designer and consultant, studying at Central Saint Martins, she founded her eponymous brand in 1998 and worked as a consultant to various fashion and design companies.
Sara completed her MFA at Slade School of Art, UCL in June 2016 where she was awarded a distinction and the Audrey Wykeham prize for painting. Her practice focuses on the themes of design, commerce and identity and she has since exhibited her work worldwide. Her two man show 'Solitaire' with artist Heeseop Yoon, is currently showing at Sapar Contemporary in New York.
Charlotte: Sara, thank you for having me to your studio on this snowy day. I thought I would start by asking you to introduce your work, and what interests you about the themes mentioned in the introduction: design, commerce and identity?
Sara: Firstly, I feel it's important to understand that design and commerce are worlds that I have spent a lot of time in. I initially saw no particular connection between my work as a painter and my previous career in design other than having a keen eye for the social signifiers so embedded within it. However, now that my practice is more established and has slowly moved towards other types of making (i.e not necessarily using paint) I can see that it is a language I am still conversing in - not just on a surface or observational level, but more deeply thinking about making,
manufacturing, place and time. These themes - so central to design and commerce have become the core of my practice.
C: Textiles, both sourced antiques and hand made by you, play an important role in your practice alongside painting. Could you talk a little more about this combination of the found and hand made, and the different mediums you work with?
S: This relates directly to what I was saying about making and manufacturing. I am really fascinated by textiles. Firstly, I have a historical interest - textiles tell stories both in the language or signs used within them (which may relate directly to local lore, biblical stories or even a pictorial language) and also the narrative embedded into them from their largely domestic use over many years. Rugs and tapestries travel the world more efficiently than almost any other art works - or at least used to before the industrial revolution. Aside from this love of textiles themselves, I like making or playing with them as a conscious counterpoint to painting. It is a very different sort of mark-making process, and a very different tempo. This interests me in terms of thinking about time and making.
C: Your works often feature recurring motifs such as chairs and lights, patterns and bodies. What is the significance of the domestic setting in your paintings?
S: I am not sure about the significance of the domestic. My work always deals with aspects of personal space. I am not sure if there is a deeply held political motivation but I doubt it. I am very interested in slippage, the uncanny, the nearly-known and how we can distort these spaces and still know them in a deeply felt way.
The domestic is a space I know well. Not because I am a woman and struggle out from piles of ironing and various other domestic duties to snatch my precious practice from the grasp of family life, but more because I am human and live in a house. That said I do paint people that whilst androgynous do tent to present as female and these women do use their bodies in a domestic setting to distort and play with space. Maybe it isn’t for me to figure that out.
C: The figures in your work are often distorted with colour and pattern, and are positioned awkwardly. How do you decide how the figures will be positioned within the space, and why are they abstracted?
S: Again, this is tricky for me. I do paint awkward figures and whenever they start looking too comfortable I don’t feel the work is doing what I want, so clearly discomfort and awkwardness is integral to the work. In the past I let the figures, sort of, appear but more recently I have been preparing sketches and drawings to help me as the compositions become more challenging. I place a lot of importance on the formal concerns such as colour and composition and use pattern to play with that, give myself problems to solve.
C: How long does it generally take you to make a piece of work from conception and planning to the finished product, and could you talk us through the creative process?
S: It is so hard to say. Generally a painting takes a month or two but I have a few going on at the same time so it might take three or four months to make four or five paintings. My process is becoming tighter in some ways and looser in others. I do lots of sketches and drawing. I used to do this as I went along – taking photos of the painting and then drawing over it with no plan for the work before I start but recently I have started prepping with drawings or collages. This acts more like a jumping point and once I start painting or sewing I still prefer to let the work take charge. My lint works have a very different rhythm having developed over 2 years to where they are now.
C: How has your work developed since your time at the Slade, and which direction do you see it moving in?
S: Slade was incredible for me in terms of locating a visual alphabet of my own. I didn’t expect my work to look like it does, it completely surprised me and only really came together towards the end of the course. As well as the work itself, there is my practice to consider in that I didn’t have one before Slade. I used to paint in my spare time in a corner of my fashion design studio. As we wound the company down and stopped manufacturing more space got freed up and I had more room to paint, but it wasn’t a real studio space. Slade gave me a space to work but it was a space in close proximity to others. It was only on leaving the Slade and getting a studio space of my own that I developed a real practice suited to my way of working, and this has been the single biggest impact on my work. The space and solitude gives me the chance to deep dive (also a luxury I didn’t feel I had at Slade as I wanted to touch on everything like a whirling dervish) and be very experimental.
C: Who (or what) inspires you?
S: I am very interested in those spaces where changes in manufacturing have had a sociological or ideological impact or unintended consequences for value systems. I am interested in the Bauhaus, William Morris, Architecture - especially the Case Study houses. I am interested in the mixing up of things which shouldn’t go together but with a twist of the lens appear to coexist. I am fascinated by ideas of taste, status and value. I guess overwhelmingly I am interested in our spaces and how we do and don’t occupy them.
C: Do you have a favourite artist or artistic period? Why?
S: I couldn’t pick one! I can say that I have always loved the work of Alice Neel and Matisse.
C: If you could be cooked dinner by any artist, living or dead, who would it be and how do you imagine the evening?
S: Guston. I read all his essays and he talks sense. I reckon I could learn a fair bit in 3 hours although have no idea how good his cooking might be.
C: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
S: Life is a game of inches. Just keep going.