A year out of her MFA program at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Sarah Weber is already a veteran of numerous group shows, not to mention residencies at Ox-Bow, ACRE, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her work has been purchased by the owners of the Miami Heat basketball team and is displayed at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida, and her first solo exhibition, Just a Phase, is on view at the Rena Sternberg Gallery in Glencoe through the new year—but despite the buzz surrounding Weber’s mixed media compositions, the artist herself is feeling limited.
Part of that feeling, Weber says, stems from her relative youth. “I have these uncertainties and inadequacies that remind me of how I was feeling in high school—the frustration at not being taken seriously, or just being impatient with what I desire or want to have happen with my life,” she elaborates. It’s a theme that resonates throughout Just a Phase, even those pieces that veer into the realm of complete abstraction. There are 12 pieces, all of them a curious mixture of internal strife and the calm before a storm. It’s a tightly knit collection that acknowledges Weber’s disillusionment and growing maturity.
Weber’s artwork uses a sharply limited palette of white, black, and gold, layered with found materials and accentuated by marks created with a handheld wood-burning tool. This meticulous handwork, coupled with her exploration of opacity and translucency, results in a slow build of layers, textures, and conflicting, pale pigments that obscure images culled from Weber’s high school experience. Her abstract iconography includes yearbook photos, scenes from pep rallies, and football games, layered with architectural vellum, gouache, metallic paper, and pieces of athletic jerseys. Photographs are enlarged and manipulated with layers of paint and ink. “I think the work would fall under the category of mixed media,” she says. “The experimentation with different materials, introducing fabric into my practice, or different tools. The work feels a lot more sculptural than it used to. I seem to be more and more interested in form, even though I primarily work two-dimensionally.”
Despite the profusion of materials, there is very little about Weber’s art that is cluttered or crowded: Her images occupy precisely the space set aside for them. It’s that self-containment, more than anything else, which alludes to her anxiety and preoccupation with an extended adolescence.
Not all of Weber’s art explicitly makes this reference. The pieces produced during her five-week stay at Ox-Bow in Saugatuck, Michigan, resemble timid, weathered ghosts wrapped around wooden canvas stretchers. These translucent images, comprised of acrylic and spray paint on clear vinyl, still have that same bleakness and—odd as it is to say in regard to an abstract composition—rigid posture. The matte and gloss layers of paint and plastic alternate how the light moves and stops as the viewing angle changes, just as the hand-burned textures of Weber’s high school ephemera is familiar one moment and flat-out alien the next.
After spending her undergraduate studies exploring representational and abstract oil painting, Weber—who has always maintained a drawing practice—made the decision to strip her artistic process down to its particular materiality shortly after entering her graduate program. “I’m an anxious person and the work reflects an anxiety of the physical hand—it’s very obsessive,” she says. “But it also goes along with my interests. It makes sense for that to be apparent.” It’s a labor-intensive approach that requires time in the studio. Weber prefers it that way: “I’m the kind of artist who needs a studio space,” she says.
For many contemporary artists, a studio practice creates an environment that both eliminates and exacerbates the outside world. Sifting through found objects lends the artistic venture an archival element—the collecting and discarding of an image’s components—but the fact remains that the procedural approach allows for a space in which the artist’s only preoccupation is what’s going on inside her head. What often occurs is a feedback loop of magical thinking, a combination of ritual and neurosis. This is exactly the sense overshadowing Weber’s art: an anxious, brilliant expansion that circles around what is familiar, finds it dreadful, and yearns to move on.
Sarah Weber lives in Chicago. Her first solo show, Just a Phase, is on view at the Rena Sternberg Gallery (renasternberggallery.com) at 378 Park Street, Glencoe until January 2014. For more information, visit sarahannweber.com. Images of artwork appear courtesy of the artist.