Grow, Melt, Radiate: Sarah Bereza

Sarah Bereza is building an army with a graceful craft that tames the fluid shifts of her sensual forms.  She sharpens her tools to playfully eliminate distinctions between painting and sculpture. We met last week. Sarah swivels around her LA-based studio surrounded by her animated paintings and sculptures, and I join her through the scene on my screen. She points as I prod curiously in this long-distance studio visit.  

How long have you been developing this body of work?

This is all probably in the past eight years.  And before that, it was all figurative. I think there are the most amazing figurative painters out there. I kind of painted to the end of the line, I felt like I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of it. I just have so much respect for people who are really good at it. I’m just like, “I’m not hitting that.” So I made the apocalypse happen in my artwork-

Was it at 2012? When the apocalypse was supposed to happen?

Maybe, yeah. We actually, I went to Chernobyl with my husband around that time, just as a ceremony of killing figurative art.

Chernobyl is this community that was constructed around the nuclear sites in the Ukraine, It was part of the Soviet Union then. One of the reactors melted, this was in 1984. The whole community had to get evacuated, and it was kind of like teacups left on the table sort of evacuation. For the past, what is it, 40 years, it’s just been growing and radiating and no one’s allowed to live there, but people are allowed to tour. So that kind of started this new path for me. Most of my work deals with growth and melting and radiation. I really like using these kind of formal sculptural materials like wood and clay, like I’m working with clay right now as we speak. I don’t smoke anymore, so I’m always fiddling with something. I like using stuff that’s almost tedious and laborious, and then using less formal materials on top of it, like letting plaster just drop using gravity, or expandable foam. It’s about control and the loss of control, and the use of chance after working so hard on something.

In this narrative that I’ve created for myself, I feel like I’ve created this community of post-apocalyptic monsters and organisms. So that’s what the past eight years have been for me pretty much.

How about about this mask piece, with the eyes all over it?

The eyes progress from to vaginas to eyes. I like to put a lot of vaginas and penises into my art just because I like to kind of secretly turn people on with the hopes that maybe they’ll go home and just need to bonk. It’s my desire for the world. And it’s also to do with growth. We have two toddlers as well, so I’ve had a lot of intimacy with bodily growth and fluids and just creating this family that, it’s not always pretty but I work it out in my art.

Sarah Bereza
Bust (2018)
Wood, fiberglass, aquaresin, charcoal, oil paint, acrylic
13 x 10 x 10 in.
Courtesy of the artist

You also create this situation where the frame is becoming the painting or the frame is elevated to the same level, and there isn’t that distinction anymore between the picture plane and what is supposed to contain it.

Yeah. There’s a dialogue between the two of them, almost a fight, over who gets center stage. A lot of people will say, “I love your frames,” and I secretly go like, “Fuck you. Look at it all together!” I’m from the Midwest and I’m very polite, so I say, “Thank you so much.” (Laughs)

Well they are really incredible, I thought they were reclaimed scraps but I realized you hand-shape them!

I hand-do everything in my studio and I basically learned it all from YouTube. I think I would call myself almost an outsider artist, even though I got a B.F.A.. from the University of Michigan. I just didn’t really get my wheels turning until I had a little bit more life experience. And then I was like, “Oh, yeah. I like carpentry.”

I was just thinking about this earlier, I was really into shop class when I was little. But I think since I was this cute little blonde girl, everybody was sort of … no one took that seriously in me. I think a lot of my childhood was sort of confused, in that I looked the part of something other than what I wanted to be. Maybe I’m making up for a lot of lost time.

Sarah Bereza
Exit 2 (2019)
Hand-carved wood, oil on linen
44 x 32 in.
Courtesy of the artist

You also have collaborated on a few installations with your husband, Will Bates, for SPRING/BREAK Art Show.

We participate in that every year. This year we did Spring Break Art Show in L.A., which is a little bit more convenient for us. Thanks, Ambre and Andrew! We usually get a theme and then we try to figure out an installation that has to do with our favorite films combined with sexuality or just a universal message. Our most recent piece had to deal with the theme, A Stranger Comes to Town, we had our friend Kenny dress up as Frankenstein, and he was speaking the lyrics of “West End Girls”. And then there were these platforms, and when you stepped on the platforms, it would contribute to the beat of “West End Girls”, and then these videos would come up of images from Westerns, of people slamming shutters, and you know when the stranger comes to town in Westerns, everyone gets scared, and it’s like the feeling of Frankenstein being this beast that we’ve created and everyone hates.

That’s sort of like putting Pop music into these larger ideas and taking them out of their original intentions. I can explain that much better with my art, what we do is just a lot more hard to grasp.

There’s also a central element to a lot of your compositions.

Yeah. It all starts with an idea, and that is just a thing on a pedestal.

I really appreciate conceptual art. I think I’m a little bit too flourishy for conceptual art. But I try to marry the two. The idea is central. I really love Sol Lewitt work, because his idea is first and that the process is just almost secondary. His idea is the art.

When you take on a new craft or material, are you going after a certain aesthetic or quality?

Well, I guess experimentation rolls out materials that fall apart. I started out using Styrofoam, which actually is very au courant now, I see everybody working with Styrofoam. But for me, it didn’t feel permanent, it was falling apart when I was shipping it to shows. Oh my god, so many tears. So now, I’m just trying to find things that are built to last. It’s practicality that drives finding materials. But also at the same time, I need to be able to move it around. Somewhere in between cement and styrofoam. That’s my wheelhouse.

Sarah Bereza/Fall On Your Sword
Hard or Soft Option (2018)
Installation view
SPRING/BREAK Art Show 2018

Yeah, your also taking on ceramics and playing around the with plaster dollops…

I do a lot of resin, a lot of epoxy, and then also using clay and then casting them with resin. And then I do a lot of steam bending wood, I’m actually steam bending some wood right now. I just love using this organic material that is permanent but also came from something living and just bending it to my will. The practice of steam bending only works maybe 2/3 of the time because you’ll get knots in the wood that will work against you.

That’s the beauty of the line, I like creating, it’s almost like a drawing, made with these dowels of wood and the bent wood. It’s like creating this arc that just kind of feels like a gesture, in a way, but it’s made out of wood. Then conveniently, in a lot of my stuff, I can make arcs turn into rounded forms that look like butt cracks, and that’s just another little surreptitious effort on my part.

Yup. keep it sexy. Yup. (Laughs) There’s also sensuality to the paintings with the wood draping in the center of the painting.

I like denying the formality of a flower arrangement. And then those pieces eventually turned into, I don’t know if you see there’s one that has a V, with the flower arrangement around it, sort of to me, is just like this vagina with a bush around it. But at the same time, my mother came into the studio, she’s like, “Oh, honey, it’s such a nice painting.” And I tell myself, “Ha! Yes.”

You talked a bit before about starting as a representational painter and not connecting so much with that practice, and making this big shift…

In many ways I feel like I’m still going through it. It’s just turning a giant ship around. Because I had some success with figurative painting as well. I did a solo show at Jack the Pelican in Brooklyn. And then that spurred into other group shows. So I had to kind of kill this baby I created. I’m sure you can attest, there can be some self-doubt in the darkest corners of our minds, when we need to do a major shift like that. But in the end, this also has been a shift to decide to be happy in my studio and make everything just for me. If somebody reaches out and likes it as well, that’s great. But I guess I’m just working out my own demons and having a blast doing it, really. That’s what it’s supposed to be about, right?

I’m in this for the long game. I don’t intend on introducing another kind of completely left-field idea, just to help get my point across. I’ve started this sort of ambitious body of work that needs.

I’m building an army. It needs an army to make sense.

Bereza in her Los Angeles studio

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