In the Studio with Vicki Sher

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No matter the seeming sparseness of a Vicki Sher work, its fullness of purpose and intention is undeniable. Lines move freely across their surface. Colors–in circles, half-moons, misshapen squares–are employed confidently, piled on liberally or utilized with methodical reserve. The choice always seems a correct one, as though Sher has assessed a landscape and decided what is only the absolute most pertinent to capture.

Since earning her MFA from the University of Iowa in 1992, Sher has spent nearly three decades honing her aesthetic and broadening her mediums, which now occasionally include video. Her frequent experiments with different materials–transparent cotton scrim, muslin, drafting film–imbue her oeuvre with an inherent dynamism, evidence of an ever-curious mind. When it comes to subjects and inspirations, Sher’s scope is varied but focused. In the past, she has plumbed the unseen meaning behind a potted plant, mined a fascination with her grandmother’s stroke. Whether broad or personal, communicating a mood or a narrative, Sher explores thoughtfully–and then makes her mark.

For her latest exhibition, Fountain, now up at NYC’s Frosch & Portmann Gallery through October 14, Sher takes her cues from the final paragraph of Gertrude Stein’s 1914 novel, Tender Buttons. The writer’s experimental language sets up a landscape of chaos, where everything feels strained and incorrect and incomprehensible. It is an insane world, but one also capable of producing absurdly simple pleasures–in this instance, a bit of asparagus, and a fountain. No matter our human toils, the beauty of the natural world will remain and, one might hope, prevail.

Just a few days in advance of her opening, Sher let us into her studio to talk art “brands,” elevating the spirit, and the difficulty in actualizing visions.

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Former occupation and your most notable memory there:

I once had a job, in high school, and I don’t even know what to call it. I worked with a woman who found art posters for people. People would write her (real letters) or call on the phone, and say they saw a particular painting once by whoever–say, Renoir–at such and such museum, and they loved it. We would help them see if a poster existed of that particular painting and get it to them. But this was all pre-internet, pre-Google or eBay or Amazon, so searching meant looking through books and libraries of material to see if we could find a good reproduction. It was super fun detective work, scouring through images all day. I love looking for things, so it was right up my alley.

vicki sher

Your first experience with art as a child:

I can’t remember! I always liked art, I think. But I didn’t really take it seriously until I took an after-school art class from middle school through high school with a woman named Joan Busing, who was a hidden gem in our community. She shaped a lot of what’s in my head about formal concerns, color, texture, material, etc.

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Were your parents interested in the arts? What did they do for work?

My father was an investment banker and my mom a stay-at-home mom who did a lot of volunteer work. So, on the surface, they weren’t creative types, but our house was filled with art, and we were exposed to a lot of art in countless ways–museum-going, art classes, etc. It felt like an important part of our childhood development.

My parents also have really wide-ranging tastes, embracing both high art and fun, crafty things they find on vacations–we had Helen Frankenthaler prints next to colorful wooden sculptures of joggers being chased by dogs. I think people get a little too caught up in the “brands” of art. My parents have always known what makes them happy and what they want to live with, even if its an eclectic mix.

vicki sher

Your work explores ideas about nature, human behavior, and relationships. Has this current social and political climate provided new shape to your ideas in any way? 

Current events don’t directly effect my work, but they do provide a consistent sort of checkpoint for me. I remember that when 9/11 happened, and I was doing work that touched on violence in the wild versus the safety of domestic life, then that evolved to celebrate the small pleasures of daily home life. I felt that I wasn’t addressing current events, but I was doing something relevant enough to my mood at the time.

Now, during a political climate filled with a good deal of ugliness, I am content to shift my work into more beautiful territory. Bringing beauty and joy into my life, if not other people’s lives, seems like a good thing to be doing right now. My current show, Fountain, addresses the idea that what is bigger than current events is nature, beauty, and a continual desire to respond to and shape nature in ways that elevate the spirit.

vicki sher

You once wrote in an interview that your studio practice can be a bit “tortured” sometimes. Is that something you’ve come to accept in your process?

Well, it’s surprisingly difficult to make a good painting. What constitutes good may be different for everyone, but most serious painters I know find its hard to actualize our visions. So, yes, it can feel tortured and frustrating at times. Things almost never go as planned. That said, I’ve definitely shifted to a more pleasant studio life where I remind myself to stay in it in a place of enjoyment.

vicki sher

How has your process evolved, if at all, in the decades you’ve been at work?

I’ve gone through many different types of work, as well as ways of working. That spirit of change, in some ways, defined my studio life for a long time–always trying something new, either out of restlessness or curiosity. Lately, though, I have settled into a more mature way of working. I may be a bit of a late bloomer in that way, but now, after many decades (!) of trial and error, I have systems in place and a more reliable process.

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Your past show, ‘The Voice at 3AM,’ was partly inspired by poetry. Does literature and writing inform your work more broadly? 

I was introduced to contemporary poetry when in grad school at the University of Iowa. The Writers’ Workshop there was a pretty big presence, and I found poets like Gerald Stern, James Tate, and Charles Simic pretty inspiring. I connected with the pared-down language and the celebration of small moments. Today, I read poetry only occasionally, but when I do, it still speaks to me, and informs my studio day. I almost feel like I can’t read it too often because its too affecting, sending me in new directions every time.

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How did you find your current workspace and where is it?

I currently work in the Old American Can Factory, a studio building in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It may be one of the best art studio buildings in the city and I feel lucky to be there. I stumbled into it when a previous landlord evicted my entire studio building. All the artists were scrambling for space. I had a show coming up and wasn’t finished, so I was ready to take anything. I got very lucky that a friend of a friend was looking for a studio mate.

vicki sher

What do you eat for breakfast?

I have iced coffee everyday–all year long, even in the winter. I like it black, no sugar, so often I have something sweet with it, like a cookie.

What’s a day typically look like for you, from start to finish?

Coffee with my husband and family, gym, studio, home to dinner with the family, TV, bed. repeat. I do go out a lot in the evenings with friends though, too.

vicki sher

Do you listen to music while you work? If so, what?

Lately, I’ve been rocking some ’80s rap. RUN-DMC, LL Cool J, Tone Loc, Salt-N-Pepa, etc. I like to dance in the studio–and it’s hard not to move when I put on “It’s Tricky.” I used to listen to quieter things, like Bach or Brahms (typical artist studio classical fare) or WNYC talk shows to keep me company in the solitude of the studio, but I don’t know what happened–now I’m dancing!

What medium/ tool/ color are you most interested in presently and why?

I’ve been working a lot on drafting film. It’s a plastic form of paper that comes in various forms and different translucencies. The translucency allows for layering and a play with the space in the image, but I also appreciate it for its flexibility. You can erase most marks back to a fully clear surface, so I feel very free to go forward without being wedded to any particular mark-making. I like a lot of space in my images and the drafting film allows me to maintain an open and airy space.

vicki sher

What book/ film/ work of art most recently captured your attention and why?

This summer, I read Desert and other books by Nobel Prize-winning author J. M. G. Le Clézio. I had never heard of him, but I found his books in our library at home (my husband had read him). The writing is very beautiful, rhythmic, and visual–and transporting. Visual art-wise, I’m rediscovering Paul Klee, who felt a strong connection to music drove a lot of his compositions. I am thinking a lot about music and rhythm and layers of “sound” in my work, too.

What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given?

Just show up. Go to the studio. Make the work.

Photos by Atisha Paulson for SIXTY Hotels

Jenny Bahn

Jenny Bahn

Jenny Bahn is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, specializing in music, fashion, the arts, and culture, both high and low. Her work has been featured in V Magazine, CR, Office, and TIME. She is the Managing Editor of Alpha SIXTY.

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