Featured Artist | Joel Sager

Collectors and followers of the work of painter Joel Sager will recognize in each new series what the artist has developed over years of prolific studio practice. In his newest work specifically, one finds the familiar setting of the edge of a dark forest, that line between the wild and mysterious and the civilized and cultivated. Sager has long explored this border area, gracing it with the dawning or ebbing edges of daylight, the colors and textures of each season, and the structures of past-era farm life. In these newest works, solitary figures occupy the woods’ edge, each with his or her own unique features and implied narrative, yet all similarly alone. Joel answered a few questions this week for Gallery Director Hannah Reeves, touching on the meaning behind this work, and more.

Hannah Reeves: Tell us about the term, waldeinsamkeit – how you found it and how you’ve interpreted it in this series. Which came first, the vision for the paintings or the investigation of this word?

Joel Sager: I love learning vocabulary.  My all-time favorite board game is Scrabble.  Words are so fascinating and can achieve so much in general but particularly in an artist’s titles by injecting ideas or accentuating visuals.   When I came across a list (incidentally, I love lists, too) that was posted on Buzzfeed and was called something like “25 untranslatable words” I was all in.  There were a lot of good ones, but the one that grabbed me more than any other was waldiensamkeit.  A perfunctory definition is “the feeling of being alone in the woods,” although after taking it to some of my German-speaking friends, their reactions felt like I’d brought up an ancient cult or secret society.  More than one of them explained how it encompasses a wide range of emotions one feels visiting the woods, from fear of their vastness to a sublime peace and unity with nature.  Its mystery and inability to be explained other than simply experiencing it is part of its allure to me, much like art in general. 

I’d say the concept for the paintings came first and in many ways has always been a part of my work.  You can find these tree lines in some way, shape, or form throughout my work for the past 20 years.  

HR: That relates so directly to another question I had for you. Not only in this series but in many of your paintings over the years, you focus on what seems to be a border between cultivated and wild spaces. In Waldeinsamkeit it is the edge of a dark forest. What keeps you investigating this edge-territory?

JS: Well candidly, I have a boring answer and then a probably over-complicated one.  I’ll give you both.  I learned early in my painting practice the tree line actually serves as very good compositional structure, breaking the visual space into thirds (ground, tree line, and sky) and pushing back the middle plane with the dark value.  This gives a simple sense of environment.  The overcomplicated one, at the risk of saturating intent, is that the dark woods next to more cultivated land have always felt like an important symbolism in my life and equally important to include in my paintings.  To me they symbolize our balance as both individuals and humankind between the wild and the civilized, the mystical and the pragmatic.  Physically, it creates a sense of being on the precipice of something, somewhere we could go, but are unsure of the consequences, good or bad.  

HR: Who are the figures in these paintings?

JS: I’ve based the figures off of old family photos, although, I’m not necessarily going for a likeness.  They are simply intended to represent me, as my ancestors, while also acting as a vessel for the viewer to identify with someone within the picture plane.  I’m greatly inspired by folk art and figures depicted by untrained painters, who flatten perspective and shapes, but maintain an impeccable attention to detail.  This balance of naivety and intricacy has always intrigued me and repeats in method the thematic motif mentioned before: the teeter between wild and civilized.  

HR: I’ve been interested to hear from artists recently how quarantine has affected their studio practice and their relationship to their work. I’m hearing about everything from a complete “artist’s block” to an overwhelming abundance of time and ideas. How have you been affected? Do you think your work will change, or has it already, as a result of the experience of the pandemic?

JS: I’m not one to believe in “artist’s block.” An artist worth their salt has a running list, endless content in their mind, notebooks, and/or sketchbooks, more than could be painted in a lifetime.  Quarantine definitely upended my studio practice though.  Prior to, I lived a fairly regimented life.  I have three sons.  Pre-pandemic, their weekday morning routine was breakfast and getting off to school.  Then, I’d work in the studio until 1:30 PM or so, have a late lunch, and head to the gallery to work there for the remainder of the day.  So when the quarantine started, as did all people with offspring, my partner–who is also an artist–and I became full-time parents, navigating our careers while parenting three rambunctious boys with insane appetites (I feel like we also cook 5 meals a day) along with all the other lifestyle changes.  I’m getting into a new pattern like much of the world, but it’s taken some trial, evaluation, and recalibrating.  As far as the pandemic informing my paintings, even though my work has always been in some capacity about solitude, this latest series really is in direct conversation with the pandemic’s effect.  Each subject is in isolation, but they are no different than every other figure, experiencing the exact same thing.  They are alone together, like all of us.  

HR: Do you think that art history, in a more general sense, will change course because of this pandemic? 

JS: I’ve been reading a lot about this.  Actually I just plowed through this great piece in Document Journal that my cousin sent me.  It’s conversation format about, amongst other things, the potential this pandemic could have to gut some of the elitism through a vacuum that’s been created in some crucial areas in the art world.  It could act as a great equalizer.  These two artists are leading an effort to use this as a springboard, redirecting the entire information exchange in the art market toward tools such as free exposure and acquisition platforms, as well as emphasizing the need for more robust criticism and transparency. While elitism and classism definitely are a blight of the art world, and as much as I’d love to see that change, this article may be too optimistic.  We’ll see I suppose.  Above all, what I think is an inevitable silver lining: we will come out on the other side of this with a greater appreciation for seeing works in person at galleries and museums–being able to almost breathe on their topography, detail, subtly– understanding what a privilege that is to experience and share viewing it with others in a public forum, and the gift it is for any community, both large and small, to have such a centrifuge of ideas.  Additionally, the pandemic has forced the hand of many visual arts entities to become as creative as their stable of artists by coming up with new ways to engage and get art in people’s hearts and minds.  This, after all, is our greatest imperative as art advocates, or as I joking call us, art-addict-vocates.    

HR: I’ve been asking every artist when I have the chance: What is the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?

JS: A blank canvas.