In Bright Hues and Stained Glass, Sarah Cain Attempts to Conjure the Meditative

BENTONVILLE, AR — Sarah Cain’s vibrant exhibition In Nature, now on view at the Momentary, revels in colorful abstractions that are at once playful and personal, while constantly blurring boundaries. In questioning where the surface of a painting ends — or even what should serve as a canvas at all — she employs adornments like synthetic beads sewn in and bleeding out of paintings, subtly pushing the realm of painting into the sculptural. 

“People always give me the weird spots that they don’t know what to do with,” Cain recently explained in a Vogue interview. The gallery for this show definitely fits that bill.

Installation view of Sarah Cain: In Nature at the Momentary, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2021 (photo by Ironside Photography)

Cain’s show occupies the lobby gallery, a space visitors must walk through to access the rest of the raw yet flashy multi-level space. The small rectangular room feels a bit confining, with low exposed ceilings lined by track lighting for two thirds of the room. Spending time in the space, I notice many visitors don’t even pause to soak in Cain’s work before heading into the main gallery. A couple with a young child breezes through, one telling the other that they’d never been to the Momentary before, adding that “it’s free because Walmart pays for it.”

Although In Nature began with a site visit to the former Kraft cheese factory — then still in the process of being transformed into a contemporary arts space — pandemic restraints meant that Cain coordinated the show from a distance via her Los Angeles studio. Perhaps that’s why this experience doesn’t feel all that site-specific.

From left to right: installation view of Sarah Cain, “In Nature” (2020) and “Black Widow” (2018) (photo by Ironside Photography)

The titular work (2020) features a wooden chair painted bright orange and a small black wooden bench, both placed atop the concrete floor painted in washed-out patterns that indicate an area rug. There’s a hesitancy to sit on either piece of furniture or walk on the painted floor — all of which are meant to be interactive — though the bench does offer a perfect spot to sit and stare at “(Untitled) dresser” (2015). There’s a big blank wall space behind the installation, prompting me to wonder what Cain might have painted there had she returned.

Most transfixing is “Wild Flower” (2018), a dazzle of brightly colored abstract shapes in the form of stained glass. Turned on its side, the work is fitted into an oddly placed window high up in a corner  — a facet of the former factory Cain asked architects to preserve specifically for her in the final building redesign.

Installation view of Sarah Cain, “Wildflower” (2018), stained glass, 53.39 x (photo by Ironside Photography)

Other works, which date back as far as 2015, include the mesmerizing “Self-Portrait” (2020), a large canvas oozing curvy lines and dynamic pops of color that recall Hilma af Klint. Adorned by crystalline tears —  large prism beads sewn into the canvas — the work showcases the artist’s penchant for slightly 3-D ornamental play that straddle boundaries between painting and sculpture.

“The act of sitting in nature is very similar to sitting in the painting studio, being open, waiting, letting your thoughts move through you until you get in this state that’s close to meditation,” Cain explains in a statement. In this awkward room viewers are asked to do exactly that, in an arts space on ancestral land of the Osage, Quapaw and Caddo — as the land acknowledgement included before introductions at gallery presentations reminds us. What used to be ancestral land is now in the process of rapid development. Just minutes away, along a rugged two lane stretch of road, there’s lots of construction scaffolding and empty pastures being made into Walmart’s forthcoming 350-acre home office. So much for being in nature.

Sarah Cain: In Nature continues through May 30 at the Momentary (507 SE E St, Bentonville, AR). The exhibition was curated by Lauren Haynes.

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