NEWPORT BEACH — Several years ago, Pasadena artist Sarah Seager "erased" all her old paintings by painting them white. As she remarked at her Tuesday noon gallery talk at Newport Harbor Art Museum, the gesture was less about the paintings themselves than "the action of painting and covering up."
Speaking in a quiet, reflective way, the 34-year-old artist explained that she liked the "usefulness" of paint for covering a surface, but she also realized how impossible it was to do the job thoroughly.
"Something underneath--a history--would soak through," she said. White paint yellows. A fence needs to be whitewashed every year. And yet, she added "white covers in a hermetic way. . . . . White has this purifying aspect. It's virginal, it (suggests) a loss of experience, an idea of perfection."
When you paint an object white, "you lose (its) personal aspects," Seager said. "There's a sense of loss in that. . . . You think of emptiness." She likened the experience to the way "newspapers put a black band over someone's eyes so as not to reveal their identity."
Seager's work in the current "New California Artist" series at Newport Harbor consists of eight pieces from her "Participation of Letters" painting series and a sculpture called "Box Rail" (a child's empty bed frame, painted white). All the paintings are white, with nonsense words, numbers and other markings (applied with Letraset, the press-on letters used by commercial artists) arranged in eccentric configurations on top.
Seager explained that she doesn't think of "making a picture" when she begins her paintings. "I'm trained visually"--she has degrees in art from UC Berkeley and UCLA--"so in a sense I can't escape it. But I don't think visually. I don't compose on the page."
She "extemporaneously" pours paint onto paper, where it forms pools and eddies. Pressing the Letraset letters on top of the dried paint, she makes what she calls "phonic poetry" (poetry based solely on the nature of sounds). Sometimes she lets the placement of the letters be influenced by the bumps and wrinkles of the painting. Since the letters are easy to move around, she is able to change a work "very much, maybe 20 times" before it's finished.
"I create a topographic situation," Seager said, somewhat elliptically. "The words needed a locale on the painting, a place where they make their sound. . . . The distance between one sound and another sound--that silence in-between--is really important.
"A map is a nonsensical process. We label (places) so we know where we are. I make these absurd maps with seemingly meaningless words to point that up a little."
Although Seager is interested in the sounds of her nonsense words, she doesn't mean them to be spoken aloud.
"I like the idea of music as something silent, something referred to rather than actually (performed)," she said. "You can feel it and sense it when you read it.
"What engages me is the process of making these things. It's an interesting process, trying to create something that doesn't make sense. . . . I repeat words, change the spelling, reorganize the letters and use them in six different locations (on the surface of a painting)." In this way, language "becomes meaningless--it erases itself."
Seager said her use of words is largely "in reaction to Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger," whose work involves emphatic statements often borrowed from advertising or contemporary cliches: "I never used intelligible words in my work. I have a resistance to being understood, to telling someone something specific."
One woman in the audience of about two dozen people wondered whether "Box Rail," was meant to "define space."
"What I like about the piece is the empty space," Seager replied. "It's not about the geometric idea of empty space but the emptiness. . . . It's an object that has a meaning in our society because of its use. When you take away its use, does it have a meaning?"
Another woman asked about Seager's relationship to overtly social and political art.
"Somebody said you can't separate aesthetics from ethics," she responded. "I'm not interested in aesthetics, really. I'm really aware of the state of things right now. I think it enters into the work. . . .
"I get nervous about making any specific political statement. That's not really what art's about. I'm trying to make something that can't be co-opted so easily. . . . The 'whiting out' is the need to escape what's happening, to erase your history, and the impossibility of doing that."
Someone in the audience remarked that quite a bit of historical erasing was going on in places like Russia, where the city of Leningrad recently reverted to its former name, St. Petersburg.
Asked if her white paintings are likely to yellow over time, Seager said they would. Not only that, but Letraset does not last forever, either. "There is a very tentative quality to those pieces," she said. "They have the potential to fall apart."
"And then?" pursued her interlocutor.
"It depends. . . . I'm happy to allow them to be put back again," Seager said. "(But) the reason I stick with (this type of work) is its fragile nature. If (the letters) were really permanent, then I don't think the absurdity of the piece (would be evident)."
* "New California Artist XX: Sarah Seager," remains through March 29 at Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission: $3.50 for adults, $2.50 for students and seniors, $1 for children 6 to 17, free for all on Tuesdays. Information: (714) 759-1122.