Sarah McKenzie

Sarah McKenzie is a contemporary painter based in the United States. McKenzie has recently featured in the Huffington Post and is currently exhibiting work in 'The Art Base Annex Gallery', Colorado.  

Barrier (Frieze Masters, 2013), 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 in x 36 in

Studio practice, daily routine, how you maintain your practice:

I used to be a college professor (1998-2006), but since 2006, working in the studio has been my 9-5 job. What that really means is that I typically spend a chunk of time in the studio during the day (ideally 11-4), and then return again at night. Particularly when I am working toward a show or some other deadline, I really rely on those late-night hours, without distraction, to do my best work. I frequently return to the studio at 9 pm and work until 1 am. I am married with two kids, so a big part of my day is devoted to family responsibilities. I am also an avid runner. My day is not complete unless I get a run in, and I consider this to be a critical part of my creative process. When I’m running, I often sort through the challenges I am facing in my work and come up with new strategies.

Loop (White Cube, Bermondsey Auditorium with Larry Bell, 2013), 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 in x 36 in

Process / How do you go about making a work - sketches , photographs, from memory etc.

I really don’t make sketches. When I visit museums and galleries, I take hundreds of photographs. Whenever possible, I try to get pictures that don’t contain people, so I frequently stand and wait until that perfect moment when everyone else in the gallery steps out of the frame (or behind a conveniently located pillar). Back at home, I upload all this source material onto my laptop and then cull through it, to see which images continue to resonate now that I’m no longer in the exhibition space having that direct experience. I may make some subtle adjustments to perspective or color balance in PhotoShop; then I print out the photos that I consider to be good candidates for painting. Each large canvas begins with a highly detailed pencil drawing. I use rulers and a calculator to help me scale up the photographic image as I map it out on the canvas. It’s a time-consuming process, but it forces me to really understand the structure of the architectural space before I begin to paint it. 

Gate (White Cube, Bermondsey with Mark Bradford, 2013), 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 42 in x 63 in

Architecture / how space defines experience/ role of curation - in addition to architecture in guiding viewers around space / experience


I am interested in the way that frames function to simultaneously grant and restrict access to information. Frames exert control over and give an organizational structure to our visual experience. Throughout much of the history of art, paintings would typically be exhibited in ornate, gilt frames, but this approach was abandoned in the mid-20th century with the development of modern art. By the 1960s, most galleries and newer museums had embraced the “white cube” architecture that prevails in the art world today. As art critic Brian O’Doherty described so well in Art Forum in 1976, in the modernist gallery space, paintings were set free from traditional framing, and the minimalist architecture itself began to function as the frame for our visual and sensory experience. I am fascinated by the way that a gallery space subtly structures our interaction with a work of art, imparting value and significance to the work. The spareness of interiors gives aesthetic weight to everything in the room… even the exit signs and fire extinguishers. Good curators are highly attuned to this dynamic, and they clearly consider the architectural features of a gallery when positioning works in a show. Just as the space impacts our experience of the art, the art can dramatically change our experience of the space. 


Vitrine (White Cube, Mason's Yard with Haim Steinbach, 2013), 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 in x 24 in



As a painter who was educated at the end of the 20th century (BA 1993, MFA 1998), I can’t deny that Modernist painting is an enormously important part of my artistic lineage. Many of my paintings contain references to Modernism and geometric abstraction. I started exploring this in the series of Construction Site paintings that I produced between 2005 and 2011. The patterns and repeated forms that I was seeing in these architectural spaces were constantly reminding me of abstract paintings, so I thought I should explore that directly. As a result, some of my paintings contain subtle homages to Mark Rothko, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin, Mondrian, Josef Albers, and others.

Door to the River (Whitney Museum with Willem de Kooning, 2015), 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas, 48 in x 72 in

The temporal and permanent - how a lot of the subject matter is temporal (exhibitions, construction sites, etc), yet your work is more permanent / does your work act as documentation in some sense?


I am very interested in the temporary nature of architecture. Our built landscape is constantly changing in response to socio-economic changes, cultural shifts, environmental concerns, and so forth. I think my work has always examined this idea; past series have focused on abandoned factories, suburban sprawl, and commercial construction sites. I do think my paintings function as a kind of documentation, but not because I want to make permanent something that is fleeting. Instead, I am interested in what these transitional spaces and structures can tell us about our society. 

galleries and the binary between empty/full of cultural significance 


Gallery spaces fascinate me because they seem so contradictory. They are at once austere and lavish; makeshift and highly controlled; impersonal and sacred.  Despite the minimalist appearance of these interiors, they are heavily coded spaces, laden with cultural meaning and class signifiers.

Big Box, 2010, oil and acrylic on canvas, 60 in x 60 in

From the series 'Constructions'

Relationship between your photographed work and the actuality of the work (surface) / the affect of digitalization and people viewing work online:


My work often looks almost photo-realistic in digital reproduction, and this is actually a recurring source of frustration for me. In person, my paintings have quite varied and surprising surfaces. I am working in both oil and acrylic paint, and I frequently juxtapose a variety of stylistic and surface approaches in any one composition. One section of the painting might be covered with thick, glossy, gestural brushstrokes, while another area might be a simple, washy stain, and a third area might be taped off and then filled in with a single color of matte acrylic paint where one would typically expect more modulation of light and shadow. I want my viewers to engage with my painting process and break down the steps by which I might have created the image that they are seeing. While the illusion of space in a painting might be convincing from across the room, I hope that the illusion breaks down as the viewer moves closer and begins to engage with the surface of the canvas. 

Terminology such as photorealist, hyperrealist, contemporary realist has been used to describe your work, for you, what do these terms mean in relation to your practice ? How do you term your work?


I basically reject the idea that I am a “realist” painter. Even though my paintings are representational, my understanding of the definition of “realism” is that a high value is placed on presenting a convincing illusion of real space. The emphasis is on the image. I am much more interested in making paintings that are really intriguing objects, which appeal to the viewer on a tactile, physical, visceral level. I want the materiality of the paint to speak even more eloquently than the image. I describe myself simply as a contemporary painter. If pushed to describe my work in more detail, I talk about architecture and geometry. I never use the term realism.

Memorial (World Trade Center), 2011, oil and acrylic on canvas, 36 in x 54 in

From the series 'Constructions'

Sarah McKenzie  “White Walls”, 

David B. Smith Gallery, Denver CO, USA 

by Peter Illig

Structured vs. sensual, rational vs. emotional, classical vs. baroque: these are common dichotomies in the world of art-making. I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that nearly all of past Western art is split between these poles, and perhaps can even be perceived as a battle between them. On the one side is our intellect and our need for order, which we can trace back to the philosophies of the ancient Greeks; on the other, the emotional, sometimes chaotic, side, coming from the sensual life of the body. The German art historian Heinrich Wolfflin divided all Western art into two impulses: Classic and Baroque. While Wolfflin was referring mainly to European painting, American critic and author Clement Greenberg applied this dichotomy further to include 20th century American painting. He suggested that abstract expressionism, often called “action painting,” still carried on the traditions of the Baroque impulse, while geometric abstraction and Constructivist formalism continued the rational, classical aspect of Western art. Sarah McKenzie’s paintings fuse the two, in beautiful and exciting ways.


McKenzie’s show at David B. Smith Gallery is entitled “White Walls” and is comprised of masterfully-painted, realistic depictions of the interiors of art museums. The clinical well-lit museum spaces, populated only by abstract paintings, are cool and serene. McKenzie, who has a history of painting architectural spaces, has painted views of museums that you might not normally expect: an angled view down a stairwell, or the furniture one often finds in large galleries, allowing visitors to sit in contemplation. People are conspicuous by their absence. The paintings are ordered with precise linear perspective, defining the space with convincingly real depth. Edges are sharp, geometric, and as I have alluded to above, follow the classical organization and rationality that Western art has possessed for centuries.


But look deeper, and the viewer will be rewarded with much more. Various details of the museum interiors, in particular the floors, glimpses of nature through windows, and expressionist paintings hanging in exhibition, are painted in surprisingly lush, painterly brushstrokes. (In fact, Wolfflin coined the term malerische, which roughly translates to painterly, to describe Baroque art.) These sensual, richly painted surfaces are a strong contrast to the clean interiors and eponymous white walls. The contrast of a faithfully reproduced, large, brushy DeKooning painting in the Whitney Museum, for example, is startling against the monochrome white and subtle violets and grays of shadows on adjacent blank walls. The paintings blend these two painting methods seamlessly and eloquently. In a sense, the artist has encapsulated the history of painting in a few remarkable works.


I came away from the show trying to decide how much was instinct on the part of this experienced and talented painter, and how much was conscious. Interpretations are problematic, but this theory suggests the artist is saying that the rich, textured brushstrokes as painted in the floors of the museums, and in views through windows, which I am calling the “sensual” and “natural,” are the foundation upon which the rational, architectural, ordered, “superstructure” of culture is built.


That’s a lot of philosophy for one series of paintings. But whether intended or not (and I’m sure it is) these paintings combine two seemingly opposed aspects of art and do it in visually stunning and articulate ways. The paintings are more than illustrative, they are language, well-crafted and intelligent.


Waiting (White Cube, Bermondsey, 2013), 2014, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 in x 32 in

Landscape 2 (Matthew Marks with Albert York, 2014), 2015, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 in x 36 in

Black Bench (MCA Denver with Paul Sietsema, 2014), 2016, oil and acrylic on canvas, 24 in x 24 in