Stephanie Sachs’ Joyous Abstractions
Written by Betty Ann Brown
The paintings of Stephanie Sachs are expressive visual responses to her experiences in the natural world. Her responses can be jubliant: She has said that she paints “radical joy.” They also can be calm and balanced: Many of her compositions speak in peaceful, meditative tones. Oscillating from rapturous explosions of color to soothing moments of quiet grace, Sachs’ artworks communicate the wide range of her sensations. As they do so, they evoke similar feelings in viewers.
Living on Maui, Sachs is surrounded by glorious skies, lush vegetation, and luminous waters. Instead of illustrating them as a realist painter or “straight” photographer might, Sachs creates abstract equivalents, translating her emotional responses into colorful shapes and textures. Modernist poet T. S. Eliot (and before him, American painter Washington Allston) used the term “objective correlatives” to designate the objects and images that give form to sensory experiences and, in turn, evoke similar emotions in the reader/viewer. Sachs’ paintings are objective correlatives of her feelings in nature.
Sachs’ oeuvre ranges from translucent veils of azure clarity to heavy drapes of carmine and coral; from cool, watery depths to fiery sunsets. “The Water Awaits”, Sachs’ triptych from 2017, presents three views of a single sapphire wave rolling slowly and gracefully through a pale indigo sea. Slivers of golden light and fragile chartreuse reflections allow the surface to undulate gently. The stillness and balance invite reflective responses. (I think of amazingly peaceful times sailing on a large ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. I sat alone on my balcony for hours, looking out at the watery horizon, as the waves beat a hypnotic rhythm out into infinity.)
In contrast, Sachs’ “Mastering the Moment” (2020) is explosive, dynamic, and energizing. Intense crimson cascades through cliffs of peach and sage and teal. The vertical format and staccato brushstrokes animate the surface. It is a glorious burst of glowing intensity. (I think of the shock and delight of encountering a Vancouver rose garden in full bloom, and being immersed in exuberant varieties of hue and scent.) Interestingly, “Mastering the Moment” also recalls the work of French Post-Impressionist Pierre Bonnard.
Bonnard is one of Sachs’ most important influences. In 2009, American critic Jed Perl asserted that “Bonnard is the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters. What sustains him is not traditional ideas of pictorial structure and order, but rather some unique combination of visual taste, psychological insight, and poetic feeling.” A 2016 exhibition of Bonnard’s work was titled “Painting Arcadia,” with reference to the ancient Greek term for a mythic space shaped by splendor and harmony. That title could work for Sachs as well. Both artists have responded to their lived experiences with “emotions, rubbed into smoothness, shrouded in chromatic veils and intensified by unexpected spatial conundrums,” as another American critic, Barbara Smith, wrote of the Frenchman.
When Sachs paints, she enters what Hungarian-American psychologist Csikszentmihalyi Mihaly terms the “flow state.” Totally immersed in her creative activity, Sachs engages energized focus, full involvement, and deep enjoyment. Her rolling lines become objective correlatives of her deepened, slowed breathing. Her layered colors become analogues for the thoughts that emerge from the unconscious and float across one’s awareness, even during times of intense concentration. The cadence of her brushstrokes soothes and comforts, while the sparkling colors elate us.
Stephanie Sachs’ paintings invite poetic reflection. As they do so, they offer bountiful delight. And they are simply, elegantly beautiful. What more do we need from art in these troubled times?