A few months ago, sculptor Sarah Braman -- whose solo exhibition called "Yours" opened last week at Mitchell-Innes & Nash -- bought a camper for $750 on Craigslist. “The owner was selling it because it leaks, but I liked the 1980s wallpaper,” Braman explained.
“She’s a terrible carpenter,” her husband, Phil Grauer, chimed in, “but she climbed on top with a Sawzall (the reciprocating saw that’s used for demolition) and butchered it.”
After the dismemberment, Braman joined each camper chunk (as she calls them) to a large minimalist rectangle made of colored Plexiglas held together by strips of metal. She then lovingly decorated selected portions with spray paint and latex in layers of purple, blue and brown enlivened by brighter bits of orange and pink. Resembling Gordon Matta-Clark building fragments fused with tinted Dan Graham glass pavilions and then partially painted by an Abstract-Expressionist, Braman’s precarious and rather brutal monumental sculptures (which can also be made from auto parts, stone and lumber) thus achieve an astonishingly delicate intimacy through sparingly applied areas of lush and moody color.
“The pieces are much more unruly in the studio. If you bang into them, you need a tetanus shot,” said Grauer, whose ideas about Braman’s sculptures are more roughshod. “In fact, you really need a tetanus shot to look at them. Here in the gallery, they seem so purebred, but they still look like someone vomited them up. His generation thought they were so smart and great, but Sarah is rewriting the history of minimal and conceptual sculpture on her own terms.”
The show begins with Good Morning November (2011), a pair of enormous elongated plexi boxes shaped like a 3D upside-down L, which are attached to the open entrance section of the cut-up camper. Together the elements form an almost dolmen-like gate (including the roll of paper towels originally mounted on a dispenser in the camper) that viewers can walk under on their way to the other works.
In the equally imposing Breakfast (2011), the camper’s built-in couch and table were set on a creamy plexiglass box and then balanced on one corner, as if a decayed remnant of everyday life has taken a ballet pose en pointe, and is about to take off and fly. The grey underside is sprayed with a halo of reddish and bluish lavender, and the table above is covered with a thin layer of orange that sings against the blues of the sofa and the sub-floor insulation.
Braman’s mother, Priscilla White, who brought up her family in a cabin she built in the woods, was enjoying the show with her partner, Liz Windrover, and Braman’s sons, Jody and Saul. “Sarah needed help with her camper chunks,” her mother said. “It took all six of us -- Sarah, Phil, the kids and me and Liz -- to lift some of the pieces. Sarah had no idea what she would do with them until she could see them separately.”
The mysterious, pod-like Coffin (2011) features an incongruously tiny roll of toilet paper hanging outside a long rectangular camper section containing a window, some cupboards, a mirror surrounded by walls and a ceiling streaked with purples and reds. The mirrored box below resembles a watery bathtub that reflects the cloudy colors down a seemingly infinite depth. “I titled it Coffin because of its shape,” Braman said, “but also because it feels like a porthole, a spiritual crossing over to the other side.”
In addition to being an artist, Braman is a founder (with Grauer and Wallace Whitney) of Canada, a ten-year-old gallery on Chrystie Street whose artists include Katherine Bernhardt (known for her scorching paintings of fashion models and Moroccan carpets) and Carrie Moyer (whose well-received show of abstract paintings has just closed). The gallery has been a labor of love -- Braman and Grauer spent six years cleaning houses to support it before their artists started to sell. Most of them could be found at Braman’s opening, along with Julian Schnabel, who also has a taste for weather-beaten surfaces in his art.
The television personality Charlie Rose spent a long time grilling Braman about the work, and even followed her to the after-party at the appropriately homey restaurant Drunken Horse. Relaxing in an armchair by the fireplace, Xylor Jane (another Canada artist who makes intricate paintings based on mathematical algorithms) marveled at the evolution of Braman’s workspaces. “Whether it’s her porch, her dining room table or her current massive studio where the Shasta was dissected -- they’re always filled with incredible materials.”
Although she’s shown in large spaces before -- this year at Rome’s MACRO and last year at Le Conforte Moderne in France -- Braman’s previous New York exhibitions were in smaller East Village spaces: she’s represented by Canada and Museum 52. Now that she’s filled a blue chip Chelsea gallery, her mind is on the future.
"I took my first RV and tore it up,” she said. “It was made without wheels, to fit in a truck bed, so I couldn't have gone anywhere in it. Now I want to buy another one with wheels and travel." Prices range from $16,000 to $35,000.
Sarah Braman, "Yours," Oct. 27-Dec. 3, 2011, at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 534 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and art writer.