Analia Saban greets me at the door of her Santa Monica studio with a hug, a wide smile, and an unwarranted apology about the state of her studio. She explains that she’s in the process of moving out of the space, which she inherited eight years ago from her friend, mentor, and former UCLA professor John Baldessari. The large and airy studio, which is haunted by remnants of Baldessari and previous tenants—such as photographer William Wegman, who installed a dark room and attached a basketball hoop to the rafters—sits squarely behind Santa Monica’s main drag, so close to the ocean that the morning breeze is saturated with the briny scent of salt water.
The area, like most of Los Angeles, has gentrified at an alarming rate over the past few years, which is to say that it is no longer the scrappy artist’s community it was back when Baldessari and many other of Saban’s former professors were pioneering the conceptual art movement. In a sweet tidbit of artistic musical chairs, Saban is now moving into Mark Bradford’s old studio in South Los Angeles.
Even as she reminisces fondly about lean years spent living in the studio when she was first starting out and waxes poetic about a jagged crack in the studio’s concrete floor, the aftermath of an earthquake that has snuck its way into both her and Baldessari’s work, you get the feeling that the soft spoken Buenos-Aires-born artist embraces change in all of its nebulous and myriad forms, from studio transitions to structural ruptures, allowing it to inspire both her work and her life.
Saban’s diverse body of work playfully deconstructs and reconstructs the confines and conventions of contemporary art, blurring the boundaries between genres and mediums. Fluid and freewheeling, it subverts the traditional meanings and uses of materials, reinventing the ways in which painting, photography, sculpture, weaving, and conceptual art interact with one another. It continually questions what we think of as art and why, often unintentionally inventing an entirely new artistic process.
Take, for example, her “Canvas On Paint” series, which she is debuting at Qiao Space in Shanghai in November. In it, she weaves thick strips of dried acrylic brushstrokes by hand on a traditional loom, essentially painting within the canvas instead of on it, using paint as both the medium and the art itself. The minimalist work calls to mind Agnes Martin’s taut sparseness, yet the texture is striking, bulging with a liveliness that feels unprecedented. Another series in the same body of work finds her printing photographic images of a linen canvas onto layered sheets of dried acrylic paint, in a literal reversal of the traditional roles.
As the viewer moves through the sixteen piece series, each of the uncannily realistic prints reveals the gradual unraveling of the linen canvas, thread by thread, until small holes become gaping gashes and the tight weave loosens into looping piles of liberated threads, as shaggy as haircut trimmings. Saban’s genre-bending work doesn’t take anything for granted, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, either. As she puts it, in her melodic Argentinean accent, “My work is more about asking questions than finding answers.”
Unassuming yet dizzyingly visceral, you feel her work before you understand it. The more time you spend reflecting on her thoughtful, conceptual pieces, the more they evolve and expand in front of your eyes, surgically meticulous experiments infused with wonder and curiosity, somehow seeming to make the impossible possible.
Much like her mentors, Saban’s work is invigoratingly experimental with a streak of tongue-in-cheek humor. It reminds me of a Baldessari quote that has always stuck with me: “When I’m doing art, I’m questioning how to do it.” I mention this to Saban and she lights up: “I feel like that’s probably his main teaching. Our works look so different but that’s what it’s about. To ask questions and allow yourself to basically do whatever you want, which I know sounds simple but it takes a lot to really, really do whatever you want and not to worry about any rules or any type of convention. I feel like you need someone like him to give you the license to do whatever you want. You need someone that looks like the Godfather of art to give you that gift.”
It’s not a gift that Saban—who is warmly self-effacing and gracious to a fault, pausing our interview to make sure she didn’t leave anyone out when listing artists she admired—takes for granted, especially considering the unconventional path she carved to get here. She grew up in Buenos Aires in the 1980’s, in the fragmented aftermath of the dictatorship, which had destroyed most of the cultural institutions and exiled nearly all of the artists. She was fascinated by science, and says almost sheepishly that she thought she would end up a mathematician. She studied film as a hobby, which inspired her first trip to New York: “I saw the MOMA and the Guggenheim and I had no idea what I was getting into but I went back to my school and was like, ‘Ok, I’m done. I want to switch to art.’ I had a feeling that New York without those institutions would have been basically nothing. That was the soul.”
After that, she threw herself wholeheartedly into art, imbuing her work with a technical prowess that stems from her self-proclaimed “nerdy” love of math and science. Her work feels as investigative and scientific as it does conceptual and visually arresting. “I found art to be the place where I could do whatever I wanted and combine everything and I still have that mindset. Sometimes I like to start a project because of a tool or a machine that I discovered. I like to have a lot of dialogue between machinery. The technical aspect informs a lot of the decisions.”
This is partially what is so enticing about Saban: she is a woman obsessed, following her whims and fascinations wherever they lead and delighting with genuine surprise at new discoveries. She is as careful with her words and movements as she is with her art, but you can feel the tremor of excitement emanating off of her when she describes her latest obsession: exploring the relationship between weaving and early computer programming. She is counting down the days until her new loom is delivered.
Driven by an insatiable desire to learn, she finds inspiration everywhere, from a fixation on a small detail, to a particular tool, to a moment in history, to the idea of rebuilding something from a new angle, and exploring how that changes our perception of it. “A lot of what I’m interested in has to do with history and looking back, saying, ‘Ok, what can I do with this paint recipe that was completely forgotten about? What if I revisit it now?’” One gets the feeling that her art is less for public consumption than to satisfy her own tinkering curiosity, that her work is a reflection of a mind that never stops moving. “It’s really for my own sake. It’s a very selfish impulse, to always want to learn something new.”
The desire to delve into the grey area between art forms took hold early on in her career. One of her earliest pieces, “The Painting Ball,” was conceived for her MFA thesis in the New Genres program at UCLA, studying under the likes of Baldessari, Paul McCarthy, Chris Burden, Mary Kelly, and many more: “All the artists I admired until then, all of a sudden were my faculty. It was really kind of terrifying.” She was fresh out of college and found herself unsure of what she wanted to pursue. She remembers feeling directionless compared to her peers who were already selling paintings: “There were just so many people interested in painting and it felt like all the other areas weren’t relevant somehow. I just started asking myself, why? What is a painting? What are you guys doing that has so much attention?”
An unfortunate turn of events—her passport getting stolen while she was traveling in Italy, forcing her to miss part of the school year—gave her the distance and confidence she needed to “finally be able to listen to myself instead of everyone around me.” She began to acquire paintings (cheap paintings, thrift store paintings, Chinese painting factory renditions) and unravel them, hand-rolling the thick, pigment-streaked strands of canvas into a large, colorful ball. The subtitle of the 26-inch ball? “48 Abstracts, 42 Landscapes, 23 Still Lives, 11 Portraits, 2 Religious, 1 Nude.”
Although Saban laughingly admits that stripping down each canvas was therapeutic “after three years of feeling like an outsider,” she insists the purpose of the piece was to create instead of destroy. “It wasn’t about destroying painting, it was about asking myself the basic questions. What’s the difference between a piece of fabric and a piece of canvas? Why do we attach so much value to it? I felt that by unraveling all these canvases, I was turning it from a painting to a sculpture and that could open up some questions. I feel like there is a lot of destruction in the history of art but this was also about rethinking and remaking something.”
This summer, she continued her conceptual interrogation of destruction and creation, debuting an exhibit at Sprüth Magers Gallery in Los Angeles entitled “Folds and Faults,” which featured concrete and marble slabs folded neatly over wooden sawhorses, with jagged cracks bubbling along the surface of the fold. They are astonishing to look at, almost like your eyes are playing tricks on you, concrete draped as gracefully as a coat over the back of a chair.
Saban was initially drawn to the project because of its’ connection to history. “The Greeks and Romans were obsessed with drapery in marble statues and I was like, ‘Ok, what can I do with my tools and my knowledge?’” As a proud Angelino, she didn’t realize until after the fact that the series was subconsciously linked to our collective fearful fascination with earthquakes. “Halfway through the project, I was like, ‘Of course this has to do with earthquakes because I was in New York when I made these pieces. I remember that feeling of relief. I was like, ‘This place is totally claustrophobic and I’m living in a huge tower with 300 neighbors and this and that but I’m not thinking about earthquakes. That’s kind of cool.’”
With two exhibitions coming up in November, the first at Qiao Space in Shanghai and the second at Gemini G.E.L. in Los Angeles, Saban’s gentle undoing and bold reconfiguring of mediums shows no sign of slowing. The show at Gemini G.E.L.
tackles her typical restructuring of processes and reversing of roles, but this time centered on domesticity and architecture. “There are four different series that have to do with different types of images from architecture. For example, one of them is just photos of my wooden floor that I turn into monochromatic black images so you can see the wood grain. I print that wood grain on actual wood. It’s always about reconsidering the order of things and asking where these patterns come from. Sometimes images that come from architecture are so present that we stop really looking at them.”
The concepts behind Saban’s work, much like the work itself, are deceptively simple on the surface. But they work their way under your skin and stay there, quietly revealing nuanced layers and open-ended questions that feel both contemporary and ageless. I ask her if she feels her work has a political context: “Of course, but I let that come out in a subconscious way. I trust the subconscious to have a deeper relationship to materials. I think there are so many things we understand with our senses that are beyond language and beyond a clear political message. They are more part of who we are as a civilization.” She laughs, and adds, “I just let the subconscious take care of the creative process. I don’t do much. I set up the grounds and let the mind take care of it.”
Written by Alison Green
Images c/o the artist and Sprüth Magers