Sara Greenberger Rafferty: Tailored Content

By: Katy Henriksen




Jan. 22 – Feb. 25, 2018

Curator: Marc Mitchell


There’s a visceral urgency in 40-year-old Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s work, a multimedia artist who channels our fragmented zeitgeist who is, as she states at the end of her bio on her website: “heartbroken by the election of D****** T*****, as it represents a turn away from progress, empathy, understanding, and literate curiosity for her country and the world.”


Her mostly 2-D pieces in Tailored Content are on display at the Fine Arts Center Gallery for a “retrospective-ish” show at the University of Arkansas. These works involve layer upon layer of photos printed on slabs of plexiglass that then have as many as 14 custom-coated powder coated screws added and random cutouts, making the images, in curator Marc Mitchell’s words, “quite sculptural.” “It’s often not cut straight and intentionally uneven,” he explains. “There’s an immediacy to it and a way to see how something was constructive. It’s very seductive.”


Mitchell’s first glimpse into Rafferty’s art came six or seven years ago, when he saw her included in the Whitney Biennial.


“I saw her videos first,” he states, in which he describes an actress mimicking David Letterman that he found poignant for “highlighting the way in which we take gender for granted. The way in which we accept a man telling jokes and acting foolishly but when someone other than a man does the same we see it as somewhat ridiculous.”


Mitchell continued following her trajectory and eventually reached out to her gallery, Rachel Uffner NYC, in hopes of pulling together a solo show. She agreed and immediately was struck by the way Mitchell understood her work. Indeed both Mitchell and Rafferty describe each other as generous.

What follows is an edited phone conversation with Rafferty, which includes honing in on her use of plastic as a dominant medium, the enduring exploration of gender that appears in everything she creates and a book recommendation that she feels explains very well our hyper connected, fragmented 21st century condition.

Your show “Tailored Content” is described as exploring “vexing themes with the direct purpose of calling attention to social disarray. I’m curious about how your work is informed by “addressing issues of gender through the lens of comedy or the ways in which government monitors citizens via technology”


I really liked the way he talked about the project and the space and what he was trying to do with it and I really wanted to work collaboratively with him. He’s an artist curator. Often times in solo shows the artist has a lot of responsibility and in this case I trusted Marc as an artist and educator to curate the show.


Often behind the scenes the artist ends up writing those kinds of texts. What you just quoted is entirely something that Marc saw in my work, and, I’m not saying it’s not there, I’m just saying that it’s a real privilege to be an artist showing your work and also to have people quote unquote “get it.”


I think there is something about my work that can have material novelty. It’s made out of plastic and it’s kind of confusing to figure out how it was made. I use vibrant colors that one might be attracted to and so there’s ways in which you could potentially write about it like you’re writing about abstraction and painting. I just really appreciated the ways that Marc picked up on those things; I am clued into those things. It’s part of the reason I am an artist–it’s a sort of way to talk about really important cultural and social issues without writing a position paper or being a politician.  I think in the 21st Century, especially, activism has gotten very creative and really interesting so I definitely respect that realm. I wouldn’t say I’m a community organizer but I’m definitely interested in the lens of ideological activism at least, and sort of sneaking it into these rare spaces like art galleries and museums. Ideas about comedy and comedians have been so central to my work for like 15 years. Part of that is not only the aesthetic and content behind it but the idea of the strategy of a comedian, which is someone who is simultaneously entertaining and also participating in cultural critique.


I think these discussions are important and I think they will continue to be moving targets to use the analogy. I think it’s really important to be talking about things that are connecting people and things that are both specific to people but can also make you feel some type of human relation. When people ask me about my work sometimes I say I like to make work about what it feels like to live in culture with a body. I have certain privileges with my body that include being white and relatively affluently, comparatively, and I have certain non-privileges of being a woman and being small. I like to think that I can use my position and my critique of images in our culture to translate into something that people might relate to and think about in a way that they wouldn’t think about if they were watching TV or reading the newspaper or learning in a class. I think it’s another avenue for communication and community.


I’m curious about the use of plexiglass as a dominant element in your works. What drew you to it?


I’ve always been interested in the ways in which photographs become objects and the way that objects translate back into photographs, but more so the compression of three dimensions into two dimensions in a photograph and then the reconstitution of the three dimensions, whether it’s a traditional framed photograph that lives in a space on a wall, or even lives on a computer that sits on a desk in a room or lives on a phone that is held in your hand and has certain scratches on it.


I like to think about the real embodiment of these images. The plexiglass started when I wanted to figure out a way to make three dimensional photographs that were also objects that could live outside as a sculpture and that was the first time that I printed directly onto half inch plexiglass. I first installed them outside and then eventually brought them inside into the gallery and installed them on the wall and on the floor.


Through the process of doing that work I would make proofs on this rolled up thin polyester and then I started to like the way I could turn the wall into a photo object by basically hanging up a piece of plastic with an image on it. So, it wasn’t quite a drawing and it wasn’t quite the opposite — it wasn’t a framed photo but it activated the wall in a way that it turned it into sort of a screen. I went back and forth with that and now I’ve been going reflexively back and forth between that kind of disembodied photograph on a thin sheet of plastic and then mounting of it to a piece of rather thick and clunky plexiglass, which gives you a shadow, which makes me think of all the screens that exist in culture–when we’re at the airport, when we’re at the subway, when we’re at the bank–that are really interacting with us and have, over the last 10 or 15 years, become a seamless element of our lives.


There’s an Untitled piece that is cut-out from an advertisement, did you cut out something from the picture or was it an abstract cut-out?


I cut out most of the imagery. In a lot of my work there’s many layers of processing. In this case there was a copy of an image from the New York Public Library. I use a lot of library and book sources in addition to pictures I take myself and from the Internet.


I printed it out and I was doing a test to print on a certain type of drawing paper and I wanted to print on a shape so I cut out a circle, taped it to a carrier sheet and regular sheet of paper and that made a weird shape, which I ended up using. I ended up liking the negative version when I pulled off the image, so that is what I scanned and made two pieces. One is the cut-out in the center and the other is the actual center cut-out and they very rarely get shown together but there is the absence.


At that time I was making a whole series of images of different kinds of frames so I really see that piece as a kind of empty frame. The frame is the image. There were a number of other frame pieces in this show: plastic that lives on the wall. Usually when I have ideas and images and things that I’m working with I attack it from a lot of different angles.

Your works deal extensively with our current hyperconnected 21st century. I see a lot of exploration of fragmentation. We’re all dealing with feeling constantly overwhelmed and scattered, that can lead to an overstimulated boredom. Do you agree?


That definitely feels like it describes the feeling of today. I think this phenomenon is most clearly expressed in Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the End of Sleep. I quoted him in a video piece called “Identify,” that I made last year, which is, basically we do everything on our phone. We read, we shop, we do our banking, we do our texting, we do our work emails. It’s all compressed into the same vehicle and I think my work is concerned with this smashing together of discourse shopping. I think that’s a way to maybe think or express boredom the way you’re talking about it.