Artist Sharon Feder on Her Show BUY and Finding Nature in Empty Buildings
Sharon Feder has been painting for as long as she can remember. Along with studying painting under the mentorship of Colorado modernists like Ed Marecak and Mark Zamantakis, Feder also has had decades of technical experience as a set designer, muralist and sign painter. Combined with her passion for urban archeology, Feder's work often captures the modern-day commercial landscape, for better economic times or for worse.
Courtesy of BMoCA Sharon Feder, Cloister, 2014, oil on panel.
Feder's latest exhibition BUY, now on view at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, is a collection of paintings based on photographs of big-box stores and vacant and empty store signs taken over the last half-decade. Feder recently talked with Westword about this series of suburban retail landscape paintings and what motivates her to capture this part of modern American life.
Westword: Why did you start painting these commercial landscapes? What was the catalyst for this particular group of work?
Courtesy of BMoCA. Sharon Feder, Goose, 2014, oil on panel.
Sharon Feder: It came from a number of sources -- I've been taking photos of box stores for probably five years, as well as empty sign frames. (This is) partly because I was a sign painter for 25 years -- I am fascinated by signs and I'm fascinated by what the signs used to be. Again, as a former sign painter -- not just a sign maker -- I see that a lot of the signs age out and not a lot of people know how to restore them. Also, a lot of people don't want to pay to have the signs redone by hand. Or sometimes businesses close -- which isn't always because the economy is bad. We're in Denver; it doesn't really get that bad here.
But overall, the fact that our society has become homogenized and we are allowing ourselves to go down this track, one where it seems like America makes poor decisions based on money. My husband and I were traveling Europe this past spring and we have some really good friends who live in Belgium. We were in a variety of different places in Belgium, from Brussels to this decrepit city called Charleroi. It is a wonderful city that has been slowly crumbling into decay for about 150 years -- talk about empty stores. They've got buildings that have been empty for decades.
It looks like about a 70 percent vacancy rate of commercial businesses -- you can't even picture it. Everything is just literally crumbling. Also, being in Paris and Stuttgart where a lot of industry is, even industrial buildings in those parts of Europe, a lot of them are really beautiful. Rather than just build a building for the least amount of money, there is an aesthetic there that we didn't acquire or didn't hold onto in this country.
I'm aware that I also really like the geometry of walls and single-color walls because they carry so much of their own personality in the subtlety of them. So looking at a really aged brick wall is exciting for me, but in terms of what I want to paint, I want to paint commercial buildings because they have quiet surfaces. Inside of that, the colors that are in the highlights and reflected light and the colors that are in the shadows -- I can play with all of that. That is exciting to me. So visually, I like to paint these structures because they are quiet; as a human, I like the structures because I don't understand them.
I am not in the position of judging anyone or anything, but I want to understand these buildings as a human. Part of this stems from a conscious decision I made in 2009 to start painting gas stations. It was a series I called "The Art of Sameing." There was something I noticed, just like with the box stores -- the individuality of these places used to be intriguing and endearing from one service station to the next. Now it is all going away.
You can't even tell the difference from one brand to the next; sometimes they have the same color scheme. Because they are using what works -- they are using a construction that is efficient. All of the yellow and red concrete posts that protect the gas pumps all look the same. With the box stores, you can take one sign down and put a different sign up and call it something else. It's just a box.
Keep reading for more from Sharon Feder.