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.
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?
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. Or, I find that often these big-box stores will abandon an old structure and build a new one on the same block. So you have a vacant box next to a new box. As a person who pays a lot of attention to the atmosphere and feelings that these places portray, I really don't like it.
I'm not comfortable with it, either -- like I said, in terms of why I am compelled to spend as much as much time as I do with this is because I'm trying to work out my understanding for everything related to it. Everything related to commerce and what we do as Americans when we go shopping -- the buying experience and how exciting or stressful that can be for people and what that activity of going to those stores versus local businesses represents. Sometimes it's all we know and we've just grown up that way for generations -- for other people, it is the only thing that can be afforded because our income dollars go so less far than they used to.
The throwaway architecture is another really interesting thing that you're talking about -- someone explained to me a long time ago that when businesses decide to locate themselves somewhere specifically, it's because market analysis has decided it. If you have to have another business across the street and a block down also in order to capitalize on a whole sector of a city, then that's what you're going to do, even if you're essentially competing with yourself. It is all worked out by the dollar.
Just living in society, I think we have a difficult challenge to come through each day intact because of the assault that we experience from commerce and greed and power and all of the machinations. It's like a dragon eating its own tail. I don't even know if a lot of these power machines even know why they do it. At the end of the day, we're all survivors.
It's hard when you are a person who is really tuned into your surroundings. I was at the mall recently where I used to work and I found that now I am exhausted by a place like that. There's an anxiety that comes along with that kind of place.
I think that a lot of what would counter balance that is that if we had more of a connection with nature. Which is again part of the reason I've been drawing to painting the things that I paint. Sometimes I incorporate a little sliver of nature -- in this latest body of work, I reintroduced skies. They had taken a completely absent role in some of my other work. If we are able to remember that we are nature and not some sort of a gesture, that we're really necessary here, it will help us ground into where we need to be in order to not feel so anesthetized by our experiences during the day.
It goes back to what you were saying about being exhausted by being in the mall -- for a lot of people, it is kind of hypnotic. It can be like a high or drinking; shopping is kind of like an altered experience. So for me, being as fully present in each moment as I possibly can be is my objective. I'm not interested in taking the edge off or being mellowed out from any other external sources because to me, that is contrary to what I need to do, which is to be here.
I know the show hasn't been up long, but have you had any particular reactions from viewers to this work?
My objective in painting is painting, not to teach or preach -- but to give people a quiet, still space to go into and have their own experience, what ever that is for them. What they see on the land. So for me, the really strong sense of nature, even in these unnatural buildings -- part of it is the light and nature using these buildings as a painting itself. Nature is painting itself on these buildings in what I'm seeing when I look at them, the way the light reflects and the shadows and the way they are oriented and their environment through my eyes.
I think it gives people a chance to be still and look at them and have their own experience. That's what I've been seeing a lot of -- at the opening, there were some people who were just standing and staring at the paintings for a long time at each one. For a painter that was a big moment for me. I was painting industrial buildings for a few years and I've often times had people say to me, I don't experience places like I used to. When I drive by and see industrial buildings, I think of your paintings. Maybe they can also do that when they see big box stores and empty businesses that are transitioning or waiting to be bulldozed, somehow see the quiet beauty in those places.
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Sharon Feder's BUY is on view now through November 16 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. For more information on this exhibition, visit the museum's website; for more on Feder's work, check the artists's website and her Denver representation, Goodwin Fine Art. Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies