Meditation: The Art of Ada Sadler

Her paintings are meditations. All of Ada Sadler‘s recent works are oil paintings. All are painted on panels, either 6″ x 6″ or 9″ x 9″. The subjects are all ordinary objects. More often than not, she paints chairs. The settings are exceedingly quiet. The works are repetitive, almost like a Buddhist chant. And, in a similar way, they allow for focus – both for the viewer, and even more importantly, for the artist.

I recently saw a movie about a renowned Japanese sushi chef: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”. It is the story of Jiro Ono, widely considered to be one of the greatest sushi chefs in the world. The movie is a wonderful study of “character”. Not to over-simplify, but his entire life has been an exercise in repetition: reproducing the same thing again and again, but not in a mechanical way – rather in a way that has allowed for small, incremental changes in the pursuit of excellence. Counter-intuitively, by constraining his subject matter and maintaining an almost ritualistic daily routine, his creativity has been unleashed. This is what made me think of Ada Sadler’s work – the constrained subject matter, the attention to detail and the process of refinement, all sustained over a long period of time. Her precise renderings of chairs and bathtub toys are journeys of creative exploration, more meta-physical than physical.

The works that first caught my eye were a series of small works featuring wind-up bathtub toys. However, her better-known, larger body of work features chairs. In both of the series, there is nothing exceptional about the physical objects. They are specifically, even overtly, ordinary. They are quintessential examples of the modern evolution of still life. There will be an exhibition later this summer opening at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, entitled “Significant Objects: The Spell of Still Life”. The curator of that exhibition, Gloria Williams Sander, has done a wonderfully succinct job of organizing that exhibition (and the genre of still life, in general) from four perspectives: “Depiction & Desire” – the wonder and magic that collections of objects can inspire; “Virtuosity” – the technical mastery of medium that astonishes all of us; “Decoding the Still Life” – the symbolism imbedded in still life compositions; and “Still Life off the Table” – the more expansive definitions of what constitutes still life that have emerged in the last century. While Ada is not in that exhibition, all four of these perspectives apply to and inform her work.

In her two signature series of paintings: “Bathtubbie Collection” and “Chairs” (which include several different sub-series), Ada Sadler demonstrates virtuoso control of light and color. The objects themselves are rendered in exquisite detail; and, like some old master paintings, the hand of the artist is disguised. The works are not “painterly”. The unadorned objects are front and center – stars of the paintings. The Chairs are not collections in a classic sense; rather they are surrogates for collections of memories. The Bathtubbies, on the other hand, are specifically collectibles. Unlike classic still life, these are not arranged collections on a table top. Ada photographs her objects – sometimes arranged, sometime not; then, she transforms her photographs in the paintings. The paintings may superficially appear to be literal renditions, but they are not.

I met with Ada over coffee recently. We discussed her background – studying art at the University of Kansas; detouring into administrative work to make ends meet; then, re-emerging as an artist in the late 80’s and early 90’s with pastels. Initially she showed at alternative venues, such as The Right Spot Bar and SF Open Studios. Her work was discovered and championed by a local San Francisco gallerist, Joe Chowing (now retired). She was juried into ArtSpan’s prestigious “Selections” exhibitions in both 1997 and 1998. Along the way, she transitioned to oil painting. Works that had featured populated landscapes with palm trees and swimming pools, began to lose the people. The compositions became simpler and more focused. Eventually, they ended up with just chairs.

We discussed still life in general. We discussed how it is tempting to characterize her works as photo-realistic, but how they fall squarely into the classic tradition of still life. In line with that tradition, I asked if the objects in the paintings were symbolic. It was a loaded question and they are. In a sense, she pointed out, the works developed into obsessions: 30+ works of souvenir cups & saucers; nearly 100 works featuring collectible bathtubbies; and 200+ works featuring chairs. The works are explorations of loss, but not in an anguished way. She recalled listening on the radio to a song in which the writer had talked about loss and the need to let go. She disagreed. She does not need or want to let go. Her paintings are touch points: the cups and saucers – a conversation with her mother; the bathtubbies – a conversation with children that never were; and, the chairs – a conversation with her father whom she lost to Altzheimer’s. There is a reason why the paintings, which are devoid of people, have such a powerful sense of presence.

Ada Sadler’s new works will be in an exhibition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery which opens this Thursday from 5:30-7:30 pm. The exhibition will continue through July 7th.  This is Ada’s seventh solo exhibition at Dolby Chadwick Gallery, who has represented her for the past 14 years.  Inquiries should directed to the gallery.

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