Sheridan Prize for Art

The 2021 Sheridan Prize for Art Archive


Paul Cézanne famously quipped that Claude Monet was “nothing but an eye, but god what an eye!” What Cézanne meant was that the prototypical Impressionist painted what he saw before him unfiltered through the prism of his psyche. Whatever personal baggage he may have been lugging around didn’t leave an imprint on his canvases. A human figure was no more important than a tree. Landscape never became a vehicle for his emotions as it would for van Gogh (elevated to mythic heights in Saint Rémy and Auvers-sur-Oise). One would never mistake the tormented Dutchman’s writhing Olive Trees for Monet’s domesticated garden variety depiction of the same subject. Ditto for their respective Sunflowers. If Monet was prone to fits of anger later in life, this is never reflected in his paintings. (The painter reputedly slashed hundreds of canvases, notably water-lilies, that he felt were either too dark or just not good enough. After he underwent successful cataract surgery and could once again see colors in their full sunburst glory, he would visit local museums and attempt to ’correct’ some of his paintings when nobody was watching).

Impressionism has become synonymous with a carefree day in the country. A bourgeois paradise with nary of trace of anxiety or psychology. Based on the visual evidence, one would never guess that Monet and Sigmund Freud were contemporaries for much of their professional lives. Even when Monet painted his wife Camille on her deathbed, it was primarily a study in color and light rather than a memoriam of grief (A far cry from Edvard Munch’s gloomy sickrooms that find angst-ridden family members cloistered in tomb-like bed chambers, heads bowed in silent prayer around the suffering loved one). Even as Impression Sunrise, one of his best early canvases that gave the movement its name, is suffused with smoggy gray smokestacks belching in the distance, one senses they just happen to be objects that found their way into the painter’s visual field rather than serving as a critique of urban industrialism.

 Before he became the archetypal Impressionist landscape painter, Monet drew the human figure. If these early charcoal/graphite/chalk portraits hardly recall Honoré Daumier’s savage social critiques excoriating class, wealth, and power in 19th century France during the reign of King Louis Philippe, they were perfectly serviceable caricatures (Huge heads on shrunken bodies. A modern-day equivalent would be the bobble-heads of star athletes handed out at sporting events) And while these editorial page-like cartoons aren’t psychological case studies by any stretch of the imagination, many possess a hint of personality that’s completely leeched out of his art by the time he was in the thralls of full-blown Impressionism

Like Monet,“professional caricature artist” is one of the many hats Oakland artist Samantha Sage proudly wears. Similarly, Sage’s cheery, colorful cartoons with the requisite oversized heads hardly foreshadow her abstract surrealist Cosmic Collaboration 1, the winning painting in the LGBTQ+ category. Raised in a hippie community in the Santa Cruz mountains by parents who encouraged her artistic bent, Sage attended California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC), where she was just one of five people in the nation to receive her degree in Community Arts while also teaching art in Oakland’s inner city schools to support herself. (She has since gone onto to get her Masters degree in Non-Profit Leadership).

As the title suggests, Cosmic Collaboration 1 is indeed a collaborative effort. Sage and fellow artist-activist Adam Rubin crossed paths at the Rainbow Gathering, the annual free camping festival held in a different National Forest each year that revolves around saying a prayer for world peace. One afternoon, Sage spotted Rubin sitting on a blanket in the trade circle. His colorful acrylics caught her eye. The two hit it off and decided to collaborate on a painting.

Following in the footsteps of Monet and the Impressionists, Cosmic Collaboration 1 is a plein air painting dashed off quickly in a single afternoon. From here, it parts ways with Impressionism. Whereas Impressionism focused exclusively on recording some aspect of the external world striking their retinas, Sage and Rubin tap into the unconscious (or some altered state of consciousness). The result is a fluid anthrobotanic dreamscape that hovers in some colorful gray zone between biomorphic Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. (In reproduction, the painting looks quite large but in actuality is a modest 24” x 38”).  Sage’s thin acrylic “rainbow wash” stretches across the canvas horizontally as a luminous backdrop for the vertically-oriented surrealism painted on top of it.

 A relatively realistic eye (painted by Sage) peeking out from just over a blue-purple horizon anchors the rest of the canvas. The eye in a surrealist storm of long flowing lines, feathery brush strokes, and strategically-placed spirals rendered at various velocities--from somnolent to frenetic. This flurry of brushwork is largely Rubin’s handiwork. His predominantly fast and furious pace, in tandem with the super thin medium, generates plenty of artful drips streaking down the canvas (as well as allowing the weave of the canvas to bleed through and aid in generating a sort of muddy half-light). As with any good foray into abstract surrealism, the whole becomes a colorful rorschach test for the viewer. Some of the shapes swimming in the artists’ slightly muted tie-dye aquarium morph into semi-recognizable imagery, others remain intact as abstract gestures. The whole suggests an underwater ballet animated by plant life sprouting up from a coral pink sea bed. And while the human figure is largely absent, it’s not too much of a stretch to discern a female bust in the upper right quadrant (a pair of spiral/breasts, a neckline, long flowing locks/wings). Below one detects some sort of sea-bird replete with long beak and a single black dot of an eye inside a shell-like womb as orange-brown crab pincers hover above.

In hindsight, Sage feels Cosmic Collaboration 1 foreshadows the parallel paths the two artists would take. Since collaborating that afternoon at the Rainbow Gathering nearly a decade ago, both have gone on to play significant roles in the psychedelic community. Sage’s social enterprise Kind Philanthropy puts people and planet before profits with a special emphasis on working with the cannabis and psychedelic communities. (Her mother was an early activist for the legalization of medical marijuana in California). Sage herself was clearly a chip off the old block, wedding her life-long passion for education and activism. When she was 13, her school took a trip to Washington D.C and visited Mt.Vernon one day. When the precocious teen asked the docent where George Washington grew his hemp, you could hear the proverbial pin drop. Every adult in the room stopped dead in their tracks and spun around. After the shell-shocked elders had sufficiently recovered, they approached Sage afterwards. And thus a dialogue sparked. Rubin, meanwhile, has gone on to found The Fireside Chat, a hotline where people can reach out and talk to a volunteer while tripping. Regardless of whether one is tripping or stone cold sober in front of Cosmic Collaboration 1, no one would accuse Sage or Rubin of being nothing but an eye.

~ Harry Roche