Dan Sabau: Capturing the Abstract within the Figure

Artists, Bicycle Fine Art, Feature Article

Bicycle Fine Artist
Dan Sabau in his studio

One of the brightest pieces in the studio of Bicycle Fine Art artist Dan Sabau is a watercolor portrait with a gold leaf background. The metal is quite literally brilliant and catches your eye right away as you enter the space, contrasting with the translucent watercolor in a peculiar way that is both beautiful and a little strange, a typical combination for much of Dan’s work. The background material is an unusual choice for a contemporary artist; gold leaf backgrounds are more often found in 14th century depictions of saints whose names are difficult to remember outside of your sophomore year art history class. Noticing the bizarre little mixed media composition, Dan picked it up and commented that gold leaf was something he had been playing with. He casually remarked, “I don’t think the gold leaf is going to work out though,” and dismissively tossed the paper to the side. He then began to talk animatedly about a different series he was working on.

Dan has been drawn to the figure as an artistic subject matter since high school, and to this day considers himself a figurative painter. Countering this interest, however, is his affinity for abstraction and the bizarre. Understandably, these two loves at first might seem incompatible. The figure is perhaps the oldest subject matter in art history and carries an immense amount of academic baggage. The whole point of abstraction, on the other hand, has to do with a rejection of formal rules and allowing the artist to choose which conventions to follow and which to ignore. It is this contrast between the two that Dan loves, and that manifests itself in his watercolors, oil paintings, collages, pen drawings, and any other medium that happens to appeal to him. From his roots in figure painting, Dan is constantly trying to fuse his two loves; in his own words, “I was classically trained in one way, but there are aspects of abstract art that I truly love. I’m constantly trying to see if I can nurture both sides of what I love, constantly trying to see if they can coexist.” This constant tension is a core tenant of Dan’s artistic practice and one that has been an enduring interest for him throughout his career. Dan has forged his path as an artist by bouncing between these two extremes, finding it natural to fluidly switch from one to the other as it suits him. At times his work drifts towards more non-representational subject matter, while at other periods his interests have led him to doing more traditional portraits—he has completed commissioned pieces depicting everything from the Dos Equis spokesman to a family’s dog, and greatly enjoys the process. But inevitably the balance and contrast of these two different approaches is the main issue he keeps returning to, and is an issue that has continued to hold his interest for most of his career.

Some of Dan’s figurative work is surprisingly rigid, and it is clear from the work on display around his studio that he is more than able to render the human form very realistically. Hanging in the living room of his home is an oil study of a hand, which Dan says he painted in an attempt to emulate the brush strokes of John Singer Sargent, one of his favorite figurative artists. Devoid of any abstract elements, the small canvas betrays Dan’s formal training at the Cleveland Institute of Art and his experience with depicting the figure. On the other hand, he is also capable of extreme abstraction: some of his work lacks any figurative aspects except, perhaps, the hint of an ear or a single beautifully painted eye (Dan’s de facto trademark in recent years).

Dan Sabau
Study of the gaze, 2015
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 27 x 23 in.

The oil painting above, entitled Study of the Gaze, takes as its jumping-off point Sargent’s 1892/1893 portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw. This homage to the traditional high-society portraitist is countered by the fact that Lady Agnew’s face is fragmented and takes up only perhaps 15% of the composition, making it immediately apparent that this piece is not simply an exercise in copying. The subject’s abstracted red veil, which swirls around her face like some primordial swamp, demonstrates Dan’s penchant for the surreal along with his ability to render the human form. More importantly, however, the piece showcases his unique method for including both of these talents within one frame.

Dan Sabau
Spotted Eye Study, 2014
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 16 x 16 in.

Dan has also used carefully painted, colorful dots as a way of counteracting the oftentimes overly serious nature of portraiture, resulting in a series of paintings in 2014. The faces in these pieces tend to recede behind the dots, disrupting the traditional foreground/background conventions of portraiture that place the figure right up front. Instead, the foreground is dominated by dots, bright circles of pigment that almost outweigh the portrait in terms of visual heft. Normally a strong proponent of the unpredictable, Dan wanted to explore the idea of exercising total control over his process with these paintings. By using oil paint he was able to construct these circles with a great deal of precision, a precision he enthusiastically sacrifices when using watercolor.

Dan has recently started a series of paintings in watercolor that lean more towards abstraction. Unlike his recent dot series, these new paintings embrace a definite lack of control. Dan has begun to utilize the unpredictable nature more inherent in watercolor than in any other media. In these new works recognizable shapes are even more abstracted than in his previous work. Faces appear unsteadily through a watery film, reveal themselves for a moment, and then sink again into the depths of the background. An ear or the hint of a cheekbone might appear for a moment, but then immediately sink back into Dan’s colorful quagmire of watercolor that reads as beautiful almost in spite of itself.

Two Watercolors in Dan Sabau’s Studio

The process Dan uses to create these new watercolors was developed with careful attention to both his interest in the figure and his passion for unsettling abstraction. To begin, Dan quickly executes an underdrawing in pencil. These drawings, which are somewhat ignored when the watercoloring phase begins and do eventually disappear (woe to the tragic underdrawing!), are more significant than they might seem. Dan explained that these drawings often reference classic works from the Western Canon. He has, for example, used the silhouette of Michelangelo’s David as his starting point for one these new watercolors. He has said that “there are certain paintings and certain artists that have done things from that era that kind of seem perfect to me, so I try to use that as part of my language.”

After the underdrawing is complete, Dan is usually impatient to start painting. He uses his pencil outlines as a rough guide that governs more the feel of the composition rather than exact delineations of musculature or bone structure. Oddly, this first pass with pigment is often quite realistic, strikingly so when compared to the final result.

Dan Sabau
Untitled, 2015
Watercolor on paper
Dimensions: 39 x 25 in.

Then comes the step that lends unpredictably to his process. After he has put down his brush, Dan pours water on his creation and walks away, allowing the colorful pools to dry free from his prying eyes. He will go for a walk, perhaps eat a meal, and and then come back to see what shapes the poured water has made. The resulting shapes are organic by nature, and obscure much of the detail Dan had worked to create in the earlier steps of creation. The beautiful figure of the first, Dan embraces this method of destruction and delights in seeing the results of his peculiar process. The artwork he creates is always intriguing, the result of his constant experiments with ideas of destruction and beauty. When asked if he’s afraid of losing some aspect of his art through some ill-conceived experiment, Dan’s answer is a steadfast no: “that’s the nature of experimenting,” he has said. “That’s why my work looks the way it does.”

 In Untitled (2015), the water dried to reveal shapes with jagged red and pink edges, which, coupled with the figure’s disfigured, bulbous head and distrustful eyes, create an effect that is quite unsettling. Dan loves making his audience a little uncomfortable, though, and his process has allowed him to mix soft pink shapes evocative of newborns with ragged red ones that remind one of anything but babies.

While watercolor has been Dan’s primary medium for several years, he has also experimented with achieving watercolor’s ethereal effects with different media. The challenge lies in mimicking what he refers to as “the integrity of watercolor” with materials that don’t act in similar ways. He has played around with more traditional materials such as oil, charcoal, and pen, but has also tried painting with pig’s blood and has recently tried his hand at collage, actually cutting up watercolors from years past into different organic shapes and gluing them together to create entirely new compositions. By playing with the combination of these shapes, Dan manages to find a face, a similar process to how he creates his watercolors by gradually pulling out an image from watery chaos.

Bicycle Fine Artist Dan Sabau in his
studio in Greenpoint, NY

No matter what medium Dan tries, his work consistently deals with the same issue of balance and grace, presenting abstract and figurative elements together in a single piece of artwork. Dan is one of those rare artists who recognized his interests at a young age and has spent much of his career dealing with the same set of questions. All of his works (no matter how surreal or strange) possess a unique brand of unsettling beauty not typically found in contemporary figurative art. The artwork coming from his studio is truly exciting, and his new watercolors showcase his bizarre subject matter and intriguing style; these works add a colorful edge to any collection of figurative art.

Posted by

Lisa-Thi Beskar, Art Advisor & Curator