Layered Landscapes: Sara J. Frantz Goes on an Architectural Road Trip

"Rooftop Garden 2" by Sara J. Frantz
"Rooftop Garden 2" by Sara J. Frantz, which depicts a building in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is featured in the art exhibition "East of Middle" at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo.

If you ever travel with Sara J. Frantz, be prepared for frequent stops. The Los Osos artist, whose graphic gouache and graphite drawings explore the tension between manmade structures and the natural landscapes that surround them, is always on the lookout for compelling subjects.

"My friends are very used to me being like, 'Hold on. We have to double back. ...I'm just going to jump out and take a few pictures with my iPhone,'" she said with a laugh.

An assistant professor of studio art at Cal Poly, Frantz showcases some of her finds in the exhibition "East of Middle," running Nov. 6 through Dec. 4 at the Harold J. Miossi Art Gallery at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. (The title refers to her travels throughout the United States and around the globe.) Earlier this year, her work was showcased in the solo shows "The Pleasure Seekers" at David Shelton Gallery in Houston and "Between Borderlands" at Women & Their Work in Austin, Texas.

"I love interesting buildings, interesting architecture," Frantz said, especially "worn-down, dilapidated, abandoned" structures that exemplify a mid-century Americana aesthetic -- the kind commonly spotted alongside highways and interstates.

"I love her graphic sense," Cuesta College fine arts instructor David Prochaska said, calling Frantz "a perfect fit for Cal Poly, with its architecture department."

Sara J. Frantz works in her San Luis Obispo studio. | Photo: Courtesy of Sara J. Frantz.
Sara J. Frantz works in her San Luis Obispo studio. | Photo: Courtesy of Sara J. Frantz.

Frantz, 34, grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, that familiar Midwestern landscape documented in the classic coming-of-age movies of 1980s auteur John Hughes. "There was a lot of uniformity and a lot of new build," she recalled.

Seeking a change of scenery, Frantz earned a bachelor's degree in studio art in 2003 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before exchanging the frozen north for the sizzling south. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2007 with a master of fine arts degree in painting, then spent a few years teaching at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

It was in 2008, during a Nes Artist Residency in Skagastrond, Iceland, that Frantz encountered the inspiration for her current series. "This was a landscape that was so other to me," she said, a stark yet stunning terrain dotted with tiny houses. "I was like, 'Where are my markers? Where are my indicators of what space is?'"

Her focus "became more than just the space and the nature," said Frantz, who recently wrapped up her first year at Cal Poly. "It also became the people who moved here and put their homes down [here], how they changed that space and how that space changed them."

"Covered Wagon" by Sara J. Frantz.
"Covered Wagon" by Sara J. Frantz.

She started out by visually removing the manmade structures from their natural environments -- as seen in the pieces "Covered Wagon" and "Terlingua Store," both featured in "East of Middle." While their surroundings are illustrated in detail, the buildings themselves are represented by blank spaces.

"I was using the void as a way to pull away [from]... or isolate this constructed environment," she explained.

Further exploring the idea of a void, Frantz filled in the absent shapes with white paint. "I took a step back and went, 'That is the wimpiest, lamest next step,'" she said with a laugh.

So Frantz, influenced by the work of German-American artist Josef Albers, decided to take a bolder approach and replace the pure white forms with planes of bright, boisterous color.

"It really shifted the work," Frantz said. "Since then, I've continued to push that [aesthetic] and think about the building itself," she added, asking herself, "'What is emphasized? What's negated? When does it come together? And when does it fall apart?'"

Frantz's pieces now pair colorful, semi-abstract buildings with meticulously rendered black-and-white backgrounds.

While the presence of humans is felt, they're not actually seen, she said, noting that "If I start to put people [in my work], that inevitably, is going to be what people are going to want to know about and investigate."

"I don't have a specific social commentary that I'm making" about humans' impact on their environment, Frantz explained. "With the colors and with the shapes, there's almost more of a connection to art history and to pop culture and to advertising then there is to an environmental statement."

"It's always about 'What is this tension between these spaces -- in a contextual level and a formal level and a historical level?'" she said. "It's about trying to create these new, different relationships."

Unlike the Hudson River School landscape painters, whose works reflected a romantic, sublimely spiritual connection with nature, Frantz is drawn not to majestic mountains or tranquil glades -- but to the everyday vistas familiar to any city dweller or suburbanite.

"Rearview" by Sara J. Frantz.
"Rearview" by Sara J. Frantz.

"You can go to Yellowstone and it's going to be gorgeous. It's going to be beautiful. We can all agree on that," she said. "But that's not my connection to nature. My connection to nature is sitting there with headphones on" gazing at an abandoned gas station as her dog sniffs the overgrown shrubbery.

"This is my landscape. When I'm walking my dog around the block, this is what I see." she said.

In "East of Middle," she showcases such seemingly ordinary structures as billboards and carports. "I tend to work more with spaces I live around," the artist explained, although she's also found inspiration abroad.

Her piece "Rooftop Garden 2" depicts a building in bustling Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, which Frantz explored while traveling in Southeast Asia this summer with two of her three brothers. The trees in the title garden are represented by stylized, stick-like shapes, Frantz's own personal code for foliage.

Although the buildings to the left and right of the towering structure are nowhere to be seen, Frantz acknowledges its surroundings by showing the muted reflection of the opposite side of the street in a bank of windows. "I'm selecting [how I'm] nodding to the environment," she explained.

"Sun Valley Blvd" by Sara J. Frantz.
"Sun Valley Blvd" by Sara J. Frantz.
"Waco Memorial" by Sara J. Frantz.
"Waco Memorial" by Sara J. Frantz.

"Sun Valley Blvd" and "Waco Memorial" offer alternate views of the same geodesic funeral home situated off I-35 near Waco, Texas. While the former captures "that feeling of being on the highway and looking at a building over a median," Frantz said, the latter lets the viewer explore the actual grounds.

Her six-piece series "Not Too Distant Future," in contrast, enters the realm of the abstract with bare representations of billboards and drive-in movie screens -- some seemingly suspended in midair. (Frantz said she was inspired by Los Angeles-born installation artist James Turrell and his work in the Southern California Light and Space movement.)

Frantz said it's difficult to explain what attracts her to a subject. Finding that connection could be as simple as glancing up to see the sun silhouette a particular form.

"Sometimes it's just a moment. It is just seeing this building and having this instant clarity in my mind of 'I know the colors. I know what this composition's going to look like,'" she said. "Sometimes it's dumb luck."

For instance, she remembers being struck by the zigzag roof of a shuttered San Luis Obispo waffle house. "I drove past it so many times and was like, 'What is it?'" said Frantz, who captured the structure in her piece "The Golden Waffle."

"The Golden Waffle" by Sara J. Frantz.
"The Golden Waffle" by Sara J. Frantz.

The angular lines of a former dermatologist's office elsewhere in the city also caught her eye. "When I came and interviewed for my job at Cal Poly, I was in my rental car driving past the [building] and I was like, 'Regardless of if I get this job or not, that is definitely going to be a drawing,'" she recalled with a chuckle. That experience inspired "84."

Whereas Frantz's earlier drawings depicted specific spaces "where people lived and worked and existed," her most recent work shows landscapes that exist only in her imagination. Two pieces featured in "East of Middle" -- "Yes," which depicts an A-frame rest stop, and "Rearview," which shows a colorful cantilever house -- reveal her continuing evolution as an artist.

"As [I] continue to... discover new things about these spaces and discover new things about the way I want these spaces to interact with each other, I'm feeling less attached to that specific place -- which was so, so important to me [earlier]," Frantz explained. "I don't feel like I have [to] draw everything, like I used to. I can edit things out and I can push space to make it weird. ...There's less planning and more play."

"Yes" by Sara J Frantz.
"Yes" by Sara J Frantz.

With "East of Middle," Frantz hopes to foster the same sense of play -- encouraging viewers to interact with their environments in a fresh new way.

"One of my favorite things is when people recognize [buildings] even if they're completely fractured," the artist said. "They're like, 'Oh my God, that's a bar in Tuscon that I've been to. That really is a weird building.' Then they start to talk about their experiences and what that building used to be."

Each structure, she added, "houses this richer, bigger history."

"Jenny" by Sara J. Frantz.
"Jenny" by Sara J. Frantz.

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