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October 4, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
In a small white studio downtown, there are books, easels, tools and a series of paintings both complete and unfinished. But Joel Sager’s most notable item might be an innocuous trunk of old wallpaper.
Sager, 32, uses what he calls a mixed-media collage process. He layers paper and paint then coats it with roofing tar as a finishing touch. He has collected vintage wallpaper over the past 10 years, some purchased in thrift stores and some peeled from the walls of old houses. Sager found a large part of his collection in Montmartre on a trip to Paris in 2003. He was so taken with it that he brought it home in a second suitcase.
WHERE: Perlow-Stevens Gallery
WHEN: Oct. 3 to Dec. 29; Tue. through Sat., 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.,Sun., 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
ONLINE: perlow-stevens gallery.com
The wallpaper is a critical component of Sager’s method. It’s the foundation of his art, the first step in his process. He has been drawing and painting since he was a child, and years of exploring different techniques as a student, apprentice and artist, have led him to this approach.
“I feel like in a lot of ways my process is my voice, like a writer would have a voice,” he says. “My process is something that helps me express something peculiar and specific visually.”
That distinct visual style caught the attention of Jennifer Perlow, one of the executive curators at the Perlow-Stevens Gallery, who says she was immediately taken by Sager’s work when they met nine years ago. Perlow raves about the nostalgic sensibility of his method. It’s part of what made him a success at the gallery, where he is the only artist featured in all four annual shows.
In the autumn exhibit that opened Oct. 3, Sager presents a continuation of what he calls his rural structures, still-life paintings of barns and dilapidated farmhouses.
“Everyone can identify in some capacity with the rural life, whether or not their parents grew up on it or they grew up on it or they’ve even just driven through it,” Sager says about his subject matter. “It’s kind of a vanishing way of life.”
Sager’s technique plays a big role in evincing what he calls a sense of nostalgia. He often paints simple, everyday objects, such as a ladder, a shoe or an ashed cigarette, but there is an unmistakable sense of wistfulness to his work — a gritty and melancholic tone that is brought about in part by the layers of wallpaper and tar.
“The tar, I think, gives it a sense of darkness, and the color palate gives it a sense of eeriness,” he says. “I think it’s something that also kind of nods to folk art and this simple way of life the Midwest has historically.”
A 10-year resident of Columbia, Sager has seen his work flourish in town and beyond. His pieces have been featured at the True/False Film Fest and on NPR’s “What Do You Know?” Under a grant from the city, Sager recently began his first public art project, to paint noteworthy Columbia landmarks on the fifth floor of City Hall.
As far as his ultimate ambitions are concerned, Sager doesn’t seem overly preoccupied with what might or might not happen to his art, as long as he can continue to create. It is more of an effort to refine his voice and technique, he says, than it is an attempt to accumulate accolades.
“I really, honestly guess I’m pretty shortsighted in that aspect,” he says, “because I just want to work and paint, and if something good happens, it’s nice.”