Paul Klein: Artist Spotlight on Sabrina Raaf

Editor's Note: June's theme is "overlooked". Although Sabrina Raaf has gotten some local press over the years, she is not represented by a gallery in Chicago although she has an illustrious international career. She just completed a 6,000 piece of electronic public art for McCormick Place West. Paul Klein has gotten some heat about having favorite artists he's stood by for many years, but I've found them all to be deserving of his loyalty. I've interviewed Raaf myself, and feel like she just might be be representing the U.S. in the Venice Biennale in fifteen years.


Artist Profile: Sabrina Raaf, by Paul Klein





Many artists feel like they've succeeded once they establish a relationship with a gallery. Yet for many artists, galleries do not meet their needs.

The gallery structure is an old-fashioned, protectionist system more akin to indentured servitude than an inspired, liberating, creative form commensurate with the imagination and inventiveness of many of today's artists.


This is the first in a series of articles revealing significant Chicago artists who are not exhibited by Chicago galleries.  In part this is because there are not enough collectors and not enough galleries to appreciate or accommodate the 1,500 artists who graduate yearly from Chicago area art schools.


To a larger extent the breadth of, or divergence, from what one expects to see in an art gallery here means that many artists who don't conform to the gallery structure are going to have to exhibit elsewhere, in non-commercial venues, where their art can be appreciated in an appropriate context.


Sabrina Raaf is an interdisciplinary artist whose work bridges art, architecture, design and science.  She builds machines that respond to either the environment or human participation. 


At McCormick Place West - the new 2.3 million square foot convention center addition filled with permanent site specific art by 30 Chicago and Illinois artists - Sabrina Raaf created an interactive interpretation of Mies van der Rohr's Glass Curtain Wall that appears to "flutter in the breeze" (a nod to the "windy city" moniker). The sculpture utilizes eighteen plasma screen displays that react to people speaking into the adjacent microphone (read post about "Curtain Wall"). 


To be able to create art with fabrication costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars invariably means it is not going to appear in an art gallery.  The artist cannot cover the cost of fabrication and only a handful of galleries in the world are willing to incur the risk of subsidizing such a creation.  That means artists like Sabrina Raaf seek out residencies - where artists are in residence for a finite period of time, often with all expenses covered for the duration, and sometimes with handsome stipends.


Though Raaf exhibits in a couple of more technologically prone West Coast galleries, it's hard for her to rely on gallery sales for income to offset the cost of making the art.  Artists like Sabrina look for funding upfront - in advance of the creation of the art. And since they are not reliant on galleries, they seek venues around the globe that are known for showing riskier art, where their art appears in a context that augments their résumé.


This summer Raaf will work at a robot factory in Denmark for over two months where robots will delicately laser-cut her designs to build a prototype "dew-catcher" inspired by modern Danish lamps. Raaf is intrigued by Scandinavian "hand-crafted" furniture that is now made by robots. She is also "making a river" that will cascade out the window and into the world, meandering along the algorithmic path she's designed (blog about the project)


Raaf is evidence of the new breed of artist not confined to a traditional studio, nor relegated to the aging gallery system.  Her broad education, knowledge and experience coupled with a history of participating in collaborative projects enables her to move fluidly between the different worlds of art, architecture, design and science to participate in reshaping our world.  It is visions like hers that have a genuine impact on broad segments of our population even though we don't yet see evidence right here at home.   - Paul Klein


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