Artist Sara Erenthal’s canvases are discarded objects: flat-screen TVs, couches, refrigerators, and wooden panels and doors. Her characteristic iconography is a hand-painted, black-outlined woman with big hair, almond-shaped eyes, and small red lips accompanied by lines like “I’LL BE AS LOUD AS I NEED TO BE,” “GOOD NEWS IS COMING STAY TUNED,” and “I WON’T MAKE MYSELF VULNERABLE TODAY” (the last notably written on a discarded mattress). I began spotting her work on the streets of Prospect Heights, Park Slope, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights in 2015. In 2017, my local bagel shop windows were adorned with rows of this portrait, which is where I saw the tag @saraerenthalart and learned that her art had multiple lives: here, ephemerally on the street, and immortalized on the web.
Erenthal’s work is funny; using open-ended short phrases, her tableaus make use of the materials on which they are painted, such as “LET’S NETFLIX AND CHILL” on a television, “I LEFT THE DOOR OPEN” on a door, and “I WILL GET THROUGH THIS FEELING OF EMPTINESS” in an empty plastic storage container. This humor and simplicity is fitting for the work’s location on the street, where people catch glimpses of it in transit. The artist has long played with the expectations of where art belongs and who its audience should be, bringing art into the daily lives of people who may never enter a gallery. Her practice of making public art, “upcycling,” tackles the issues of public space: gentrification, homelessness, street harassment (“IF YOU DON’T ASK THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS NO”), and the danger women face just by walking alone.
Erenthal was raised in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, growing up in both New York and Israel. When she was 17, she ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage. Her work places women—rendered in a cartoonish style—unafraid and unashamed out on the street, a location in which we are not always welcome or safe; her figures’ eyes fixed open with a gaze directed straight at us, expressing sexual desires as well as anxieties such as, “I WANT US TO SLEEP TOGETHER SO LET’S NOT BE FRIENDS,” and “I SHOULD’VE KEPT YOU AS A FANTASY,” both on mattresses; “LIKE MY LOVE LIFE” on the base of a broken guitar; and “PLEASE STOP MAKING COMMENTS ABOUT MY WEIGHT” on the back of a dresser. She’s also addressed national politics, like her 2019 mural in Crown Heights showing two women with uplifted fists flanking the words “MY UTERUS MY DECISION,” or a painting on a board inside a front yard, leaned up against the railing reading, “CHILDREN DON’T BELONG IN CAGES.”
The current state of social isolation gives her work a new relevance, as we are all now forced to experience art in unexpected, non-traditional art spaces, like the street and the screen, viewing art only from the safety of our homes or on a socially distanced walk. “THE STREET IS OUR ONLY MUSEUM NOW,” Erenthal paints below her wide-eyed heroine, recorded in her March 22 2020 Instagram photo, which also captures two passersby reading the words, unmasked. In addition to documenting her work outdoors, these photos, as the pandemic progresses, capture people’s changing behaviors and dresses in public. A photo posted less than three weeks later, on April 10, shows a masked woman walking her dog on the streets of Prospect Lefferts near Erenthal’s drawing on a dismantled refrigerator reading, “I DON’T WANT TO GET USED TO THIS.” Her words and images offer comfort during these isolating times, expressing the fear, uncertainty, and solitude many of us are experiencing in our homes. Her use of discarded mattresses especially speaks to that loneliness: “MY LACK OF SLEEP DUE TO ANXIETY IS GETTING TO ME,” below her solo female figure, and “IMAGINARY QUARANTINE PARTNER,” written under two figures clinging together. As businesses remain closed, there are many vacant store windows. In Park Slope, Erenthal fills an empty window with her lady and the words “ONE DAY AT A TIME.” On Instagram, she poses next to the work wearing a mask.
Recently, Erenthal has begun posting videos of a performance she’s been doing in still-busy Prospect Park, where she installs a piece reading, “I LIVE ALONE. PLEASE TALK TO ME FROM 6 FEET AWAY” against a tree and, wearing a mask, sits by the artwork as passersby interact with her or stop to read the piece. The performance, documented in stills and videos on her Instagram and recently featured on Pix 11 local news, shows how even in these times, art can be a means to reach out to people, an opening for conversation, or an unexpected comfort. Much as her practice has always embraced the chaos and detritus of the street, Erenthal’s new work leans into our difficult circumstances, offering a way to move through them together.