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Carole Bayer Sager at the William Turner Gallery

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Carole Bayer Sager
Carole Bayer Sager

Love, loss, and fortitude are often the subject of Carole Bayer Sager's lyrics -- you've heard them before, sung by everyone from Petula Clark to Chaka Khan. But five years ago Sager turned to a new career -- painting on canvass -- and she's been at it feverishly ever since. Her first major show at a commercial gallery, "New Works," is at William Turner Gallery in Santa Monica, CA, through Jan. 5, and it's a knockout. The paintings range from medium to large -- up to 7-foot tall -- and are astonishingly luscious celebration of snack foods. Yes, drippy, gooey mounds and falling cascades of peanuts, popcorn (caramel and plain), ice cream, and peanut butter and jelly. Things you really shouldn't be eating, of course, but rather crave.

Last fall I had a chance to visit Sager's studio, an elegantly modern, light-infused space which she had special-built for her artmaking. (She has a separate music studio, attached to her house up the hill.) The paintings were mostly done, hanging on the walls, with an easel in the middle of the room and a desk in the corner. "I like to be able to step back and look at these paintings," she says.

Born and raised in New York City, Sager started writing songs as a teenager. "A Groovy Kind of Love," the song she co-wrote with Toni Wine, became a hit while she was still attending the New York City High School of Music and Art. Recorded by the British group The Mindbenders, the song reached #2 on Billboard's Hot 100 list. The song was also recorded by Petula Clark, Sonny & Cher, and Phil Collins. For 10 years Sager was married to the legendary Burt Bacharach, with whom she wrote "On My Own" (which became a Patti Labelle hit) and "That's What Friends Are For" (which won the Grammy's Song of the Year in 1987). Admittedly, writing songs has been a way to navigate a painful and difficult personal life. "Writing songs just saved my life," she says. "I always need to be doing something creative." (She is now happily married to Robert Daly, former chair of Warner Brothers.)

Five years ago Sager picked up the brush, and she hired private tutors to learn from. Since I happen to know one of them, I can see she hired the best in the Realist tradition. On the computer Sager shows me her portfolio, and she has done portraiture -- Steve Martin and Mr. Chow among them -- but clearly the hyper-real still-lifes that surround us are her passion.

The paintings reflect her delight in experimenting with color, composition, and texture. "Portrait of Two Popcorn" features two popped kernels on a black background, with a ghostly reflection upon the surface on which they are sitting. One can't help but to anthropomorphize them because of the way they're presented -- like two star performers standing side by side on a stage, taking their applause. In "Popping" she sends dozens of kernels flying - they are caught suspended in midair, again with a black background to highlight their vanilla forms. In "Big Pop," she has us looking into a bowl of popcorn, creating depth and three-dimensionality through composition and color values, and bold application of blues and purples.

Somehow it seems appropriate that a pop songwriter is so fascinated by a Pop art style -- the giant blow-ups of common food being part of the lexicon of such Pop greats as Andy Warhol with his Campbell soup cans and Claes Oldenburg with his giant sculpture of ice cream cone, hamburger, and so on. During my visit Sager also reveals that these were the kinds of food forbidden to her when growing up - she was plump and much criticized for it by her mother. So now she gets to indulge a little! (Calorie-free, of course...)

Sager certainly knows how to trigger our own cravings -- we are dazzled by the prospect of sweet, gooey things with contrasting mouthfeel. "Global Warming" is one of my favorites -- its very title reflects a wry, self-aware humor. It features a ball of vanilla ice cream sitting on a thick cookie, drenched with dripping hot fudge. Beneath that chocolate coating are bumps of peanut. Take a bite (in your mind), and you can savor the warm and cool, the soft melt-in-your mouth of ice cream and fudge, contrasted with the crisp crunch of baked cookie. Another spellbinder is "Drippy" with its closeup of layers of crunchy peanut butter, grape jelly, and biscuit, some of that soaked in jelly juice. To add a bit of tension, a giant jelly drip is cascading down the side. At four-foot-square in size, the subject becomes epic, and Sager captures it all with a lively, confident brush and consummate wit.