“Originally I was thinking about the material, how to make something that does not bend seem as flexible as paper,” Ms. Saban, 36, said in her lilting Argentine accent. “But looking back I see a connection to earthquakes — the way they cause city streets to buckle or a floor like this to crack.”
And the earthquake imagery is not the only thing connecting Ms. Saban’s work to the studio’s past tenants. She is regarded as one of the heirs to their droll conceptual art tradition, even as she edges into sculptural territory with her concrete pieces, their marble counterparts and other tactile thought-experiments.
“Her work is on this tipping point between the conceptual and the material,” said Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Even when the work has this rigorous procedural quality that translates into language, your first response is simply wonder. How did she bend that stone?
“We’re all watching to see what she comes up with next.”
Lacma already owns 17 of her works. She is also represented in the Hammer Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the most visible of private collections: those of Cindy and Howard Rachofsky of Dallas, Don and Mera Rubell of Miami, and Maurice and Paul Marciano in Los Angeles, whose inaugural show features three of her pieces. The critic Christopher Knight of The Los Angeles Times called her a “standout” of that show for making “inventive use of traditional materials.”
Ms. Saban received her first museum survey in September from the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston. A fitted bedsheet loosely draped over a large canvas, it turns out, was actually made out of acrylic paint. A perfect facsimile of a white cotton hand towel? Just paper.
The survey showed her testing the limits and uses of art history’s media — paint, canvas, ink, marble, much as her contemporaries Walead Beshty and Wade Guyton expose the inner workings of new technologies.
In another series called “Markings,” she manages to scrape a slice of emulsion off the surface of a photograph, placing it on a canvas nearby like a brush stroke. This work will appear in a Sprüth Magers show opening Friday, July 7, in Berlin, “a very nerdy show based on my research into pigments,” said Ms. Saban, who has the soft-spoken, self-effacing manner of a scientist and happens to be married to a doctor.
“There is something surgical about what I do,” she said. “I do a lot of cutting and opening and reconfiguring in my work. I’m interested in taking something apart to see if it can have another life.”
She was sitting at a table in her studio facing a large wooden loom, used for weaving together linen thread and strings made solely of dried acrylic paint. “Instead of painting on the canvas, I’m painting through the canvas,” she explained.
With her new “Pleated Ink” series, hanging near the loom, she tweaks the centuries-old drawing process. Instead of using ink on paper, she used paper on ink: pressing laser-sculpted paper with large cutout areas onto a bed of newspaper-type ink so thick that it took six months to dry. One shows a potted plant; another an angled stairway with railings embedded in the ink.
She began mining and subverting the materials of art history while she was still in graduate school at the University of California in Los Angeles. Born in Buenos Aires to a professional family — her father was an accountant and her mother, a librarian — she says her childhood was disrupted by the bombing of the Israeli Embassy there in 1992, just around the corner from her school. She was 11.
“It marked me for sure,” she said. “It was a real explosion, with the ground shaking and windows shattering and then chunks of the classroom ceiling falling. I didn’t get hurt but a lot of my friends had blood on them. And I do think a lot of my work has to do with destruction but also fixing things, or trying to weave things — or keep things — together.”
One odd effect: After her school reopened, it built a first-rate video lab. “The Japanese Embassy felt so bad for our school that they donated this incredible video equipment from Sony,” she said. As the lab’s only apprentice, she learned basic editing and composition skills that she has used since.
She went on to study film and video art at Loyola University in New Orleans for her bachelor’s degree. Then, for her master’s, she enrolled in the home for art outcasts known as the “new genres” program at U.C.L.A., studying with the ever-provocative Paul McCarthy and Mr. Baldessari, who remains a friend, mentor and source of witty titles. (He came up with “Threadbare” for her new trompe l’oeil series at Sprüth Magers, which looks uncannily like canvas.)
Yet she said she felt directionless for most of that period. “I was very lost at the time. It was 2005 and it was a very high point in the market. I was surprised by how many dealers were coming to our studios looking at painting — it seemed painting was all that mattered.”
She asked herself: How can a painting be worth $90 million? What is a painting anyway?
She collected over 100 paintings from odd sources, thrift stores, fellow students’ work, Chinese painting factories that produced Picasso and Van Gogh knockoffs. Then she proceeded to unravel each canvas into its pigment-dotted threads, rolling them together into a single, thigh-high ball.
“There was something very liberating about it, to understand that painting does not have to be this precious thing hanging on the wall — it’s just a piece of fabric, material from everyday life, like the thread that we wear.”
Shown in her graduating exhibition, “The Painting Ball (48 Abstract, 42 Landscapes, 23 Still Lifes, 11 Portraits, 2 Religious, 1 Nude),” helped secure her first gallery show in Los Angeles and then one in Munich in 2007 with Sprüth Magers.
And her interest in pigments led to a residency at the Getty Research Institute in 2015 to 2016, when the scholarly theme was art and materials. “My idea was: Could I use conservation tools to make art instead of conserve art?” she said. She ended up experimenting with early pigment sources like azurite minerals and cochineal insects, sources of rich blues and red hues. In one work in the Berlin show, she slyly mixes whole bugs into encaustic paint along with the red powder made from grinding them — inviting viewers to see her process.
In 2014, the artist began working on her “Draped Marble” series, devising a way to bend a marble slab over a sawhorse as you might hang a beach towel over a chair. She used a sledgehammer to create a crease in the marble slab, lined with fiberglass mesh underneath to keep the fragments from falling apart. (The Folded Concrete sculptures took much more force, requiring a crane to bend the concrete.)
Claudia Schmuckli, who organized the Blaffer exhibition, calls her choice of marble “extremely loaded,” referring to its evolution from the temples of ancient Greece to ubiquitous kitchen countertops today. “I don’t think her work is meant as an overt critique of consumer society or the role of women within it, but it certainly reflects an awareness of how art has been absorbed by the decorative, domestic sphere.”
Ms. Saban said she was inspired by the masterly drapery carved in marble by classical and Renaissance sculptors, citing the folds of the Virgin Mary’s robe billowing at her feet in Michelangelo’s Pietà in Rome. The artist was struck by the extraordinary effort and skill evident in transforming stone into what looks like fabric — “turning the hard into the flexible, the rough into the polished, the strong into the fragile.”
“I love the way these artists were insisting on the impossible,” she said.