Post-Americana: New Paintings by Susan Bee, A.I.R. Gallery, NYC; March 10-28, 1998
From Art Papers, July/August 1998, Volume 22, Issue 4
Susan Bee's work has an eclectic eccentricity that vividly synthesizes the dialogue between painterly painting and the most broadly surveyed field of contemporary visual culture. Her work is profoundly heterogeneous at the level of facture, making use of a veritable inventory of painting's tropes -- expressive gestures, activated drips, suggestive washes, thick impasto, and delicate lines -- and an endless menu of appropriated stickers, decals, beads, paste jewels, plastic insects, and other elements. There is something at once disorderly and systematic in the strategies of continual appropriation and recombination in her work, a mutant hybrid activity recuperated through the effective synthesizing of aesthetics. The conviction of her vision -- idiosyncratic but consistent -- brings the disparate elements in and on these canvases into compelling focus.
The visual success of Bee's work resides in the seductive complexity of its surfaces and effects, but its edge derives from the tensions of its imagery. Aloha (1997) breaks current rules of self-conscious criticality, using cliched, campy, cut-outs of a hula girl and a Swiss miss and placing them a vivid field of articulated strokes of color where they flaunt their politically incorrect presence among outsized, flower stickers, as well as a bee, a giant painted rubber snake, and plastic sea-shells. In She'll Get Hers (1998) pulp-cover vamps display their bodice-ripped flesh in a painted field of overgrown flora setting up a conflict between popular sleaze and the decorative richness of hot-house organic excess. Such images are throw-backs to stereotypes which usually show up in contemporary art within the contexts of highly critical debates on sexuality, ethnicity, and the ideology of images. Bee's work has a celebratory and ludic capacity to loosen the most fixed and dogmatic elements from their assumed position in the cultural hierarchy of values. In the last two decades, fine art has been intently engaged in a struggle to reassess images of identity or politically charged themes or icons from mass media culture. Most of that work has been photographic. Bee's painting also embodies that struggle, demonstrating that the canvas is one place in which to trap and reconfigure the stuff of the cultural field.
Bee is unafraid of kitsch images, overtly sentimental paper dolls, figures of angels, animals, and children. But her really transgressive act is to like the kitschy objects she put in her works - and to like them for sentimental and aesthetic reasons. She doesn't police the appeal of the two little children in Be Mine (1998) by subjecting the found images (decals, stickers, or cut-outs) to a "critique" of their mass culture origin, but acknowledges their seductive quality. However, she also emphasizes the darker side of our basest needs for sentimental images. One small girl is entwined and engulfed in her mother’s arms, while another cuts out paper hearts to form the word “daddy” under a spider’s web so that the painting becomes a sinister valentine. Appropriated materials are so completely simulacral in Bee's work that any attempt to read stable or intentional cultural meaning back into them would be a ridiculous enterprise akin to criticizing Barney of bad faith, the Titanic cast of bad acting, or mass culture of bad aesthetics -- "uh, duh?" Bee supercedes knee-jerk reactive criticisms, with their puritanical and predictable formulaic responses, and engages seriously with the capacity of image-making to reformulate value through the activity of painting as a cultural practice.
Bee's balancing act of appropriation and fine art (closer to that of Sigmar Polke than any other precedent) always, ultimately, finally ends up on the side of painting. Painting functions as redemptive, exhilarating, visually engaging. Aesthetics triumphs over the eclectic materials, subsuming them within the full spectrum of painterly devices. Several decades of experience are evident in the virtuosity Bee exhibits of color-field and gestural abstraction, traditional composition, figurative, and decorative traditions. But if, for instance, the drips of enamel paint which show up on some of these surfaces are an obvious quotation of the clichés of high modernism, Bee doesn't just use them to indicate Jackson Pollock's historical precedent in through some carefully framed act of appropriation. She grabs onto and engages with drips as a painter, as part of the vocabulary of painting, as if they don't have to be constrained within the self-conscious modes of quotation, citation, re-appropriation. This obviating of historical lineage and the strict patriarchal line of the high modernist legacy combines with a disregard for the critically sanctioned, postmodern, gesture of acknowledging every painterly trope as always already exhausted. Bee demonstratres the possibility that painting can function as an inventive means of processing personal, aesthetic, and cultural material. The protests and sputters of critics are practically audible in the background here -- but painting is dead, painting is over, painting is painting after the end of painting, after its evacuation and annihilation. Says who?