Art in America
December 2000

Susan Bee at A.I.R

Thomas McEvilley

Susan Bee's work has generally followed the postmodernist agenda by acknowledging inner contradiction and welcoming compromise, as compared to the modernist insistence on the integrity of the art work. High and low, painterly and photographic, male and female, childish and adult, these are the Levi-Straussian bipolar "structures" that Bee attempts to mediate. She seems to fail, although, on second thought, perhaps the very attempt was a fake, and the triumph of contradiction is the point of it all.

In her recent work, Bee largely abandons her characteristic childhood images in favor of two elements newly come to the fore: cliches from popular entertainment about middle-class, middle-aged life, and cosmic complexes in which such cliched figures and images are afloat like zodiacal signs. Several of her pictures incorporate the covers of classic pulp mysteries of the 1940s and `50s, sometimes color-Xeroxed, sometimes directly collaged onto the pictorial surface. She harvests the garish sex encounters they depict as if seeking a satisfaction that more recent culture has discreetly denied her.

Bee's interest lies in feminine gender stereotypes rather than masculine, as suggested by titles like Warped Women, Her Candle Burns Hot and Beware the Lady. In Her Candle Burns Hot, for example, the image of a beauty queen and the portrayal of a moment of tawdry passion hover in the night sky like constellations whose traditional meanings have been cheapened by a kind of cultural studies-based reverse alchemy. Tempted peers into the undersea world as Candle looked up into the sky. Through another cultural studies-inspired reversal, figures from bourgeois family entertainments of the 1950s are presented as ancient deities on lily pads.

In two of the works, Beware the Lady and Love Is a Gentle Whip, the surface has been irregularly gridded into a Mondrian-like architectonic structure. But rather than fill in the grid with dignified blocks of pure color, Bee tucks lurid images into the compartments to suggest a universe that is rigorously ordered, yet mocked and degraded by the actual contents of its constituent sections. The nature/culture interpenetration implied by the vaguely organic swirl of appropriated motifs in Bee's other works has been supplanted by an ordered array which conveys the isolation of human lives, problems, experiences and, finally, deaths. This relentless rectilinearity is not presented as an underlying metaphysical reality, as in a Mondrian abstraction. Rather, the grid separates things on the surface, precisely in the ego consciousness in which we live from moment to moment. Right on the surface lie the confinement of the individual and his or her futile attempts to unify it all through a desperate cognitive ordering.