December 1, 2000
New Paintings, Artists' Books
Columbia University Through December 15, 2000
by Eileen Tabios
"you can't leave the theater humming the critique"
--Charles Bernstein, Log Rhythms
One reads as much as views Susan Bee's paintings. This means one can approach her work by considering words in general as well as the paint and found objects through which she creates her works. One can consider, for example, poetry specifically, how contemporary poetry is marked by the varied ways through which poets fragment text and/or disrupt narrative to reflect cultural, social and political concerns. Some poets may shy away from lyricism and traditional forms of poetry as part of their questioning of the role of language in promoting inequities. Others may collage into poems the words of other authors to reflect the difficulty of answering the question "Who am I?" As they explore these questions, some of these poets also come to be concerned with how their poems may offer some relevance some meaning to readers who are unaware of or indifferent to the particular issues underlying how they write their poems. Perhaps a different way of considering this question is to ask: if art is to avoid solipsism, how does one create art fully reflective of one's environment and history without being dragged into nihilism from the awareness that oppression will last as long as human history that to live is to engage, whether knowingly or not, with power struggles?
Bee's recent paintings affirm an impression I received from her prior one-person show earlier this year at A.I.R. Gallery that she is directly addressing this question. Equally important, she explores this issue in a manner that enhances the visual effectiveness of her paintings.
As shown in the exhibit's paintings which were painted from 1995-2000, Bee's works long have used a variety of materials and methods to reflect her wide-ranging considerations that include patriarchy, cultural norms or standards based on illusion, and power. Consequently, one can ascribe (and critics in the past have used) such words as "political," "feminist," "historically conscious," "cerebral" and "cultural commentary" to describe Bee's works. While appropriate, these terms cannot capture what Bee creates in her paintings. Her work, too, reveals that art cannot be separated from, but nonetheless is not only, intention.
To discuss her work is also to surface words like "colorist," gestural," "painterly" in other words, one should revert to aesthetic as much as philosophical terms because Bee never sacrifices her focus on the physical properties of her material to the altar of concept. Bee remains a painter; and as a painter, she is an astute colorist.
Red Dot, 1998, for example, is a relatively small painting (18 X 38 inches) that juxtaposes through paint and collage at least ten different colors, three playing cards whose images include cherubs flying through air and sitting on an anchor, metallic gold glitter, red dots (of course), as well as paper cut-outs of a blindfolded Valkyrie, a couple linked in an embrace with the man's face buried in her hair, and a woman in a low-cut dress whose skirt is lifted to reveal high-heeled legs. Also glued on the painting are children's toys two purple snakes and one silver spider. In addition, the painting contains fractured grids and color fields, as well as a gray section on the forefront ("forefront" because the varied elements create a multi-layered space) that is overlayed with delicate black lines evoking the ink drawings of Henri Michaux. One can "read" how the painting pokes fun at so-called "fine art" by incorporating kitschy elements and images from film noir, or how the painting transcends (and thus subverts) art historical categories by combining abstract gesturalism with found objects. Ultimately, however, this assemblage works because of the overall harmony effected visually through the painterly devices of surface and color.
Bee's use of paint and compatible (and pleasurably-unexpected) color combinations in order to unify her material evokes an excerpt from the poem "Log Rhythms" by Charles Bernstein, with whom she collaborated to create an artist book (one of four books featured in the exhibit):
" Do I make myself insulate,
endometrial, inchoate, irradiant, bossa
nova, lindy hop, cha cha cha? I've got
a word right here and it has your name
written all over it. Hoops or hoopla?
Or whooping cough? Whiplash? Survival
without dignity that's one thing; but survival
Property the physical attributes of her material is exactly what Bee does not surrender even as she explores her feminist and political concerns. But she also uses her intellectual interests to uplift her raw material. In Soujourner's Truth, 2000, a cut-out image features the anti-slavery and women's rights activist in a gray dress holding a pouch emblazoned with the image of a policeman with a truncheon pushing forward a handcuffed prisoner. Sojourner's figure on the left side of the painting acts like a tree trunk to become the base of green limbs flowing out from her head to depict two gray flowers as well as images including a brown monkey raising a gun. From the gun's barrel emanates an orange and white bloom that can either be fire or a flower. On the painting's right side, another tree-like extension offers more images at its appendages, including a man in a cell. The second structure of green limbs allows a balanced composition against the Sojourner tree. Sojourner also seems replicated in miniature at the left edge of the painting, but through a gray cutout of the Statue of Liberty whose torch emanates another orange-ish bloom of flames similar to what came out of the monkey's gun as well as the form blooming out from Sojourner's head. Bee also painted blood-like stains on Sojourner's dress, from which she drew arrows pointing to other parts of the painting that might relate to the blood stains; some arrows point to humans like a man wielding an ax while other arrows point simply to some of the colored dots and rectangular brushstrokes strewn throughout the paining. It's as if Bee is positing that a charged figurative image (like a cop arresting a man) is also a set of colors she can rework into a painting which is to say, art can be political but politics alone is not necessarily art.
Thus, Sojourner's Truth honors the life of the activist who lived from 1797 to 1883. When juxtaposing images from her life with seemingly non sequitur visuals from collaged cut-outs of a clown holding up an umbrella, a doll and two kids playing in front of a grinning pumpkin, Bee reminds us of the price paid throughout history so that some of us can afford to live aspects of our life with innocence. But the painting is also a skillful abstraction of primarily orange, brown, green and gray a color field one might associate with certain African textiles. This means that until one might realize the reference to Sojourner Truth through the painting's title, one already can appreciate the painting based on the balanced, colorful imagery.
Indeed, two of Bee's four 2000 paintings in the show Sojourner's Truth and Clouds of Joy incorporate a layering of small round or rectangular brush strokes in a loose pointillist manner. When compared with the use of grids or color fields to link together disparate images in older paintings such as Beware the Lady, 1999, Love Is A Gentle Whip, 1999 and Red Dot, one can see Bee continuing to extend her consistent investigation of, and loyalty to, painting even as she lived through the period that prematurely blared the death of her medium.
Bee has turned her eye onto a troubled world and brought its sometimes dysfunctional fragments into her paintings. Unlike poets who lay textual fragments on the page to highlight rupture through caesuras and juxtaposed meanings, Bee is interested in unifying the fragments. This, she accomplishes through color as well as the surface and gesture of her brushstrokes. She is a political artist making paintings, not politics. (In the interest of full disclosure, I wish to reveal that I own a painting by Bee which initially intrigued me for how she collaged in cut-out images of women in various film noir type of poses as she questioned the cultural judgment of what makes a woman "warped." Having lived with the painting for several months, I am now struck most by the eloquence of her painted lines and the vividness with which she portrays the color blue.) Bee is a cultural activist, too, by being as strong as possible in her medium of painting her wisdom evokes another excerpt from "Log Rhythms" for she knows that painting is like poetry more than it is like politics. That is, politics (in whose engagement must lie communication, including miscommunication) can be articulated but painting cannot
I know that the radiance before me has no name and that it comes not from my imagination nor some place beyond. That each night and in the day you are suffused with a glow that is solid, sturdy, contained or then again like the shine of the sun at play in the rippling water. It's something so utterly ordinary, unburdened by mystique or the romance of intoxication, riveting without rivets, flush with the flesh of years. As one sobered into exultation or grounded to a circuit, or like the stew that simmers but does not boil, suffused passion eclipses its infatuated cousin, whose spiked intensities are consolation for, or premonitions of, that fire that burns but will not expire.
Lehman Suites and Papers Gallery
406 School of International Affairs
New York, N.Y. 10027