Beware the Lady: New Paintings and Works on Paper by Susan Bee

April 4-22, 2000   

A.I.R. Gallery, NYC

 

John Yau

 

 

I.

In a letter to Charles Olson dated January 7, 1953,  Robert Creeley stated: "I wanted the fastest juxtaposition possible, and the least explanatory manner."   Clearly,  subject matter--something seen from the outside--is not what is at stake. Rather, one hears Creeley's determined desire to extend the technical advances made by Ezra Pound and Sergei Eisenstein, both of whom had been influenced by their study of ideogrammatic languages. The statement was made some time after Creeley saw the paintings of Jackson Pollock and other American abstract artists in Paris.  As he has acknowledged on a number of occasions,  it was in the innovative work of Pollock and other abstract artists,  that Creeley recognized that there were others who wanted to subvert their own and others's habits of thinking and seeing.  Juxtaposition, the speed and economy of it, was understood as one way such subversion could take place.

    It is in Susan Bee's use of juxtaposition that she shares something with figures as diverse as Pound, Eisenstein, and Creeley, not to mention with artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and James Rosenquist.  However,  it is not what she and they have in common that is important, but what she has done to make her juxtapositions particular to,  as well as distinctive within, her work.  One of the most telling distinctions between Bee's work and that of both Rauschenberg and Rosenquist lies in their use of materials. Whereas Rauschenberg utilizes the silkscreen process and Rosenquist the medium of oil paint to give their found images the same material and visual presence, thus achieving an all-over consistency, Bee eschews this approach, perhaps because she recognizes that it harnesses the differences into a singleness that she can't accept.  Instead, she keeps the paint as paint and cut-out images as printed paper. 

    In Bee's assemblage paintings, disruption occurs on both a material and visual level; it is both vertical and horizontal, reminding us that however one can imagine the world fitting together, the things in it (and we too are things) remain distinct and separate. Reconciliation is tentative and fleeting, the result of the viewer's engagement with the work. Paint and

painted images co-exist with cut-out images. In this regard, Bee's paintings have more in common with Rauschenberg's early assemblages than with his later work, before, that is, he began refining his own approach. For it is one thing to want the "fastest juxtaposition" possible, and quite another thing to want the smoothest.

    Neither art nor reality, Bee seems to be suggesting, fits into any one scheme. There is no vantage point, material, spiritual, or otherwise, from which we can see, much less understand, the entire world.

 

II.

On a formal level,  juxtaposition extends the collage aesthetic,  as it was formulated by Picasso and developed by Max Ernst, into a territory equally informed by chance and intention.  Bee's juxtapositions are purposeful without becoming closed or overdetermined;  she keeps finding ways to keep the door open to different and seemingly incommensurable readings.  Chance, it seems evident, plays a part. Ultimately, the openness of Bee's work prevents the viewer from reaching any final conclusion.  Her refusal to reconcile the differences in her materials reinforces the viewer's sense of dissonance and rupture.

     On a cultural and personal level,  Bee's juxtapositions enable her to embrace a wide range of diverse possibilities, as well as incorporate nuggets of disparate information into a viscous web of paint.  In terms of style and image, she knowingly and artfully collapses together passages of high modernist abstraction with kitsch and sentimental images derived from cut-out dolls and the covers of pulp novels.  In terms of color and image, Bee's vocabulary is charged rather than bland, heated rather than cool.  In her combinations of paint and cut-out images, the viewer encounters a world that is simultaneously innocent and sinister.  Knowing that she has a soft spot for the lurid,  Bee is sure to never quite let go of her impertinence; it is an important key to her work.

      Bee's paintings evoke rebuses,  treasure maps,  and imaginary landscapes. Her playfulness is generous; it extends to the viewer.  However, lest one think playfulness is the artist's only goal, it isn't.  For,  by equating the act of seeing with the process of decoding,  the artist is  proposing that every act of seeing is synonymous with the process of decoding, and that unmediated moments of experience do not, and most likely never did, exist.  One doesn't simply see the world; one must repeatedly read it.

    Compositionally, the paintings range from compartmentalized and sectioned grounds, each of which is visually distinct,  to painterly fields and abstract landscapes. Set into and against the paint,  the cut-out figures, parts of pages, and bright stickers are both contiguous and disruptive.  In Love is a Gentle Whip (1999), Bee divides the composition into three horizontal rows made up of discrete areas (mostly different sized rectangles), each of which is painted differently. The pink area in middle of the bottom row is both an homage to, and parody of, the poured paintings of Jackson Pollock. It's Pollock perfectly rendered in miniature.  Finally, and this is where I think it is more than either an homage or a parody,  the pink ground reminds us that Pollock, for all our sense of him being macho, had a predilection for such frou-frou colors as pink and lavender.

    The sunflower rising up from the Pollock-like ground both linguistically (it is "organic") and visually (it is a rhythmic line) echoes, as well as formally extends the swirling Pollock-like arabesques of drips and splatters into another reality or discrete area. At the same time, in the top row, a woman in a bright red dress lies sprawled on a receding, patterned, triangular, abstract ground,  blood and/or red paint flowing out of her and dripping down the front of the painting.  The resulting echoes--blood and poured paint--reminds us the extent to which the world, in the form of mass media, theatricalizes all of our experience, turns everything into a consumer product.           

          We can sell our feelings and experiences on daytime talk shows, to supermarket tabloids, or we can obtain an understanding of them from spiritual advisers via the telephone. There is always a stage, a place where we can act out. And yet, rather than being dismissive of this aspect of reality, Bee recognizes the difficulty of getting outside of the nexus of information, weird signals, and powerful images each of us inhabits, as well as takes root is us. In Love is a Gentle Whip, the distraught blonde on the left side of the middle row,   her hands pressing against her head, is both kitsch and real, both fake and actual. The cut-out sunflower rising to greet the painted, child-like sun, reminds us that we were once innocent, and in that state of innocence we took a certain delight in being manipulated by the mass media; it gave us pleasure.    

          In Beware the Lady, Bee incorporates various cut-out images of femme fatales into a lovingly insouciant,  Mondrian-like composition of vertical and horizontal bars, brightly colored rectangles.  It's as if Mondian and Liberace collaborated on the painting, with a little nod given to noir writers and film directors such as Jim Thompson and Fritz Lang.  Here, however, homage comes with another edge, the way a woman can achieve notoriety in a world dominated by men is to play a role, to become something larger than life.

      In Beware the Lady, it's almost as if the painting has become a screen onto which various male fantasies about women have been projected.  This is what I think Bee is in touch with, the various unrealistic projections, oddball fantasies, goofy and even dangerous thoughts any one group or sector of society has about both others and themselves.  How do we find our way through this morass, she asks good naturedly? How do we know when we are being manipulated by a desire that we have come to accept as original? How can we resist the allure of bright colors, hot  and/or innocent images,  pulsating patterns, intense drama?  Are we simply moths flying into the light? Or is there an alternative to the warmth each of us understandably seeks, another kind of warmth?

      Rather than propose a way out of this maze, Susan Bee is determined to reveal it in all its wondrous complexity. She gives the viewer a way to contemplate the meaning of pleasure, both guilty and otherwise.