Susan Bee interviewed by Elizabeth Licata, April 1999
Q. You seem to be combining this aesthetic of the hand-made, the personal, gestural object, with pre-made images from the vast array of well-known symbols, logos of contemporary culture. How do you interpret this disparate combination? Are you, as many of your critics suggest, recontextualizing the heroics of ab-ex, etc through feminist critique? I think you're doing more than that.
Basically, I'm working with collage and oil painting. By bringing in real objects and images from the outside world into the space of the painting--I expand my references. I also like the disjunctive effect created by bringing in an image like the cutouts of the football players in "Touchdown" into the finite space of the paintings. By the way, the paper cutouts of the football players were purchased in a party store in Buffalo.
I like the contrast of the painterly gesture versus the flatness, yet imagistic depth, of the cutouts. In "Seescape" I used a giant paper doll from the 1950s cut in two sections as the anchoring image. The kitschy reality and eerieness of the paper doll gives an uncanny quality to the painting. She seems to be watching the viewers as we watch her.
Of course, these paintings are also humorous. I feel the characters in the work (all of the paintings involve some kind of figure) are trapped in the sticky materiality of the paint like flies caught in a jar of honey.
It is true that a number of critics have seen these works as feminist critiques or assemblages and that reflects my point of view. However, this is just one part of the story. The male football players are encased in the pink floral background of the painting. This can be read as an appropriation of a masculine game by a feminized, decorative, painterly field of action. But, I don't believe in following any particular heavy-handed doctrinaire line of politics, but instead I prefer to leave the work more open-ended to the viewer's interpretation.
The other aspect of my work is that I love the sensuality and viscosity of the paint and I don't want to give up the visual pleasure that it affords the painter and the viewer. So much conceptual art to my mind is dry and theoretical. I want to bask in the fluidity of the surface and the pigment. These paintings are fueled by the desire to include the ordinary and the extraordinary, to alter the space and context of the painting, to set up a disturbance or disbalance, to encode the marginal without eliminating its utility as margin.
Q. The artists book is at the same time more intimate and approachable than a painting and more inaccessible, because you can't really display it so that it can be used as a book. What's your manifesto on artists books? Why do you make them and how do you want them to function-as books or as art objects?
A. At this point I've published nine artist's books. I made my first artist's book in 1978. Painting is very different from making a book. My paintings are one of a kind. They involve single-minded concentration, and focused work on the surface and image of the canvas, with the gradual emergence over time of the final form of the painting.
With the books, the form has been more open, I've designed the individual spreads than assembled the overall narrative structure. Each book project has been different from the next. I've collaborated on five books with the poet, Charles Bernstein, and each one has provided a new opportunity for me to frame his poetry--without illustrating it per se.
Two of the books published by Granary Books: Talespin (1995) and Little Orphan Anagram (with Charles Bernstein, 1997) have been small editions that have been laboriously hand-colored. But what I like about the book form is that you don't view it all at once like a painting--there is instead a gradual unfolding from one page to the next as the pages are turned. I love working in the book mode and I have two more collaborative projects planned.
I like the accessibility of the book form. At the same time, doing the books has expanded my vocabulary of images and approaches. I've used photography, drawing, watercolor, collage, and gouache. I also like to play with the typography. I usually set the type myself and experiment with various typefaces and layouts.
Q. How do the Touchdown paintings relate to earlier work-different, similar? (They seem to be carrying many ideas from earlier series and books).
I continue to work in a similar way to the paintings in the "Touchdown" show. In New York, I'm currently working on a painting with baseball players, also I've used a lot of imagery from film noir and science fiction posters and book covers from the 1940s and 1950s. My paintings continue to be about a fusion of disparate elements-- an uneasy marriage of abstraction, surrealism, and popular imagery.
Q. How is it being both an artist and a writer? Did MEANING take up so much time that you hope to do more paintings, etc.?
A. I coedited M/E/A/N/I/N/G, a journal of contemporary art issues, from 1986 to 1996 with Mira Schor. Meanwhile, I continued with my artwork. I'm not really a writer but an editor. For the magazine, which I also designed and produced, I commissioned texts and edited them. However, I do not do much critical writing of my own, except for brief personal pieces like this. I found editing M/E/A/N/I/N/G was a great experience. I came into contact with many interesting artists, critics, and art historians, and it expanded my own sense of how one can shape the art historical discourse and, in turn, be shaped by both words and theory and by other artists. Currently, Mira and I are working on an anthology of the best of the magazine for an academic press. It's been very hard to choose our favorite pieces of writing. We published about 120 artists and writers during the ten years we were in existence.
Q. In your appropriations, what symbols have you become the most fascinated by? Why?
A. I like images from popular culture--dolls, figures of animals, plastic insects and snakes, postcards, and found photos. I also like to use book covers of pulp novels, movie posters, and paper dolls especially from the 1940s and 1950s. I played obsessively with paper dolls and small plastic figures as a child and I had a very elaborate fantasy world that revolved around these figures. So that I find as an adult these images still have a magical hold over me as they did when I was a little girl.
On the other hand, I am attracted to the images of the strong, sexy, and somewhat dangerous dames that are endemic to film noirs, pulp novels, mysteries, and B movies. These bad girls/women seem to represent the underside of the innocence of my childhood toys and they as well exert an endless fascination for me.