SUSAN BEE Criss Cross: New Paintingsby Alexander Shulan
Accola Griefen Gallery | May 23 – June 29, 2013
In the opening shot of Robert Aldrich’s 1955 B-noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, a barefoot woman runs frantically down a dark road in the middle of the night. She’s nearly struck by a beige convertible. The driver, a stranger, pulls over, ushers her in, and the two drive off in silence. The camera focuses in on the windshield, the pair’s faces lit only by passing headlights. Anxiety grips the frame, creeping up out of the shadows and saturating the entire picture.
Images like this pervade Susan Bee’s new exhibition Criss Cross: New Paintings at Accola Griefen. The show, whose title is drawn from a 1949 film noir fraught with psycho-sexual melodrama, features thirty paintings. The majority are drawn from noir stills, all of which are rendered in a full-color pastiche of different styles, with Abstract-Expressionist gestures throughout. Almost all of the paintings in the noir series portray women who are trapped in sinister circumstances and hemmed in by the literal boundaries of the painting: in “Trouble Ahead” (2012) two women look anxiously out the backseat windows of a car, the scene behind them a Hans Hofmann-like abstraction; in “Pick Pocket” (2013) (cf. Bresson) a blonde clutches the Mondrian-like black bars of a window that divides her from her lover; “Out of the Window” (2011) shows a woman peering through a pane of glass, the background a mottled Pollock.
The latent sexual violence and pulp menace that is the hallmark of film noir is here in spades, but the signature stark lighting is absent, replaced with a radiant and almost psychedelic palette. Looking at “Out of the Window,” I couldn’t help but think about Pollock’s famous remark to Hans Hoffman: when asked if he worked from nature, he replied, “I am nature.” In “Out of the Window” something similar is at play—an abstraction, which comes from some private mental space, is juxtaposed against a figurative image that is overt in its psychology. In the unity of the two, something ineffable is expressed.
Criss Cross is Bee’s first exhibition at Accola Griefen. She is a veteran artist of A.I.R., the important artist run all-women’s gallery that started in SoHo in 1972. Active as an artist and editor since the mid-seventies, Bee is the longtime co-editor of /M/E/A/N/I/N/G/: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues and has produced numerous artist’s books, many in collaboration with prominent poets, notably Charles Bernstein and Susan Howe.
Criss Cross also features an accompanying series of landscapes drawn from iconic works by Soutine and Caspar David Friedrich, all united by the use of nature as an expression of the sublime. These paintings aim at something less sinister than the noir series but again, pay attention to private emotion and undisclosed experience. The figure from Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of the Fog,” which famously depicts a man in an overcoat standing over a rocky precipice in deep contemplation, is depicted in Bee’s “Sunrise” (2012) as a woman, the figure’s dark overcoat reworked as a long pink gown. “Sunrise” joins a group of pastoral works that hint at some relationship between natural and religious experience; in “Sunrise” the masculine 19th century archetype of the tormented young man is reclaimed as a feminine mystic, or perhaps, artist.
Hanging over the gallery desk is a painting that unites these two groupings of paintings in a single work: “Ahava, Berlin” (2012), a self-portrait of the artist standing in front of the Berlin school her mother attended. All of the students, including Bee’s mother, were relocated to Palestine shortly after the Nazis’ rise to power. The building is painted in a series of contrasting yellows with a layer of colorful non-figurative strands of paint—like that of “Out of the Window” and the noir series—cast over the façade. The image makes a bold claim: that memory lies latent in the painting’s most basic material, the paint itself.
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