Film noir. Schlock and shock from Mexican Grand Guignol. Pulp fiction and potboiler sex.
Susan Bee’s paintings are a savage mix of Expressionism and Pop schadenfreude populated by cut-and-paste pictures. She has had four explosive solo shows at the artist-run A.I.R. Gallery, where she will show again next year. (Founded in 1972, A.I.R. was the first women artists’ co-op in the U.S.) Granary Books has recently published six of her artist books, including collaborations with poets Susan Howe, Johanna Drucker, Charles Bernstein, and Jerome Rothenberg.
She teaches Art Criticism in the MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, and, as coeditor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online, she’s a major contributor to a mode of radical Feminist art theory that’s not to be confused with its featherbrained, egghead nephews—or nieces, as the case may be—Bleary, Weary, and Dreary. In The New York Times of February 22, 2007, Holland Cotter wrote that its latest issue, "Feminist Art: A Reassessment", “asks many questions about the past, present and future that will surely shape discussion in this feminist year.”
Her cover for Girly Man, a new book by the poet Charles Bernstein (who is also Bee’s husband) includes B-horror-flick stills from Dr. Cyclops. I first saw these photos in Famous Monsters of Film-land Magazine, which I subscribed to as a kid. I entreated her: “Where do you find them? And why? In an age of CGI, what is your fondness for backdated Japanese sci-fi?”
Bee replied, “I like the quaint scary quality of the imagery. There is an attempt to be weird and horrifying that I find heartwarming.” As a child she played with paper dolls and plastic figurines of cowboys and Indians, imaginary tableaux. She read Classic Comics and Mad and Archie Comics and mysteries, but not horror or sci-fi. “I think I would have found it terrifying. Now, as an adult, I am attracted to the work of the B-movie and comic and mystery makers of the ‘40s and ‘50s and their naive and touching belief in the power of images to haunt us.”
She rummaged through a stack of lurid True Detective Magazine. I eyed the pages greedily. A girl after my own heart, she buys ‘em for the pictures. But her use of pop imagery doesn’t feel ironic; nor does the (so-called) sexist sex, even where women are stripped and bound and threatened with guns.
“I guess that reflects my feeling about the place of women in the world, we are often threatened. But the ‘noir’ women do not seem scared, they are sexy and strong and in my view, they are quite capable of escape and revenge. There is an edgy sense of danger that lurks in these images and I want to bring that force into my work. I think these images are subversive, but also antique, like Godzilla. With nuclear war, global warming, and other tragedies facing humankind, these little dramas still can symbolize the potential for evil and villainy that is afoot in our times.”
We’re seated on two bare-bones, paint-splattered schoolroom chairs. There’s a hotplate on a bombproof wooden worktable. Four works in progress surround us in the 20×20 foot-square, single room where Sue brings theory down to earth. With a warrior’s experience, she says that the size of her paintings depends on “what I can fit into a shopping bag or into the back of my station wagon for easy transport, i.e., portable and suited to my height. I stand 5 foot 2 inches.”
The celebrated “death of painting” was predicated not so much on its eclipse by “new media” along the order of video or digital imaging, but by its own internal decline. Color in most paintings today derives from magazines and the Internet, which are now forms of “nature.” (I’ve actually heard it said that only electronic images can capture emotion and imagination!) I was first attracted Bee’s work because she is a colorist. Her color is paint.
“For me, color is the key to painting. Like light, it shapes our vision. As a painter, I feel that color is like form, it is emotional and intuitive.” Bee’s obvious preference is for bright colors and extreme contrasts. She never plans out a color scheme in advance, but goes on her gut, often repainting colors and recalibrating her approach.
The sense of depth in her painting is not psychological, pictorial or perspectival; it exists on a true abstract plane. This too, the founding accomplishment of modern painting, is a lost aptitude. Constellated with images, yet not diagrammatic, her work maintains a framework without invoking a grid. In her Philosophical Trees, she employs the figure of a tree as a structuring agent for an active system of signs that recalls the Kabbalah’s Sephiroth. It’s like a skeleton on which we can hang ourselves.
She begins by pasting collaged images from magazines to the canvas. She then constructs the painting around them. Her frequent tree motifs “serve as a setting for the characters in the painting, like the setting of a stage for a play. They are also important symbolic forces … serving as a bridge between heaven and earth.” Lest her symbolism get too heavy, she pokes fun at herself by peopling the tree branches and littering the ground with kitschy pin-up girls and other unsavory types.
Susan often uses a kind of “punctuation”—raw hyphens or hatch marks in the all-over, scumbled space surrounding her collaged images: “I use long horizontal brushstrokes to mark the space of the canvas. It is a sort of calligraphy or punctuation but a visual, nonverbal one. The basic unit of painting for me is the brushstroke and so I like to emphasize [its] surface nature … by highlighting the individual strokes. I also sometimes pattern the surface … with all-over poured and dripped paint á la Pollock, or thrown paint, or patterns of little faces.” One painting is spotted with Happy Face Chinese coins like the radiant veils and cascades of Klimt, a roughed-up Danae’s shower of gold. “These patterns set up a rhythm like a drum in a band.”
Her methods bear a strong relationship to the work of poets and filmmakers who use fragments and collage, yet, as she says, “retain a lyrical voice amid scattered narrative elements.” She also looks to historically important collage artists such as Kurt Schwitters, Max Ernst, John Heartfield, Robert Rauschenberg, and Hannah Hoch, as well as contemporary practitioners of the form. Her passion for collage, however, is hardly in competition with her desire to paint: “I do love the liquidity and unpredictability of oil painting, so it is my mission to meld these two unlikely partners.”
Since Susan is married to a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet (from L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, the late, great poetry magazine that Charles Bernstein edited with Bruce Andrews from 1978 to 1981—which Bee designed and to which she contributed writings), I lead with my left. “There’s a staggering line by the surrealist poet Paul Eluard, ‘the madmen brothers of nothing said / all begins in images.’ You have collaborated countless times on books and works with poets. The enchanting Bed Hangings, with Susan Howe springs immediately to mind. I know you have done recent work with Jerome Rothenberg. What is the affinity? Can we swap hot gossip? Will you tell us gory stories?”
She doesn’t flinch. “I enjoy working with poets, I’ve done five books with Charles [Bernstein], and books with Susan Howe, Johanna Drucker, and Jerome Rothenberg; each collaboration has its own internal logic. The subjects and styles of these various poets differ wildly. So I change my procedure and approach with each different collaborator.”
Bee appears to hold a “Third Mind” belief in collaboration. The term stems from William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, who used it to refer to what happens between or “beyond” them in their cut-ups and collaborations. The result of collaborations, Bee acknowledges, takes her further down the road, outside of her own aesthetics and preferences.
When she worked on The Burning Babe with poems by Jerome Rothenberg, she found herself exploring new visual territory that included Blakean, Medieval, Renaissance, and religious images of babies and mothers. Rothenberg’s poetry pushed images that Bee had buried in her past to the fore, and the resulting book is much farther out in terms of visual reference and verbal play than either of them expected when they started.
She also considers the publisher of Granary Books, Steve Clay, who commissioned The Burning Babe, along with the printer and binder, to be crucial yet overlooked collaborators. And the ultimate reception of the book by its readers is yet another unanticipated aspect of the “Third Mind.”
I return from the bathroom, which is in someone else’s space next door (Bee’s studio is hardcore stripped-for-action) and we consider her most recent work, still wet on its walls, full of wild-style electric orange swirls and earthy and artificial greens. “What about these unnerving, unforeseeable, utterly irrational forms that you often wind up with?”
“Sometimes surprising abstract or organic forms pop out of the surface of the painting. I try not to suppress all the wacky and unexpected unconscious places that the paintings ramble into. My mother, Miriam Laufer, was a painter. And she came out of German Expressionism and went forward into Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Both my parents were artists and were born in Berlin. So I feel like I grew up in tune with the rich color and the strong emotions of the Expressionists; it seems to be in my blood, so to speak.”
I let on that some of the best work I’ve seen lately has been glimpsed over the shoulders of people drawing in pocket notebooks cradled on their laps on the subway while grinding their way to for-shit jobs at the ass end of Queens. They are not taking it to market to buy a fat pig. They do it to save their souls. “Why do you paint? What is inspiration? What about passion, imagination, gesture?”
“I paint because I need to” she replied, an artist to the marrow. “I feel driven in a restless way to engage with color and to let loose … having been raised in a household of artists, I was always aware of the importance of drawing and art making. I feel like I am filled up with images that need an outlet to escape. Oddly enough, I feel my paintings are more expressive of my feelings than I am in person! Imagination is crucial to me; I am not a realist. I love fantasy and the play of color, paint, and imagery. I like having an audience for my work, but I would probably be driven to do it anyway. During occasional dry spells, when I don’t paint for a while, I feel all bottled up inside, like champagne that needs to be uncorked.”
In an art world that’s all show and tell, where market-driven media creates cults of personality and artists become yack-attack theorists, mystics (last week, Ludwig Wittgenstein, next month Madame Blavatsky) and photo-op pop stars, art, it seems, is not enough. As ordinary citizens lose their ability to appraise an artwork by themselves and head to hype for an explanation, M/E/A/N/I/N/G magazine feels more crucial than ever.
M/E/A/N/I/N/G, which Bee designed and co-edited with Mira Schor from 1986 to 1996, was unusual for an art magazine since it had no pictures, just text. It was a feminist journal that included writing by men as well as women, including such artists as Nancy Spero, Carolee Schneemann, Alison Knowles, Leon Golub and Joan Snyder. Bee adds, “We also published writings that no one else would publish because they took a point of view outside the mainstream of glossy art magazines and the commercial art world. Ours was a nonprofit, anti-commercial enterprise, and that allowed us to be more open to publishing unconventional and unpopular pieces, especially artist’s writings.” Bee and Schor have continued the journal as M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online. Its recently published special issue #4 is a forum on the importance of feminism in art from the 1970s to the present.
On the subject of M/E/A/N/I/N/G and the opening salvos of feminist art in the 1970s, I asked Susan about the artist Ana Mendieta, who died in a fall in New York in 1985.
“I heard Ana Mendieta speak several times in the 1970s at A.I.R. Gallery, before it moved to Chelsea. She talked about her work and about her childhood in Cuba. Although tiny, she was a very strong, energetic, and charismatic figure. Those were heady and exciting days for me as a young artist. I was inspired by the force and artistic risk-taking of Nancy Spero, Ana, and the other women artists that I encountered at that time.
“I remember seeing Carl Andre [Mendieta’s husband, who was charged in her death but acquitted], when he was on a panel of male artists at A.I.R. Ana Mendieta’s photos were hanging on the wall, and when Carl spoke, Ana’s photos started falling down. They were framed in Plexiglas and made a loud crashing sound. It was of course very spooky, scary, and it seemed like a bad sign.”
Geoffrey Cruickshank-Hagenbuckle is an American poet and art critic. He lives in Paris and New York City.