Susan Bee: Eye of the Stormby Craig Olson
A.I.R. Gallery: February 4 – March 1, 2009
Where do we turn when the end of our civilization confronts us? This isn’t exactly a new question for artists. Its inevitable consequences have been wrestled with for centuries, the knowledge that it is doom alone that counts. It’s how we survive in the face of such catastrophe, how we articulate our place within such chaos, that matters. I think we hate the truth art shows us about ourselves, that in the end we actually are all the same.
Susan Bee has been a regular figure within the apocalyptic no man’s (or woman’s) land of the New York art scene since the mid–1970s. For those unfamiliar with her work, she’s a painter, editor, book artist, and coeditor of the influential M/E/A/N/I/N/G: A Journal of Contemporary Art Issues, and M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online. Since 1998 she’s been with the groundbreaking, artist-run, all-women’s gallery A.I.R., at which this is her fifth exhibition. Formally, Bee’s paintings employ a juxtaposition of material through her use of collage. Paint and painted images co-exist with mass produced, cutout images. Raw and unrefined, she favors visual disruption (and the chance occurrences of imaginative projection found there) over the smooth and seamless. It’s an aesthetic that offers no quarter for the single–minded, but only a ruptured sense of continuity. Her surrealist predecessors understood this all too well when they faced, a century earlier, the inevitable end of their world and the rationalist tendencies they believed had brought that end about.
Bee’s work projects out of the absurdity and openness of the surrealist ether like a root dipped in blood. Consecrated in a motley crew of archetypes, animals, cutout pulp novel women, myths, and holy winged demons, her recent work offers us a glimpse into the ageless disasters that have become all too real for us again, the metaphoric readings we apply to them, and the futility of ever trying to harness control over their power. In “The Flood” (1983-2006) Bee’s figures seem to relish and worship in the hierarchical breakdown of her surface. Beautifully undulating between identified form and abstraction, she gives us a scenario where the mental and material capacities of logical, ordered reasoning break down and melt away. Hindu deities hold their holy ground within the aquatic maelstrom of pigment, the result of their mass-market, printed physicality having been glued to the painting’s surface. Around them little painted figures flail about, swimming for safety or joyously surrendering themselves to their inescapable predicament. Abstract shapes and squiggles of paint jostle against collaged women and the half submerged, half articulated representations of goats and horses. Their floating heads seem strange and real despite their somewhat crude rendering—they’re totemic reminders of our primal selves lost in the deluge of repression and fear. Our modern selves are there too, in the form of two tow-headed, sentimentally caricatured kewpie-kids. They’re a physical embodiment of our suppressed emotions, exaggerated and saccharine in their comical gait. Arm in arm, they walk gaily oblivious to the natural forces poised to destroy their sentimental reverie.
In this work and others like it here, Bee seems to suggest there is no position, materially or spiritually, that we can use to understand the totality of our fate. There are only fragments and ruptured moments, glimpses of the absurd beauty of things as they come crashing down around us. In the chance associations she allows through her collaged surfaces, we’re prevented from ever reaching a final conclusion about any of this. Meaning and metaphor warp and fuse as they open into new understandings of once familiar territories. What is important, however, is the absence of morbidity or sensationalism in her treatment of these moods. Instead, she suggests that they are a part of life, perhaps more than we’d like to admit, or are even able to comprehend.
In “Wanderer in a Sea of Fog” (2008) Bee offers us a small image of a woman, her back to us, standing on a rock overlooking a field of undulating paint and swirling, dull color. It’s an obvious nod to Casper David Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” of 1818. Bee’s painting is small, tucked within the rest of her installation as to become almost forgettable. However, it’s an image that has returned to me again and again. Her figure’s placement in as opposed to above the sea of fog anchors her firmly in the formless firmament that Friedrich’s man is only able to lord over from above. The nearly generic rendering of this plainclothes romantic—dull swath of hair, flat two-dimensional body—speaks volumes about something just beyond my ability to understand. It’s something about being brought face to face with the threshold where fear and trembling reside, where we hear the sound of distant thunder and remain where it is we all start, in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.