ZOLLA/LIEBERMAN GALLERY, CHICAGO
SEPTEMBER 10 – OCTOBER 23, 2010
It was during my second visit to Susanne Doremus’s exhibition, open/closed, that I connected the title she gave the show to the door of the gallery. Like windows or drawers, a door has to open and close to work, and it’s clear to me that Doremus has the same expectations for her paintings, something that is nowhere near as simple as it seems. The strongest works in this nimble and often pithy show achieve a level of reversible balance on par with Duchamp’s “Door, 11 rue Larrey” (1927), a readymade-with-a-purpose that would simultaneously open one doorway by closing another, and about which Duchamp may have once said, “There is no solution because there is no problem.” While there may be problems all over Doremus’s paintings because she’s put them in the picture(s) on purpose, and there may be just as many solutions from painting to painting, all of them resist remaining one way or another; a “behavior,” if you will, that reflects a human presence not unlike a door itself.
Even the title of the first painting inside the gallery door—“Ptg on the Wall” (2009)—takes advantage of the shorthand of a text message to reinforce the type of movement described above. The “ptg” is a rather solid, dark gray rectangular shape that “hangs” on the imaginary wall of the actual painting, which is rendered far more gesturally in a lighter gray. The transparency of this lighter shade allows not only passages of light blue to show through from underneath, but also just enough of her signature line work to give the actual painting the ability to be and to depict a painting and/or a wall all at once. Moreover, Doremus’s title recalls Richard Artschwager’s “blps,” small capsule-shaped (and usually two-dimensional) interventions in architectural spaces that are sometimes made of strange black rubber “hair.” Doremus’s painting-within-a-painting achieves a similar sense of physical (and psychological) location/dislocation, which, of course, brings us back to the crux of what she means by open/closed. (Another of Doremus’s paintings—“Disappear” (2010)—presents an even more legible depiction of a painting in a room, but also includes what looks like a brushy, green, creature-like blob in front of the painting-within-a-painting.)
The simultaneous existence of location/dislocation has been in Doremus’s paintings for some time, even when they were at their most lyrical, if not calligraphic, and there are paintings in this exhibition that relate to those earlier moments in her work, albeit without any nostalgia whatsoever. For example, “Spider” (2009) has more than its share of linearity that is as subtle as it is quick, but it weathers the threat of homesickness (think Greenberg’s “homeless representation”) by clearing out the bottom of the painting, leaving behind just enough structure to keep everything from collapsing or, worse yet, floating away, despite a hazy whiteness that seems to have arrived like a cold front. Talking about the weather, of course, is one way to bring up the everyday in front of these paintings, and it is in the bigger picture of the everyday where we find the most surprising yet satisfying components of Doremus’s most recent paintings: the human figure.
Doremus has written that she often starts with a clear image or subject: “Photographs of my studio, images collected from newspapers or T.V., or thoughts about a particular version of abstraction give focus and attention.” Her decision to use current events as a starting point—such as explicit images of Iranian citizens protesting the results of their country’s 2009 presidential election, and the paramilitary Basij that were used to suppress them—enabled her to radically resituate her work regardless of whether or not the specificity of the references were maintained. While it may be likely that the running man placed on the bottom edge of “Allegory” (2010) would be identified as a fleeing protestor (surrounded by an exuberant excess of foliage that is as much camouflage as it is compelling painting), it’s far less certain that we would be able to categorize the ambiguous figure lurking at the bottom of “Last Summer” (2009) as either friend or foe, an open question compounded by the erasure of other figures caught in the painting’s grid, a structure that’s all-over and incomplete, threatening and innocuous, facile and labored. Complicating matters even further, paintings like “Broken” and “Last Year” (both 2010) reestablish some aspects of Doremus’s use of line as lyrical underpinning, but in these instances running and/or broken figures bar any retreat to the romantic, while, yet again, the artist finds another way to keep her paintings swinging like Duchamp’s door.
ContributorTerry R. Myers
TERRY MYERS is a Professor of Painting and Drawing at the School of the Art of Chicago.