SUSANNA HELLER Phantom Pain
MAGNANMETZ GALLERY | MARCH 15 – APRIL 20, 2013
The concept behind Susanna Heller’s affecting and evocative exhibition at MagnanMetz is based on her husband Bill’s suffering; in 2010, he lost a leg to a rare infection and to this day experiences the condition termed “phantom pain” (also the title of the show), which refers to the experience of pain in a limb that has been lost. Heller’s style, in both her paintings and hospital drawings, is wildly expressionist—and is likely based on the harrowing experience she empathetically went through with her spouse. While the second space in the gallery concerned paintings and drawings of her husband, its larger first space contained work that magnifies such pathos to include the public aspect of New York City; by implication, Heller has transformed the seething metropolis into a biological entity of its own. The city imagery, nearly writhing in sympathy with Heller’s situation, becomes a kind of patient in itself, enabling the artist to project personal turmoil onto a fundamentally public sphere. Heller sees her circumstances as indicative not only of physical torment, but also of psychic turmoil—indeed, what we could call, in a figurative sense, phantom pain. Her rough-and-ready paintings and sketches show us that the body’s troubles have a psychological concomitant: the experience of mental anguish.
Susanna Heller, “Old Souls (Pink and Aqua),” 2013. Oil on canvas, 44 x 77”. Courtesy of Magnan Metz.
The large oil titled “Old Souls in Pink and Aqua” (2013) is driven by large, rounded forms, presumably indicative of the souls Heller makes mention of in the work’s title. One can see, in the center of the painting, the skyline of lower Manhattan, with gray-blue waters occupying the bottom third of the composition. Above, the soul forms take over; messily painted, they imply a clash between the body and its ghostly attributes. This is an acutely distressing painting, evoking, in general, the mood Heller depicts throughout the show. The atmosphere demonstrates the depiction of grief as an uncontrollable condition—the result of being so close to suffering and even death. While there is no visible image of Heller’s husband in the painting, in the upper left register there is something red, perhaps a blood clot, that is superimposed on a rounded cloud; everything seems desolate in the image. Clearly here, the artist tangibly translates inner pain into something physically recognizable: a beleaguered view of New York City, her adopted home. This vision of a great city under duress animates many of the paintings and sketches, which communicate a state of unresolvable discomfort.
The second room lets up a bit: Bill is portrayed with his left leg lost, lying on hospital beds and sitting in a wheelchair. These works seem slightly less tragic; the affection Heller feels for her husband translates into an imagery whose darkness is not absolute. But it is in the nearly 20-foot-long, four-panel cityscape called “Rolling Thunder (Day for Night)” (2013) that Heller appears to express her deepest concerns. A vast, thundering space rolls in upon New York City, expressionistically rendered toward the right-hand side of the painting. In the center we find a large, angled shape, painted a blackish blue: probably the thunder itself. To the left is the pale, whitish blue of the sea, which seems quite docile in comparison with the dark imagery that takes up two-thirds of this very large work. “Rolling Thunder” is about grief found in nature, but also a grief that is in sync with Heller’s private concerns. As the imagery shifts from hospital drawings to larger works of art, we never lose sight of the artist’s ordeal, which she refuses to transform into something distant or less agonizing. The correspondences between the personal and the public and nature are made remarkably clear.
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Jonathan Goodman is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.