Susan Bee: Apocalypses, Fables, and Reveries: New Paintings
On ViewA.I.R. Gallery
March 18–April 16, 2023
If divine revelation or the end of time were incandescent, bursting in pink, orange, green, and blue, Susan Bee’s recent paintings might be the manifestation. Apocalypses, Fables, and Reveries: New Paintings, is the artist’s tenth solo exhibit at A.I.R. Gallery, where she has long been a member of the legendary co-op. The show features pieces created between 2020–2023, when the apocalypse became all too vivid in a collective imagination that was enduring the COVID-19 pandemic. Bee’s canvases are thick with mythology, magic, and a tradition of spiritualism, and she channels such techniques as the swirling color of Edvard Munch, the enchanted, buoyant figures of Marc Chagall, and the thick lines of Fernand Léger. The majority of paintings included in this show are reinterpretations of illuminated manuscripts from medieval Europe. Descending from a lineage of Torah scribes, Bee’s introduction to divine imagery may be seeded in childhood memories.
Despite often somber or grotesque subject matter, including the end times, self-destructive tree cutters, and dragon tamers, Bee assembles her scenes in a nearly comic book style, with thick black outlines encasing vibrant colors, sparkles, and metallic sheens. Mirthful smiles cross the faces of candy cane-striped demons as they swarm the earth, preparing to subsume humans. In a painting like Saint Martha on the Rocks (2022) legs dangle absurdly from a beast’s mouth, and where there should be terror, hilarity instead ensues. Since each of the paintings are rendered from folkloric stories, the imagined words which once accompanied them flood along the walls, so the attention to narrative is vital when viewing these paintings.
The show is thematically divided into four discrete sections: paintings featuring trees of life; those depicting the legend of Martha and the Beast; a series devoted to the apocalypse; and a series based on Le Petit Livre D’Amour [The Little Book of Love], an early 16th-century illuminated manuscript of love poems by the French courtier Pierre Sala. Through each section, Bee taps into individual, relational, and collective approaches to the divine. On the surface, beliefs held by medieval Europeans may seem ridiculous to modern-day sensibilities, yet many remain disappointingly relevant to contemporary life. Divides between rich and poor were massive, and plague was rampant. Specters of current socio-political and environmental fears arise easily, yet Bee’s images teeter between catastrophic and silly.
Her choice of illuminated paintings from Pierre Sala’s love poems sit no easier than the apocalypse series, with wounded winged hearts and lonely characters full of hope, engaged in the labors of love. The eerie Shadow Play (2020), displays a figure in the midst of chopping down a branch of a tree suspended over water that he simultaneously stands upon; his collapse into the depths beneath is imminent. His dancing reflection on the water—a character on its own— foreshadows the dire situation. This figure’s self-destructive efforts, perhaps a metaphor for our own damaging actions to the earth, make plain the cataclysmic nature of climate change. We’re also cutting down the tree on which we sit.
The recurring beast in many of the paintings is known as the Tarasque, a hybrid mix of a dragon, lion, and ox, a mythological creature of Tarascon in southern France, for whom effigies are still made. While a man impales this beast in Saint Martha at the Cave (2022), Martha clutches a loosely-held leash that connects her to the animal, depicting her in a way that highlights the feminine divine. How miraculous a story that small line holds, one of love and trust, one that tells of gifts given and received, marked by the slack, not taut, grip: a way forward so both can thrive, even as both man and beast, who is also in the midst of devouring a human, seem intent on slaughter.
The only paintings for which she does not draw directly from illuminated manuscripts are her trees of life. Boats and bees, birds and flowers that manifest in these works congregate around her trees, acting as meeting points, nodes of connection throughout the show. Bee trusts the viewer to reflect on each symbol like letters from an alphabet. In this way the scenes are lifted from the spiritual texts from which they come, and handed back to the imagination.
Throughout this body of work, we recall stories where miraculous beings appear in the clouds or crawl up from the breathing earth. Horned demons, who also look a bit like astronauts, shadow the heavens surrounding the people in each of the “Apocalypse” paintings. The activation of sky and land is perhaps the most telling aspect of Bee’s works. Her sparkled paint shimmers as if the sun is consuming the earth, or to remind us that the sun has been there, also embedded in the soil, all along. In medieval texts monks used gold foil to brighten the pages and bring light into the words. “It’s a joy to create colorful spaces… Pleasure, that’s the word I was looking for,” Bee has said of her work. She reminds us of what the “illuminated” truly means in the term “illuminated manuscript” as she summons all the color in the world to help her. Perhaps if the apocalypse is rainbowed it won’t be so bad.