The Sacred and Profane Love Machine: An Interview with Susan Bee
From Ortega y Gasset Projects (O y G), Clare Britt interviews artist Susan Bee on her paintings exhibited in the recent exhibition, The Sacred and Profane Love Machine curated by Karla Wozniak. Other artists in the exhibition include Brian Scott Campbell, Lucy Kim, Pat MaElnea and Emily Janowik.
The exhibition is inspired by the Iris Murdoch novel of the same name – a psychologically rich tale of characters caught in a complex web of emotional and sexual experiences. Similarly, the artworks in this exhibition negotiate intimate, charged situations – and tell stories of love, heartache, and orgiastic ecstasy.
Susan Bee is a painter, editor, and book artist, living in New York City. She had a solo show in May/June 2013, “Criss Cross: New Paintings,” at Accola Griefen Gallery, NY. Bee has had six solo shows at A.I.R. Gallery, NY. Bee is the co-editor with Mira Schor of M/E/A/N/I/N/G Online. She has published many artists’ books including collaborations with Charles Bernstein, Johanna Drucker, Susan Howe, Regis Bonvicino, Jerry Rothenberg, and Jerome McGann. Her artwork is in public and private collections including the Getty Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Yale University, New York Public Library, and the Harvard University Library. Her work has been reviewed in Art in America, Art News, The Forward, The New York Times, Art Papers, The New Yorker, and The Brooklyn Rail. Bee teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, Pratt Institute, and the School of Visual Arts.
Clare Britt: I wanted to talk to you about your work because your paintings gave me a real visceral reaction at first glance. Your ability to use a bright folk-art palette in combination with such strong emotional interactions between couples while referencing the history of painting really intrigues me.
Susan Bee: I am inspired by folk art and indeed the interactions between the individuals in the paintings are influenced by my love of color and expressive painting. Black and white film stills are the pictorial basis of the majority of these oil paintings. The keyed-up colors, energetic patterns and painterly abstractions that also populate these pieces make them psychologically complex. The solitary individuals, couples and familial groups depicted in these works are nearly overwhelmed by tumultuous passages of paint that threaten to separate and engulf the figures. I am interested in finding variety within a given painting format. By the use of various patterns, color palettes and techniques in the spaces surrounding the figures and often on the costumes on the figures, I am creating compositions appropriate for the content and mood of each work.
CB: Karla Wozniak’s inspiration for her exhibition was this quote by Iris Murdoch: “The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular body and its indifference to substitutes is one of life’s major mysteries.” I am curious to hear how you see the three works selected to be included in the exhibition fit into this idea. How do you interpret that quote in relation to your paintings?
SB: I think Karla’s quote is very appropriate to these works, since each painting addresses yearning in its own way. These works are full of tension as well as tenderness. From playful dots and dashes to aggressive, frenetic brush strokes, I try to make palpable a wide range of human emotions. These primarily small oil paintings dramatize the relationships between male and female characters through the lens of the films of the 1920s to 1960s.
The Slap (2012) is based on a dramatic moment in a John Cassettes movie from 1961. I was interested in the moment when the two characters, a man and a woman, encounter each other. Each figure is portrayed in a different way, with their own set of colors and the abstract patterns in their clothing clashing to reflect the anger of the woman, which stands out against the surprised look of the man.
Lady Be Good (2013) shows a couple drinking together and looking deeply into each other’s eyes. Here I am creating an overall composition that incorporates abstract, patterned, colorful, and painterly passages to indicate the mood of playful interaction between the two figures. The film still is from the 1930s.
The third painting in the show, Pickpocket (2013), is based on a still from a Robert Bresson film from 1959 of the same name. This complex composition focuses on the prison bars that form a barrier between the man and the woman and the painting becomes a meditation on the barriers that keep people apart whether physical or emotional. There is yearning between the figures but also obstacles. This is signaled by the abstraction that stands in their way.
CB: I love hearing about your approach to these paintings and how film noir influences them. I also see many different languages of painting and art historical references mixed together through out your work. I would like to speak specifically about each work and the historical references I pick up when looking at them.
The Slap reminds me of Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss (1908), which I find notable when I look at both paintings side by side. You are using a similar color palette and shapes (masculine) as Klimt uses on the male figure in the jacket of the women. Additionally, you use a more colorful and circular (feminine) pattern on the man, which recalls the dress of the women in The Kiss. It seems to me you are inverting the pattern of the clothes on the sexes, and I find it remarkable that the man is consuming the woman with a kiss in Klimt’s painting, while the woman is rejecting the man with a slap in your painting. Were you looking at this painting while working on The Slap? What role does art history play in your planning and execution of a new work?
SB: I did paint this painting after a trip to Vienna, when I had seen a lot of Klimt’s paintings, which I love. But the influence was subliminal rather than conscious. I was more involved with creating a confrontational narrative using abstract patterns. Of course, I am very aware of art history when I’m painting, especially since I studied art history and I teach it as well. But when I’m involved with the actual act of painting, I concentrate on the moment and the process of creating a strong composition. I am not thinking about art history per se. However, I see the connection between Klimt’s work and mine, especially the tendency to simplify the figure and then make the clothing and background very decorative and expressive.
CB: Lady Be Good depicts a couple sharing a moment lost in each other’s eyes over a drink. The intensity in which the two look at each other is passionate and most clearly, for me, corresponds with the Murdoch quote Karla uses in her description for the show. The background in this painting is filled with the colorful abstract expressionist language of Jackson Pollock. You said earlier that the film still is from the 1930’s. I thought it was inspired by the film, Lady Be Good (1941), directed by Norman McLeod. Because of the background it makes me wonder if this an intimate moment shared between Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner? How much are you thinking about Pollock in the studio while working on this painting? Please speak to the inspiration and execution of this work in more detail.
SB: I started with a pencil drawing on the canvas based on the still from the film Lady By Choice (1934). (I didn’t use that film title for the painting title.) Then I proceeded to work on the painting in sections. I first executed the heads and hands and then worked on the background and clothing. I wanted a clash of colors and patterns between the figures. However, both figures are resting on a piece of fabric, which has one set of colors and a separate pattern.
My approach to the background is similar in spirit to the language of abstract expressionism. I used enamel paint, which I dripped, and sand and oil paint to create textures. I want the background to symbolize in visual terms the intermediate space between the two people portrayed. I wasn’t thinking of any particular couple, but just the idea of sharing a space in life with another person.
CB: Pickpocket has an obvious Mondrian reference in the prison bars you painted in between the couple in the painting. What are you thinking about when you collage together an image from a film like Pickpocket with a rich art historical reference such as Mondrian and geometric abstraction? How do you blend those two ideas together conceptually?
SB: I was looking at the black and white still, which features the geometry of the prison bars, and imagining how the flesh of the lovers remains warm against the relentless vertical metal lines. The composition grew gradually from my original sketch. In fact, the painting is layered with many buried passages. There was a layer of abstract expressionist painting that I covered over at one point, though some areas remain. Then I added and subtracted triangles. I was thinking more of Kandinsky’s late paintings than Mondrian. Kandinsky made symphonic use of colored triangles and squares and I was interested in setting up a syncopated rhythm with this composition. These paintings are more like playful jazz riffs on a famous melody, rather than a strategy of conscious art historical appropriation.
CB: Yes! I see the Kandinsky influence. I was trying to pinpoint the whimsical part of the painting and that is exactly what I was missing. Thank you for clarifying that.
I want to transition away from talking about your specific paintings in the exhibition and talk a little bit about the concept of “The Sacred and Profane Love Machine.” When I read the quote: “The absolute yearning of one human body for another particular body and its indifference to substitutes is one of life’s major mysteries.” It conjures up for me lots of ideas about love and wanting and existing. I want to take away the idea of yearning for another human body and replace it with the act of making art. For me, as an artist, I feel like the profession of art chose me I didn’t choose art. I think most creative people relate to the feeling of needing to create, and if this need to create is not satiated, then a dark fog of depression can set in and the day-to-day struggle can become overwhelming. You mentioned in a past interview that your parents were artists and did not really want you to pursue the arts yourself. In that interview you talk about how art became your calling and you couldn’t escape from its grip. How did you come to terms with the need to pursue the arts? Do you think it is great mystery of living that artists have a need to make and there are no substitutes?
SB: As I have said elsewhere, it seems that I was born into the profession, since my parents were artists. I was taken to galleries, museums, and to their studios as a child. I would sit in the corner and paint and work on prints. Now, making art is my pleasure and my daily practice: I find it inescapable in my life. If I don’t get to the studio to paint, I start to feel ill at ease, working on a painting or a book or this interview is an outlet for the energies that other parts of my working life don’t fulfill. I can bask in my imagination or create dream spaces or dip into colors in the dead of winter. Painting is stimulating and it is a provocation that unleashes my pent-up energies that would remain buried otherwise.
CB: I think this theory evens applies to the discipline of art we decide to work in. I am a photographer, and I think it is because I am totally and completely in love with light. I think light is beautiful and amazing, I understand it, I know how to manipulate it. How did you pick paint as your medium of preference and was it an obvious obsession?
SB: My mother, Miriam Laufer, was a painter, so I grew up with the smell of oil paint. She also worked as a commercial illustrator with watercolor and gouache. I naturally followed in her footsteps. I love the richness of color and the texture and viscosity of oil paint. I like the portability of the canvases and the flexibility of the medium. While some might find painting a lonely preoccupation, I find in it a way to be in dialogue with other artists and art history. The paintings become spaces of action and mediation. In addition, I have made 14 artist’s books with various poets, so I really like to collaborate on projects with other artists and writers.
The Sacred and Profane Love Machine was on view at Ortega y Gasset Projects in Ridgewood, NY from September 28, 2013 – October 26, 2013.
Ortega y Gasset Projects (O y G) was launched in May 2013 as a gallery and curated project space in the Bushwick/Ridgewood neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. Formed by artists living in California, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New York, O y G operates as a cross-country collective and an incubator for dialog and artistic exchange.