by Jeffrey Cyphers Wright
Susan Bee. Fighters (1983). Oil on linen, 64″ x 48″. Image courtesy of A.I.R. Gallery.
April 3 — April 27, 2014
An irrepressible spirit is evident in Susan Bee’s playful tableaux vivants. Stylistic and contextual juxtapositions produce novel propositions that are simultaneously venerative and impish. Tragedy and comedy share the ring where Bee challenges our assumptions about heroism, gender and self-expression.
These early paintings (from 1982 to 1983) predicted the artist’s core concerns, confirming her prescience as an innovative pioneer. In a concurrent show of recent work at Accola Griefen Gallery, she still mixes figurative and abstract elements to create controversial compositions fraught with drama, sexuality and politics. Her vignettes act as exploratory vehicles that affirm personal identity.
Concerned with relationships — both personal and formal — Bee usually begins with a visual quote either from art history, film or myth. An odalisque of a male nude has as its starting point “Sleeping Venus” by Giorgione from 1510.
Bee substitutes her husband, the writer Charles Bernstein for Venus. This swapping of genders is a typical topos of Bee’s feminist stance. As the critic Jonathan Goodman wrote, ”She… propose[s] a world in which childhood memories, assertion of self and a political sensibility are equally important in determining ideas of gender today.”
The artist’s minimalist technique allows the viewer to impart his or her own emotions onto the palimpsest-like renderings. For example, the reclining figure in the odalisque is weighted with history, yet in Bee’s hands the work is fresh.
This flat style is akin to Alex Katz, Luc Tuymans. George Schneeman (and to some extent Elizabeth Peyton). Unlike those artists, Bee also invokes the stark intensity of mosaics from Ravenna. Moreover, her work bears an overt allegorical sensibility from which it derives a vibrant moral compass. This sense of an interpretive narrative puts her in the company of contemporaries such as Julie Heffernan, Dana Schutz and Francesco Clemente.
In Bee’s “Oadalisque,” rich tones of sienna and carmine are laid down in sweeping strokes surrounding the figure. Though suggestive of the folds in curtains, the brushwork remains resolutely nonrepresentational. The backgrounds are often composed of such agitated gestures or fanciful filigrees, calling to mind the marks and drips of Kandinsky, Pollack or Joan Mitchell.
In another odalisque, Petunia Pig is repurposed as a pugnacious putti confronting a Gaugin-like nude female in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pig.” The allusion to James Joyce adds another dimension to Bee’s multi-faceted composition, further establishing the scene as smart, funny, and self-deprecating yet poised.
Despite a humorous bent, there is nothing funny about Bee’s visual rendering of the Rosenbergs except possibly the shocking incongruity of the apparitional faces and the animated border. Using as source material the couples’ iconic portrait from the newspapers (as filtered through a movie), Bee skirts direct appropriation and its inherent irony. In this choice of iconic imagery, she follows the poignant and astute cartoon-like portrait of Sacco and Vanzetti by Ben Shan.
Conflict is a recurring theme and Bee uses the underdog as a topos in several works including the title painting, “Doomed to Win,” in which a female pugilist is coached between rounds of a boxing match.
In “Fighters” two women duke it out in an opera bouffe. Dressed in contemporary evening wear, their attire also suggests Hellenic figures engaged in an eternal struggle. Further, they can be seen as antagonists in a dialogue between abstract and figurative (or addressing the internal conflicts of feminism). As if to underline the union of abstract and figurative, a protester carries a sign that is actually a non objective painting.
Behind the two protagonists, a conflagration of reds, pinks and blues resembles a vague vagina. This focus on shape and color hints at Bee’s interest in the painter Chaim Soutine who served as a bridge between representational work and Abstract Expressionism.
Likewise, Bee’s work bridges varying modes of expression. From figurative to abstract, from historical to personal, from serious to light-hearted, and from past to present — she creates tension and crowns it with tenderness — exhibiting a rare set of gifts.