Black and white film stills are the pictorial basis of the majority of my new 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. 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 dark, violent films of the 1940s and 1950s. The paintings use a flattened and abstracted picture plane as a starting area for uncanny narrative and figurative overlays that engage psychic dislocation, trauma, and incongruous mystical and religious iconography. These new works figure complexity, sensuality, dramatic tension, and strong emotions as an interwoven whole. The paintings confront, without resolving or sublimating, gender roles and power relationships. My focus is on the marked visual constellations that underlie key popular culture stereotypes.
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. This doesn’t mean, however, that I am seeking only to provide abstract equivalents for the inner states of my protagonists. I am connecting the figurative and abstract parts of each painting and ultimately hope to absorb them as a single experience, though often the non-figurative areas take on a life of their own.
My recent paintings also feature landscapes based on paintings by Casper David Friedrich, Soutine, and other visionaries of the sublime. These landscapes are painted with an emphasis on the expressivity and color potential of the paint. Looking back on the trajectory of my solo shows, I can see that my approach to the subject matter and painting changed over time. My recent paintings are tighter and more focused on the interactions between the characters. Meanwhile, my landscapes have become more romantic and expressionistic, and oriented to fantasy and religious and dream-like visions. I find myself creating narratives with an emphasis on the inherent painterly composition.
I have become very taken by the idea of theatricality and artifice. I am creating these paintings as spaces for a drama to take place. The figures are actors and actresses in a stage that I am setting up for them to play out their roles. The film stills I’m referencing are very dramatic. There is a subtle undertone that is pulling you in and pushing you out. I remain intrigued by the dangerous women and the desolate men in the film noirs. These paintings have brought into focus the power of the individual faces and bodies and their relationship to the painted ground and also their relation to each other. I’m now emphasizing the dynamic between the figures, whether they’re pressing against a windowpane, or pressing up against each other. In fact, the paintings’ focus is on these relationships and the psychological space and emotions that are carved out among the persons that I’m portraying.
(excerpts from reviews of Criss Cross: New Paintings at Accola Griefen Gallery, 2013)
From: Miriam Atkin , “Longing Inside the Frame: Susan Bee at Accola Griefen,” Art Critical, June 28, 2013 “Bypassing a post-modernist disbelief in the sign’s capacity for truth, Susan Bee’s current show, titled Criss Cross at Accola Griefen, announces a sincere love for the image. Bee’s apparent faith in the capacity of the painted figure to truly say something flies in the face of stylish irony and dispassionate conceptualism. I see her practice as heroic: perhaps the devout image-maker in our climate of stagnant disillusionment is a post-millennial wanderer in sea and fog.”
From: Sharon Butler, Two Coats of Paint, Susan Bee Movies, June 15, 2013 “Her game was bright, vivid paintings inspired by film noir stills. She loaded her canvases with swirling Ab-Ex tropes. Casual viewers could take them for cheerful. They’d be wrong. A girl gingerly approaching a man who’s holding a paring knife, a doll slapping a rake in the kisser, two gimlet-eyed dames waiting in a car for trouble—all the color in the world couldn’t stifle the want or the fear in these paintings. That was the point. Look at them, sure, she said, but then drink them in.”
From: The New Yorker , Goings on About Town, “Susan Bee,” July 1, 2013 “Bee’s skills as a colorist and her stylistic abandon make the show worth seeking out. Flat figures are outlined in black, as if in the pages of coloring books, offset by bright backgrounds that loosely reference modernist painting (Pollock-like dribbles, Mondrian-esque geometries). In one picture, two young women cower in a backseat as bright daubs of abstraction fill the rear window. It’s horror vacui by way of film noir.”
From: Ann McCoy, “Susan Bee Paints the Spaces Between People,” The Forward, June 28, 2013 “The real nature of the relationships in Bee’s paintings seems to exist in the space around the figures. Much has been written in modern psychology about the interactive field, and field dynamics. Bee paints the dynamism of the interactive field and we see the energetic component in bold relief. The space around the figures is often applied with thick paint that does not resemble the paint handling used to create the figures. Bee’s application captures a palpable energy. This critic can think of no other artist who paints the way Bee does.”
From: Alexander Shulan, “Susan Bee: Criss Cross, New Paintings,” Brooklyn Rail (July/August 2013) “Looking at ‘Out of the Window,’ I couldn’t help but think about Pollock’s famous remark to Hans Hoffman: when asked if he worked from nature, he replied, ‘I am nature.’ In ‘Out of the Window’ something similar is at play—an abstraction, which comes from some private mental space, is juxtaposed against a figurative image that is overt in its psychology. In the unity of the two, something ineffable is expressed.”
From: Lori Zimmer, “Putting Paint to the Test,” ArtSlant, June 15, 2013 “Bee’s pieces are meant to be consumed at a close distance. From afar, they appear to be simply pictorial, almost child-like in their boldly brazen color palette. The gradation from one hue to the next reads as extremely deliberate, and at a distance her paintings feel like collage, as if each figure were on a different plane from the others. Bee herself embraces the feeling of collage, but not in the same way that her paintings read from across the room. When viewed close up and intimately, one can see that Bee uses collage methods in her layers of paint, texture and strokes, in the surface plane, fragmenting one color to the next like stained glass with varying criss cross or hatch marks.”