Interview with Susan Bee

Susan Bee‘s Recalculating at A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn examines all of art history through a postmodern lens: as if its most epic battles were appropriated then compressed onto a canvas in a style that is similar to the way that David Salle, Nicole Eisenman, and Cindy Sherman have created their compositions. Without losing her style to a sea of reproductions, Bee maintains Recalculating as an exhibition of paintings that makes its two distinct themes battle each other in order to expose their tenuous theoretical commonalities.

On the surface ironic fairy tales of domestic disputes and shattered windows build a film noir representative of today’s sobered ideals. Below the surface is a painterly, Bauhaus-inspired formal deconstruction that sometimes hides beneath objects that are fully rendered. The paintings’ formal tension reflects their dissonant narratives, creating a universality that art aspires to.

Susan Bee: The first series of paintings are stills from film noirs, mostly black-and-whites that I’ve made in color. They’re arranged in an abstract narrative with recurring characters like the man with the hat and the blonde woman, driving, windows, guns – there’s a lot of hints of violence in the film noirs. They usually end badly.

Susan Bee, Cover-Up (2010, 16 x 20″, oil on linen)
Susan Bee, Framed (14 x 18”, oil on linen, 2010)

Tom Winchester: They remind me of your last show of paintings, which depicted disasters.

SB: This show has more to do with personal disasters, with actual characters having them, but the situations could go either way; he either loves her, or he’s about to kill her. Some of them reference certain films, like one is from Gun Crazy, another is from Detour, and one is from a woman-behind-bars flick, but they actually go beyond the films. I’ve added things like masks, hats, and backgrounds, which aren’t in the originals. And some of them I tried to pull into abstractions.

The other paintings in the show have to do with either landscape or religious imagery, like the Renaissance and Medieval works in the Lehman Wing at the Met, which refer more to my earlier work.

TW: All the work in the show is loosely referential, maybe some more than others, which makes me think of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills.

SB: I use the references as a source, each of the film noirs is based on a source, but is a revision of that source, a reinvention rather than a direct copy; and in terms of this show I felt I needed to separate the different sources. I felt like I had to divide the space because some paintings are mostly landscapes and some are close-ups and based on film stills. Also, some have collage and others don’t. In my studio I had certain paintings grouped together, so I felt I wanted the exhibition in the gallery to have that feeling of grouping. I’ve been going in between these two series, sort of painting one then painting the next. Everything is from the past two years.

TW: The Medieval and Renaissance decoupage pieces offer physical appropriation and the film noirs offer theoretical appropriation. Depicting fairy tales and disasters in these ways, to me, is like depicting a sobering-up, an end, or the real.

SB: I agree. Harbor of Illusions (2009) is a transitional piece from the last show of disasters because it depicts a flood, but it’s more contained because all the figures are on islands. I originally wanted to call it The Drowned and the Saved. It has spiritual elements like the tree, and film noir elements like the woman with the gun. It’s sort of a synthesis of the two main themes of this show.

Susan Bee, Harbor of Illusions, (37 x 50”, oil and collage on linen, 2009)

TW: The portrayal of the woman in Tangled Up in Blue (2009) reminds me of the cave paintings in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

SB: The woman is painted in sand, enamel, and oil. I’ve actually been to the caves, not the ones in the movie, but Charles Bernstein and I once went on a tour in southern France and northern Spain to see about eight caves. This trip made me very aware of their imagery.

Woman Tormented by Demons (2009) is based on a painting made by Michelangelo when he was twelve years old called Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons. It’s very cartoon-like. For this one I changed Saint Anthony to a girl. I wanted to make it a woman instead of a man. I’ve actually changed the sex of the figures in several of these paintings.

Susan Bee, Woman Tormented by Demons (18 x 14”, oil on linen, 2009)

TW: What do you think it means to change their sex? Are you making a feminist statement?

SB: It changes the narrative if the viewer knows it’s not Saint Anthony and it seems instead to be some anonymous female. My work is not overtly political but there’s always some political element. I’m talking a lot about relationships between men and women, especially in the film noirs, and the other paintings are more about the figures and spirituality, and landscape and religion.

TW: Is there an element of the childhood in your work? I know that your daughter’s, Emma Bee Bernstein, artist statement mentioned the theme of the game of playing dress up, and I wonder if you share similar motivations.

SB: I think Emma’s use of color and the dresses she wears and the patterns her models wear are similar to my work. Into the Woods (2010) depicts Red Riding Hood and wolves, so there’s definitely a fairy tale element—and my mother, Miriam Laufer, did a lot of self-portraits, nudes, and windshields. In some ways my work is the most muted of the family.

TW: Who were your early inspirations? Were you inspired by the Victorian Collage show?

SB: I love the Victorian era. I didn’t know about Victorian collage, but I liked how they cut things up and put them in the picture. Early on, I only knew about the French Surrealists and the Dadaists like Hannah Hoch, Kurt Schwitters, and Max Ernst; so when I saw what the Victorian ladies were doing I was really excited. Another favorite source is Medieval manuscript illuminations. I love Kandinsky, Blake, all the expressionists, African art, stained glass windows, Charles Burchfield —so many things inspire me.