Using scenes from classic cinema as inspiration, Susan Bee’s new body of work puts her medium to the test: with her painterly brushstrokes and jabs competing with the pictorial film stills as the subjects of her paintings. In her solo exhibition, “Criss Cross,” the artist has taken on the impassioned glances and forlorn stares of the silver screen, but removed them from the vintage glamour of chiaroscuro. With purposeful movement and motion evident in her painting, Bee has given each classic scene vibrancy with over the top color, translating each movie embrace into an abstraction of color and form.
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.
The resulting pieces are actually two types of paintings in one, a fusion of recognizable romantic tableaus from the golden age of film with pure abstractionism, which can seem like two contrasting genres. The fusion is most successful in pieces like Haunted House (2011), or The Path or Death in Venice (2012), where the figurative elements are played down, letting Bee’s signature color and pattern take center stage. Even Wherever You Go (2013) reaches this same feeling of harmony, with a perfect balance of portraiture to bold pattern, that some of the other film still pieces do not capture.
Susan Bee, Ahava, Berlin, 2012, oil, enamel, and sand on canvas, 24" x 36"; Courtesy of the artist and Accola Griefen Gallery.
But not all pieces in “Criss Cross” draw from the silver screen. Ahava (2012), a mosaic like architectural painting, is in fact a deeply personal piece for Bee. The piece shows a former orphanage in the Mitte neighborhood of Berlin, which was once the Jewish Ghetto that Bee’s parents lived in before being exiled to Palestine. The piece was also inspired by Caspar David Friedrich combined with colorful autumn foliage, which Bee experienced during her residency at the MacDowell Company. Stylistically, Bee combined her MacDowell experience with her own familial memories, using patterns and splatters evocative of Jackson Pollock to render the surface of the Berlin Kinderheim orphanage.
Interestingly, poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein was called upon to write the catalog essay for Bee’s exhibition. As Rubinstein’s essay illustrates, Bee has put her painterly skills to the test with her new body of work, exploring pattern and technique inside of the negative space around the characters she paints. The compositions create a duality of narrative and abstraction, linked together with Bee’s bold color palette.
(Image on top: Susan Bee, Pennies from Heaven, 2011, oil on linen, 16" x 20"; Courtesy of the artist and Accola Griefen Gallery.)