Growing up in Oxford, England, the daughter of a history professor father and homemaker mother, Susannah Bettag knew from a young age she was destined to become an artist. Her paintings, which are layered with beguiling images of women, carry forward a confluence of interests in female sexuality, domestic life, sex and desire, innocence and violence; themes she approaches with a deft touch and a refreshing absence of dogma. San Francisco City Editor, Sura Wood, met Bettag at the artist's cozy studio, a two-story space located off a shady courtyard in the city's Mission district. The studio, part of a compound that's home to a community of artists, is not only a refuge for Bettag, it's a mini gallery for her children's nascent artwork. Photographs of her four-year-old twins are tacked to the walls along with shards of color and remnants from past exhibitions. Her latest show, "Things We Shouldn't See," a collection of paintings (see images in slide show above), animation and video, is on view at Frey Norris Gallery, October 2- November 2, 2008. Her next project, "Drowning Without You," an installation comprised of 1,400 white vinyl dolls, multiple incarnations of a recurring character, "Little Boo," will be on display at the Montalvo Art Center in Saratoga, October 19- January 12, 2009. (www.susannahbettag.com)
Sura Wood: I understand you started out as a web designer and it also sounds as though you knew you wanted to be an artist from an early age. Could you talk about your background?
Susannah Bettag: I was always interested in art and loved painting and drawing for as long as I can remember. But I also always had a 'techie' side. At high school in the sixth form, where, in England, you specialize in just three or four subjects, I studied both art and math. From high school, I went on to Art school and decided to study Illustration (with graphic design) as it seemed like the best combination of creativity with a possibility of some commercial viability in the real world. After graduation I worked as an illustrator and graphic designer, but being in the Bay Area I was immersed in the beginnings of the whole web and 'dot com' explosion and became very interested in web design, which I ended up working in full time. I had my own business before working at a design agency as an associate creative director of web design. After a year, at the height of the whole dot com boom, I realized I had had enough. The clients were big corporate clients and my creativity was being stifled so I quit and have been working as a full time artist since.
SW: San Francisco is a beautiful place to live but do you ever feel cut off from the New York art scene and does that matter?
SB: Yes, I do feel cut off from the New York art scene and, yes, I do think that matters. It is an ongoing internal debate for me. My next big goal is representation/recognition in NY or L.A., when I have the time to pursue it. Ha ha!
SW: Who or what is Little Boo?
SB: Little Boo is a character that first appeared in my paintings maybe six or seven years ago. He (she?) is a somewhat androgynous, slightly cartoonish character with a big head that bad things happen to. He is a mix of innocence/cuteness and disturbing transgression. He appears less in my work now than he once did.
SW: Images of women are often layered underneath or on top of other imagery in your paintings. Is this approach at all connected to the idea that women are often perceived as blank canvases on which society, and men in particular, project their fantasies, fears and yearnings?
SB: Yes, I think that is a very good way of saying it. That women are blank canvasses is not the only idea but, certainly, I intend the line drawings of the pornographic nudes to be taken that way. Part of what I'm aiming for is to have the viewer project their own fantasy, interpretations and narratives upon the work.
SW: How is that aspects of traditional women's art, female sexuality, in some cases drawn from pornography, and the domestic sphere, became part of your territory? I should add to this list the intersection of innocence, sex, violence and desire.
SB: My work draws upon the external culture and its depiction of women, as well as my own personal experience and internal landscape. As a woman, I cannot help but be affected by issues that relate directly to women, and I am drawn to incorporating some of these in my work. The intersection of seemingly conflicting ideas around themes of innocence, sex, violence and desire are strangely universal but, they're also ideas that I grapple with in my work.
SW: Women's relationship to and comfort with their own sexuality has changed radically in the last decade, though some old uncertainties and attitudes linger. Have you been directly affected and /or confused by these societal changes?
SB: It has changed radically, hasn't it! Even in the time I have been painting, the change in attitude toward pornography, for instance, has been radical. Eight years ago, incorporating images from pornography into my art was somewhat shocking. Now, it doesn't have the same charge and in some ways I enjoy that more. Instead of pushing the envelope further and including more and more shocking images, just for shock value, I have drawn back and my 'found" images are softer and more suggestive, creating more of a narrative.
Now, there is a mass culture that tells us that the way to be strong as a woman and show your strength is to be proud of one's "womanliness/femaleness," which is a wonderful thing in theory, but translates as "not being ashamed to" show off one's physical attributes. In the end, however, this often seems to be just for men's benefit. It's a confusing world out there, especially for young women. Luckily, I feel I'm getting to the age and have the hindsight to be less concerned about others' views in this arena. Still, it's hard not to be affected about body image and representation. The change in women's relationship and comfort with their own sexuality has indeed changed radically in the last decade or so, especially the acceptance and, in some arenas, almost an encouragement of bisexuality and lesbianism. This has allowed many women, including myself, to explore feelings, ideas and acts that they and society might not have allowed them to explore before. Overall, I believe this is a good thing, though definitely it's been exploited for prurient enjoyment, especially in advertising, film, TV and porn.
SW: Why are men absent from the universe of your paintings?
SB: When in the past I had incorporated men, I always found that there was an inherent power struggle, real or implied, within the pictures. Perhaps, if I just drew men with men that wouldn't be the case, but I'm more comfortable with women and that would be a whole new world to venture into. Also, I love the connection to the long and illustrious history of women as the subjects of paintings.
SW: Do you think there's a unique camaraderie that only women share when they're apart from men?
SB: Yes, I do.
SW: Could you describe your latest video, "Seeing in Shadows"?
SB: This is a film, approximately six minutes long, which incorporates animation and video. I filmed a number of my girlfriends, cropped close to just head and shoulders, talking to the camera about secrets, fantasies, and what they conceal and reveal. Common themes ran through their conversations and I edited them down to short sentences. The video overlays these clips on top of one another and, gradually, animated flowers grow behind, around and in front of them, slowly concealing their faces from view.
SW: Who are the women who appear in your work and what about those slabs of red meat?
SB: The women who appear as line drawings in the back of my paintings are taken from porn magazines and online images. The other women, the more fleshed out paintings, are friends of mine, usually taken from a snapshot or party picture.
The slabs of red meat I have used in two different paintings over the years. I included them because I love the visual and tactile quality of the meat. I love the slightly disgusting look it has, too. It is not, however, a direct reference to women being viewed as "pieces of meat," though many people do read that into it, which I do not mind at all. I wouldn't say the meat is a recurring theme in my work.
SW: I noticed motifs and colorations in some of your latest paintings-deep crimson, gold leaf and a delicacy, for instance, reminiscent of Asian scrolls and folding screens. Have you been influenced by Asian art?
SB: I have absolutely been influenced by Asian art, especially traditional Japanese woodcuts, with their flatness and "floating worlds," and the colors, materials and simplicity of composition of folding screens, scrolls and other designs as well as art objects, contemporary Japanese art and animation.
SW: How about your use of color and metallic finishes?
SB: I always start with the color in a painting. Everything else follows from that. As to the metallic finishes, I think it is another palette to add when experimenting with colors. It does add a certain depth and deliciousness to the surface.
SW: You've said that although you paint images of women, you're not a feminist artist nor are your works a political feminist critique. Could you elaborate on that distinction?
SB: I am an artist. And I am a feminist. Is it possible to be a woman and not be a feminist, if one defines feminism as the advocacy of women's rights and political, social and economic equality with men? But my work is not about my feminist beliefs. My work touches on feminist, feminine and female issues, but it is not work purely with a feminist message. It's harder these days to define these issues when even the words "feminist" or "feminism" have different connotations and a confusing charge to them - just look at the number of young women who say they are not feminists. Are they saying they don't believe in equal rights for women? I doubt it. Perhaps, we need a new word without the baggage
SW: I can see where your work might be read as political. Does this bother you? Do you see it as an attempt to marginalize you?
SB: I think any art that affects people, makes people think, question their beliefs or see a different point of view is successful in some way and political in some way. I am not bothered if my work is read as political and I do not see it as an attempt to marginalize me.
SW: A little over four years ago, your twins were born. How do you balance family and making art? Has being a mother impacted or changed your work?
SB: I balance it by cutting out many other things. So, now I have much less socializing, less vacations, less free time, and I spend most of my time either at the studio or with my kids. As to impacting or changing my work, it has not changed a lot. Perhaps, the main difference is that now I am much more focused while at the studio as my time is so limited.
SW: Is your studio a form of refuge?
SB: Absolutely, I love my studio. It is the only place in the world that is just mine.
SW: How important is it to you to have a community of fellow artists?
SB: I enjoy it a great deal and, though I am not a chatty person, I like to have other people around and not work in complete solitude. Having the sounding board of other artists I respect is also great.
SW: Do you get out and see what other artists are doing?
SB: Not as much as I would like.
SW: Have you seen a show that really blew your mind and inspired you in either a positive or negative direction?
SB: I loved the Basquiat retrospective I saw down in LA a few years ago. I also really enjoyed the Vivian Westwood show that was at the de Young, though that was more just for the visuals rather than the message. I also loved a Howard Hodgkin retrospective that I saw at the Tate a few years back--beautiful.
SW: What do you do you to relax?
SB: I garden, I snowboard and I spend time with my family, though that's not always relaxing. I read and I have dinner with friends. I love going to the movies, though I don't think I've actually been to see more than ten movies in the last four years.
SW: What's next for you?
SB: I will be installing "Drowning Without You," which will be on display from October 19th through January 2009 at the Montalvo Art Center in Saratoga. After that, a moment to breathe, then a visit in December to the Miami art fairs, where Frey Norris will be showing my work at Art Miami, then it's back to work. I will begin to put out feelers, possibly looking for a gallery to carry my work in either Los Angeles or New York or abroad. I have been very excited about the video and animation work I have been doing and hope to continue with more of that as well as more painting. I have ideas for a video piece that would incorporate many women's voices and ideas, combined with common messages. We'll see where it goes.
Susannah Bettag, "Drowning Without You," installation; Courtesy of the Artist.
ArtSlant would like to thank Susannah Bettag for her assistance in making this interview possible.