Friday, January 18, 2013

A Studio Visit with Suzanne Bennett by Ann deVere

I first saw Suzanne Bennett’s paintings over a year ago when I loft sat while she was on holiday.  One hung over the bureau where I turned the radio on every morning. Impressed by the skill and strength of the painting, I found myself being repeatedly pulled into its space, transfixed by the possibility of narrative and nostalgia. I would later discover the strong emotional residue I couldn’t quite put my finger on as a constant thread throughout her work.

The visit began with her presenting a body of about 18 new paintings ranging in sizes of 14 X 18, 16 X 20 and 18 X 24 inches. The subject was American sitcoms in the 1970s.  She had appropriated stills of characters from such famous 70s shows as Mash, All in the Family, the Brady Bunch and Fantasy Island-to name a few.  This topic became of interest when a childhood memory she had was in fact a memory from a TV show in her early youth.  Her father, who had difficulty hearing and passed away last year, had filled their home with the sounds of a constantly playing, loud television.


She equated-for a brief moment- the passing of her dad with influencing this theme. She also felt nothing complex in the ideas behind studying these figures from a specific period of American history.  I begged to differ as the depth of her critical eye became apparent when I asked if she could define what was so American about the 70s.  She spoke about a last gasp of innocence and freedom existing then before the ironic 80s; how there was still a theatrical quality to television stages with nuanced lighting and muted colors; and how serious subjects on the changes surfacing in our society-at that time, were being tackled in these corny and banal TV settings. To further illustrate these thoughts she pointed to her paintings and began describing the compelling programming behind them. One Day at a Time was a show about a recovering alcoholic, divorced- with 2 teenage daughters who was learning to navigate life alone, while All in the Family portrayed a white, working class bigot losing his battle to progress and multiculturalism, and Three’s Company was about 3 people living in wedlock. The male character self identified as gay so he could live as a heterosexual with a woman to whom he was not married.  Even The Brady Bunch was breaking new ground with a storyline about second marriages and the trials and tribulations combining two families. I laughed and cringed at the same time as I listened to her revelations. 
Suzanne was raised in Northern California and spoke honestly about remembering feeling a bit threatened by the urban shows. I, on the other hand, spent my first 5 years in what is now known as the South Bronx before moving out to the boondocks of New York State. I had a good childhood. I also recall nothing fictional about Archie Bunker from All in the Family. Being the first black family on our street, he was alive and well, living in the house next door and inside the body of the 6 year old sitting next to me in 2nd grade. The discussion triggered recollections of other 70s sitcoms like The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and Good Times. We left the topic with Suzanne considering scenes to add to her series from those shows as well.
There is a strong literary component to Suzanne’s painting. For one, she has a very impressive library of both academic and creative writing. I always wondered what influence that might have on her work. Deeply inspired by poetry, she summed up her intent in painting as capturing the feeling one walks away with reading a descriptive narrative about a place or character. Her response reminded me of the Da Vinci quote “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Suzanne’s paintings are both felt and seen.

While it was evident the influence of these shows on her aesthetic (the antiquated palette) and mood (a sense of innocence lost), what wasn’t obvious was that in the process she rediscovered her love of painting.  A result, she explained, from being immersed in the conscious decision of how she was manipulating the paint to depict flesh tones, lighting and dimension. She found herself focusing on traditional techniques for ambiance rather than her usual concerns of balance and design.  She described the experience as “working very hard yet having a lot of fun, and fast paced without the suffering”.
The American painter Rauschenberg saw beauty in everyday objects. Bennett sees the beauty in the pragmatic rituals of everyday life.  Routine not necessarily filled with big heroic acts but iconic moments nonetheless that quietly capture the humanness of our experiences.  The brilliance with her imagery is you don’t have to know the subject directly to feel the poignancy of longing bred by memory.  The work is also very timely as it mirrors the pulse of change occurring in American culture today.  Changes brought on by the collapse of structures and ideology that no longer sustain us and the expansion into new territories afforded by technology.
I look to the tART collective as a platform to take risks I might not have the opportunity to take otherwise.  As I shared this with Suzanne, it led the discussion to her exploring installation ideas. Provoked by the presentation before me -work hung in no particular order on the wall, sprawled along the floor and placed on other objects, I pointed out how I saw the paintings creating an environment. We discussed the prospects of replicating a room from the 70s, or a television set inspired by a scene in one of her paintings and placing her work in this staged space - a befitting solution to an upcoming exhibition occupying the abandoned spaces of a once vital institution.