Susan Bee, artist
Susan Bee, Grid/Lock (2014, 24” x 30”, oil and enamel on linen)
I saw Susan Bee's work via A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn (she is also represented by Accola Griefen Gallery in NYC); and instantly loved her expressive use of color and narratives with the figure and environment. She generously shares with LFF about living in the “sink or swim” arts environment of NY, her recent series based on film stills of film noirs or comedies from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s; her collaborative work with poets, feminism in her work and much more…
Sally Deskins: Where are you from? How did you get into art?
Susan Bee: I’m from New York City. In fact, I was born on the island of Manhattan. My parents, Miriam and Sigmund Laufer, were artists, so you could say that I was born into the profession of art. From a young age, I went to museums, gallery openings and hung around artists. Art has always been the important essence of my life.
SD: Tell me about your inspirations, process.
SB: In the past few years, I have created a number of oil paintings that are based on film stills of film noirs or comedies from the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s, or other source material, including romantic paintings by Caspar David Friedrich. I am interested in transforming these sources and making them my own. These paintings are colorful and often humorous or dramatic. I concentrate on the relationships between the characters in the paintings. The canvases become a stage for the performers to come alive.
In addition, I have made 14 artist’s books. Many of these projects involve collaborations with poets. In these works, I concentrate on creating an accompaniment to the words of the poets. I am interested in fantasy, color, and the imagination. Many of the collages that I make for these books and as drawings draw on children’s stickers and old postcards.
Susan Bee, In the Pink (2013, 12” x 9”, oil and collage on canvas)
SD: Why collaborate with poets? How does this impact your work?
SB: I’m married to a poet, Charles Bernstein, and we have been working together for many years. In addition, I go to poetry readings and read a lot of poetry. Many of my collectors are writers, other artists, and poets. I have also collaborated with Johanna Drucker, Jerome McGann, Susan Howe, Jerome Rothenberg, Rachel Levitsky, and Regis Bonvicino.
I’m often inspired by poetry. I have always used dream imagery and unconscious sources in some of my paintings, drawings, and artists’ books. I have incorporated images of angels, saints, demons, and fairies. I used imagery drawn from both religion and fantasy as a way to reflect motifs in the poems. My work has been deeply inspired by the freedom and fluidity with which the poets that I know and love use the symbolic and the imaginary in their work.
Painting is very different from making a book. My paintings are one of a kind. With the books, the form has been more open, I have designed the individual spreads than assembled the overall narrative structure. Each book project has been different from the next. What I like about the book form is that one doesn’t view it all at once like a painting – there instead is a gradual unfolding from one page to the next as the pages are turned. I also like the accessibility of the book form. Doing the books has expanded my vocabulary of images and approaches. I have used various forms such as: photography, drawing, watercolor, collage, and gouache.
Susan Bee, Opening Night (2013, 20” x 24”, oil and enamel on linen)
SD: Tell me about your current/upcoming show/exhibit/project and why it is important to you.
SB: I have had two solos shows in NY in the past two years. In May-June 2013, I had a show titled: “Criss-Cross: New Paintings.” This was a show of 30 new paintings. The exhibition consisted of figurative works based on film stills and landscapes. This show at Accola Griefen Gallery in Chelsea was an important summing up of many years of painting. It was accompanied by a catalog with an essay by critic Raphael Rubinstein.
Then in April 2014, I had a show at A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn that was curated by Kat Griefen. It was titled: “Doomed to Win: Paintings from the Early 1980s.” I showed my early feminist paintings in that show. Those paintings from 1982 and 1983 were never seen before in a gallery. It was a great opportunity to look at my early work in the context of my latest paintings and for the viewers to draw connections among these bodies of work.
A Girl’s Life, Susan Bee, pictures, writing by Johanna Drucker, collaborative design (Granary Books, 2002)
SD: Do you think Brooklyn/NYC is a good place for women in art? Do you show your work elsewhere/is there a difference in how your work is received?
SB: I think Brooklyn is a great place for women in the arts. I live there and work there. My gallery, A.I.R., the first gallery for women artists, is still going strong in Dumbo after 40 years. I rarely show elsewhere, so I can’t really say how my work is received in other locations. But I have given talks and presentations about my work all over this country and abroad and those talks have been well received.
SD: Artist Wanda Ewing, who curated and titled the original LFF exhibit, said of her work: “I’ve been making provocative art with a political edge in my Midwestern hometown since 1999. And to do that, you have to be tenacious as hell.” Are you tenacious in your work or life? How so?
SB: I am extremely tenacious as well. You have to be determined to be a woman artist in the hypercompetitive art world in NY. It is a sink or swim environment. If you are lucky you may have the support of other artists and friends and family. Otherwise, it is very difficult path to follow. I have been at it my whole life and it has not been easy. This year I won a Guggenheim Fellowship after applying for many years.
SD: Ewing, who examined perspective of femininity and race in her work, spoke positively of feminism, saying “yes, it is still relevant” to have exhibits and forums for women in art; does feminism play a role in your work?
SB: Feminism definitely plays a role in my work. It is in my attitude to my subject matter and to my career as a woman artist in the male-dominated art world. I have the example of the many women artists who have come before me. I am inspired by their courageous struggles and their successes.
SD: Ewing’s advice to aspiring artists was “you’ve got to develop the skill of when to listen and when not to;” and “Leave. Gain perspective.” What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
SB: Aspiring artists should go look at as much art as possible. Travel and allow your inspiration and imagination guide you. Be prepared for hard work and a long haul. It is not an easy road to follow, but hopefully you will enjoy creating your artwork and will find an audience.
Les Femmes Folles is a completely volunteer run organization founded in 2011 with the mission to support and promote women in all forms, styles and levels of art with the online journal, anthologies, books, exhibitions and events; originally inspired by artist Wanda Ewing and her curated exhibit by the name Les Femmes Folles (Wild Women). LFF was created and is curated by Sally Deskins. LFF Books is a micro-feminist press that publishes 1-2 books per year by the creators of Les Femmes Folles including Intimates & Fools (Laura Madeline Wiseman, 2014). Other titles include Les Femmes Folles: The Women 2011, 2012 and 2013, available on blurb.com,(get 15% your blurb purchase using code BLURB2014 expires 8/27/14) including art, poetry and interview excerpts from women artists. A portion of the proceeds from LFF books and products benefit the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Wanda Ewing Scholarship Fund.