(Read on artcritical.com)
Ruckenfigur, 2013, oil on canvas.
Bypassing a post-modernist disbelief in the sign’s capacity for truth, Susan Bee’s current show, titled Criss Cross at Accola Griefen, announces a sincere love for the image. Bee’s apparent faith in the capacity of the painted figure to truly say something flies in the face of stylish irony and dispassionate conceptualism. I see her practice as heroic: perhaps the devout image-maker in our climate of stagnant disillusionment is a post-millennial wanderer in sea and fog.
The signifying strategies of Bee’s visual vocabulary include sequential narration (i.e. storytelling), a modernist invocation of pure color as the sensual index of emotion, intertextual allusion (Bee uses images from Hollywood and 19th century European painting), and a consistent emphasis on the tension between those modes. That tension is what accounts, in part, for the confounding beauty of the paintings that comprise the current series. The story told in Out the Window (2011) can be read and perhaps understood but not entered into: its subject—a flatly rendered, plaintive girl—is behind glass; she and her audience do not share the same present. This painted scene (like many of Bee’s) makes explicit the encounter between the shallowness of the image-as-such and the deep space of lived experience. The story is always agitated by the unruly illegibility of painterly abstraction, which serves as its backdrop. The deep space of Out the Window—the splotched and dotted background which sets off its protagonist—is a welter of hot, libidinous color and bristling textures; a crisply felt but ineffable present-tense.
Bee toys with the usual implications of the picture frame—to separate art from world, to corral an idealized other-reality and present it as an approachable object in the here and now—in her recurring invocation of the window. The man in No Exit (2012) looks at us through the Mondrian squares of a modernist mosaic illuminated like stained glass. The film noir pathos of his expression and the play of hot and cool in Bee’s palette, cast the space before the window—what lies between the character and us, his audience—in a shadowy solemnity. This gap is both our outside and his, and it menaces. It is an uncharted space, and the painting has no words for it. This ineffable beyond is re-iterated elsewhere in the exhibition as the turbid blur of the world when viewed from an automobile. In repeated cinematic renderings of people behind the dashboard—for example, Drive She Said (2011), Trouble Ahead (2012), The Trip (2012), Voyage (2012), and Wherever You Go (2013)—Bee envisions the menacing outside alternately as a swirling expressionist vortex, a patchwork of vivid geometric shapes, or a spattered web of aleatory drops. In this work she searches for the visual vocabulary with which to express the destabilizing sense-experience offered by the moving car; a phenomenon which, in the ‘40s and ‘50s (the Hollywood era Bee most often references) required the use of “rear projection” in order to be captured on film. The odd visual incongruity yielded by that technique—between the shaky, washed out external world and the sharper lines of the interior scene—is a glaring reminder of cinematic untruth, pointing to the dark functionality of the film studio. Film has always labored to mask its incapacity to immerse the viewer in airtight illusion; Bee, on the other hand, embraces the expressive potential of a kind of illusion that actively exposes itself.
In her images derived from European painters Caspar David Friedrich and Chaim Soutine, Bee again demonstrates that historical allusion in painting does not amount to an ironic disavowal of the source material, but instead indicates an impassioned wish to identify; a longing to feel and say what a painted character does. Whereas Roy Lichtenstein’s rendering of Van Gogh replaced the latter’s emotionally-charged brushstroke with the utilitarian blandness of graphic design, Bee’s versions of Friedrich and Soutine re-animate a historical pathos via the aching brightness of her own style. Her paintings have an intensely contemporary feeling, which manifests itself as the straining for words, an effort which both turns toward the past and activates a new and radically particular visual consciousness.
Ruckenfigur (2013) breaks down the smooth narrative surface of Friedrich’s gloomily romantic Sonnenuntergang (Brüder) (“sunset brothers”) (1830) into a striated pattern of vigorous greens, oranges, and blues. Here the distant sun which captivates the interest of the two brothers, lets spill its warm hues onto the foreground. The observing figures are thus ushered into the very image they appraise; their wish to comprehend the beautiful object—Friedrich invoked Kant’s notion of sublime longing for the thing-as-such—is, in a sense, nullified, as they are shown to already participate in the beauty they so wistfully appraise. Bee’s painting exposes the false belief that one cannot get inside a work of art. The relation between an artwork and its audience always connotes a certain longing, and the image can ache along with the person, yearning to encapsulate the material of a passing experience that can’t be held.
Bee’s brushwork always articulates an immediacy of feeling troubled by the need for comprehensible expression. It is true that all images reduce the disorder of immediate experience to a definitely limited object. Action painting addressed the problem by favoring experience and rejecting the limitations of the object; Pop Art declared the dominion of the object and the inevitable, thorough colonization of experience. Bee’s work, on the other hand, maintains that the painted figure can resist the tendency to dominate and enclose. For her, the barrier between beauty and the ordinary that is erected by the fact of the frame becomes a glimpsed horizon line, an illusory limit that dissolves when approached.