Disparities & Deformations: Our Grotesque, SITE Santa Fe '04
15 June 2004
The image in a painting by Susan Rothenberg is the last stage of an incremental process of statement, revision, cancellation, and restatement. In this cycle the subject may be well defined at the start or vague, something that accumulates around a firmly delineated form, or the gradual coming into focus of what at the outset was only dimly perceived. Attrition or erosion may also be factors. Some pictures constitute the residue of many decisions in the course of which the original premise has been lost or has morphed into something initially unforeseen. All of which is to say that Rothenberg's style is the organic product of her method. In her work the imagination comes alive on the material surface of a pigment-loaded canvas; premeditation just gets things rolling. Once that starts, the only check on where they go is the authenticity of the marks required to bring the image into being and the critical intelligence that ponders the result, is convinced by it, or compelled to transform it yet again. Hewing to this direct approach while keeping all other variables as simple as possible, Rothenberg has made pictures of astonishing variety beginning with the silhouetted horses of the 1970's and passing through emblematic heads and bodies in the early to mid-1980's, to choreographic and narrative scenes in the late 1980's and early 1990's, and for the past decade and a half, atmospheric interiors and landscapes of many moods. While there is an almost naturalistic quality to some - horses and other animals going about their business in a swirl of light-suffused strokes - a much odder type of figuration has appeared in recent depictions of men and women competing at dominoes or poker. The alternating meatiness and disembodied aura of their outsized noses, eyes, and ears - and the manner in which the components of their faces seem to float free of one another - combine hobgoblin looks with a Cheshire Cat capacity to disappear and reappear. That said, Rothernberg's pictures are entirely grown-up bedtime stories. And if some observers sense affinities with Philip Guston's grotesque brutes, the basis for this comparison does not lie in any common interest in political caricature or personal allegory - Rothenberg is not a literary painter - but ultimately in the feeling one has that the painting was not executed but arrived at. Its strangeness is not willed but intrinsic to an open-ended search for things to paint that seem only to have made themselves known to the artist as they make themselves known to us.
- Robert Storr