Border Crossings, August 2009, pp. 124-26
1 August 2009
Susan Rothenbergs recent show at Sperone Westwater gallery in New York reinforced her stature as one of contemporary arts most accomplished painters, and as a painter who still upholds old school aesthetics as a vital ground for contemporaneity. Im using old school aesthetics here as a metaphor for certain traditions and ambitions that underscore modern art, including Modernisms attempts to embody, sometimes collectively, the supposed binaries of autonomous and authorial meanings, or put another way, objectivity and subjectivity. The two Modernist streams that best serve to represent this dichotomy, and which outwardly converge in Rothenbergs paintings, are the traditions of formalist abstraction and Expressionism. Not that these two referents would be unique to Rothenberg since, in fact, they have been behind some of the most robust painting in the Western world for many decades. So what makes Rothenbergs paintings so distinctive?
In my conversation with the artist at the opening of her recent NY show, Rothenberg said in response to a question about the works subject matter, I think all my life Ive been dealing with parts and wholes, but recently its more about parts. It might be argued that composites, contingencies, fragments, contradictions and ruptures are more descriptive of modern arts varied histories than are continuities and closure. If so, then this particular reading of an episodic and divergent Modernist backdrop to Rothenbergs emergence in the mid 70s had by that time become a model for, if not altogether a necessity of, advanced contemporary art practice and criticism: read postmodernism. Thus, its noteworthy that Rothenberg cued her painting aesthetic to codes and strategies posed by Pop art and conceptual art, rather than aligning it with high Modernist, formalist abstraction, which in the early to mid 70s still provided a powerful aesthetic lure and stable critical paradigm for aspiring painters. It would seem that Rothenberg had opted for the unpredictable and impure, accident and chance, ruptures and parts, over purity, stability and the whole.
Susan Rothenbergs new paintings at Sperone Westwater didnt disappoint or depart from her trademark de-stabilizing aesthetic. Human and marionette body parts were the exhibitions leitmotif and dismembered theatrical cast. The dramatic actions of these fragmented figures were stage upon various monochrome painting grounds, with each work strategically positioned in the overall installation plan. Pathos was a preeminent narrative theme (sadness, too) casting a wider net of associations, such as to Aristotles appeals to the emotions and imagination. The way in which Rothenberg might be said to orchestrate those very appeals in a non-rhetorical fashion, and how theyre in turn translated, enacted or envisioned by the audience, is in large part what makes her work so compelling and one reason why we keep returning to this artist.
In An Essay in Aesthetics, first published in 1909, Roger Fry claimed that the work of art is intimately connected to the secondary imaginative life, that imagination is the foundation of art and aesthetics, and that art presents a life freed from the binding necessities of our actual existence. Fry referred to this as our double life: one the actual life, the other the imaginative life.
Beyond the vast accretion of brush marks and surface topography one would expect to see in a Rothenberg show, these recent paintings are noteworthy for the sheer abundance of pencil lines and drawing marks that remain as part of the final work. Certainly the drawing lines are, in part, due to the working out of formal problems and iconography, but more than that, they are a trace of the active role of the artists imagination in the process or creating her work. A mid-sized painting called Tilt, 2008, is a case in point. Here drawing is a major contributor, as multiple pencil lines appear throughout the painting in addition to evidence of the artists efforts in reworking the painted surface, especially along the contours of the green, yellow and brown marionette limbs. The limbs are outstretched, and yet theyre bound by string attachments to the Masters control bar, not held horizontally as we might expect to see it, but on a diagonal. With the bar at an angle, the marionette parts appear to have come alive on their own accord and are attempting to break away, desperately grasping at a place beyond the limits of their tethered reach.
The anthropomorphism of the subject is even more directly embodied in the shows two single-image paintings: The Corner and Olive, both from 2008. These paintings were located out of sightlines from each other at opposite ends of the multi-sectioned gallery, The Corner in an alcove in the front gallery and Olive in a similar space off the gallery to the west. Olive, an existential painting if there ever was one, kept the enigmatic question of being in frustrating perpetuity. Here the mannequin figure is seen in profile from the waist up, with limbs intact, head thrown back, neck askew, mouth and eyes wide open, looking for all the world like someone who may just have caught a stray bullet. The corporeal patches of red on the figures chest contrast with the tranquility of the paintings greenish palette and blue, Edvard Munchian aura surrounding the figure. Olives Other, the figure in The Corner, with sly grin and side cast glance suggests a character who is turning his crime and punishment into a conspiracy, a restriction into an opportunity.
It is Susan Rothenbergs pure, strong painting and her particular imagination that make her a distinctive artist who consistently challenges her audience in unexpected ways. In October, 2009, a special exhibition of her work drawn from her 35-year career will open at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas (October 15, 2009, to January 4, 2010). Organized by Michael Auping, Chief Curator, the exhibition will travel to the Georgia OKeefe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico (January 22 to May 16, 2010), the Phillips Collection in Washington DC (June 15 to September 30, 2010) and the Miami Art Museum (October 15, 2010, to January 9, 2011).
- Gary Pearson
Susan Rothenberg was exhibited at Sperone Westwater in New York from February 19 to April 11, 2009.
Gary Pearson is an artist and Associate Professor at UBC Okanagan, in Kelowna, BC.