On ViewSteven Harvey Fine Arts Projects
January 8 – February 9, 2014
The sort of self-examination Susanna Coffey has practiced over the past three decades is far from the passive self-absorption often criticized in contemporary media. Her long practice of self-portraiture, which she expands significantly in this new group of small paintings, is an active investigation of cultural forms related to the self.
Coffey’s art is one of empirical observation, constantly varied based on the subject she contemplates. Like a teller of tales, she’s assumed varied guises over the past three decades, sometimes under dramatic lighting or extreme points of view, sometimes in flamboyant costumes or exaggerated make-up; she finds constant sources of invention in her own person and in the roles our society asks us to play. Yet as a true painter who works from observation, she finds ongoing inspiration in whatever light a new day brings to familiar features. Nuanced yet dispassionate, her paintings are grounded in the materials at hand.
Coffey’s understated style can best be appreciated in the delicately rendered “James’s Woman’s Skull” (2011), which serves as a sort of anchor for this wide-ranging exhibition. She brings a tactile immediacy to her treatment of the skull’s lustrous surface, but without any showy display of technique; it’s centered, frontal—no compositional theatrics. In “Yammy” (2012), she treats with equal respect a mask from New Guinea, used to adorn five to six foot long yam tubers to indicate their participation in the life of the tribe. Painterly touch is central to these small-scale works, about the size of hand-held mirrors; it animates their subjects and their enveloping space, which begins to assume a material presence.
This basis in specifics serves Coffey well in the more ambitious psychological exploration she undertakes with the works in Elemental. In the past, she has often used the background as a way to add psychological inflections to her portraits, most dramatically during the Iraq War, when she depicted her head with eyes closed in front of televised images of the bombing of Baghdad. Here, the backgrounds increasingly encroach on the heads. In “Green” (2013), as though submerged in a forest floor, Coffey’s face is partly covered by fronds of evergreen, which delicately touch her lips, while the deeply shadowed head in “Rest Stop” (2013) evokes her recent series of night paintings, in which the overall darkness supplies a matrix for emerging forms.
The obscured self-images, along with Coffey’s invocation of elemental forces, take the works in an increasingly abstract and Jungian direction. “Takenage’s Division” (2011) alludes to Monet and the familiar trope of reflection in water. Shifting from the mirror to the natural world, the self-image is lost in dark depths; we seek shadowy traces of eyes and lips in the ripples around the familiar axis of symmetry. Water is the locus of Narcissus’s self-loss, and the spreading hair and blue background of “Headstand, Earle’s and Locke’s” (2012) suggest Ophelia adrift, another archetype of self-abandonment.
“Oh Day, Verge and Bow”(2013), apparently an allusion to fire, takes us into very subjective territory indeed. We peer through cloudy layers of sprayed orange paint into darker spaces where luminous touches of pigment suggest features, suspended between surface and depth. In recent works, Coffey used “Apophenia” as a title, a tendency to see patterns in random data, linked to psychological disassociation. Yet there’s a constructive process at work in this dissolution, coming from Coffey’s use of forms abstracted from the head—the waving tendrils of hair that supply the framework for “Sharon’s Potion’s Breath” (2011), like a pattern of facial tattoos, or the isolated shapes stenciled with spray paint applied in layers to “Merciful he/she” (2013). Coffey takes inspiration from the codified elements of African sculpture, and here she resorts to a process founded in this external construction of identity, as though to counter the dissolution of the self in Western naturalism. Can Coffey remain grounded as works like “New Friends with Old” (2013), distanced from direct touch, get larger?
But Coffey doesn’t reach for grandiose conclusions—while there’s a strong romantic element to her self-exploration, there’s also a matter-of-factness to her deployment of visual elements and strength in their compression. She doesn’t appeal to universal truths or deep structures, but settles for what can be grasped and rendered. If bringing life to materials through painting from observation is a sort of conjuring, then she indeed extends the tradition of magic that intrigues her in African art. But she entertains multiple cultural possibilities, and her small paintings take the viewer on a wide-ranging ride through visual and psychosocial space. On their modest scale, they aspire to the encyclopedic “anthropology of images” proposed by last year’s Venice Biennale.