On ViewA.I.R. Gallery
September 12 – October 11, 2020
Susan Bee is creating new mythologies to help grapple with a collapsing universe. In Anywhere Out of the World she embraces archetypes and iconic images to reinterpret societal and personal struggles. The works, created between 2017 and 2020, move fluidly through art history, fiction, autobiography, politics, and events that have changed the global outlook towards social issues.
Born in 1952, Bee has worked as a painter, editor, and book artist. She is a native New Yorker, who has traveled extensively abroad, soaking in the large historical landscape. Much of her life has been spent as a professor, teaching. These experiences have combined to make her thought process expansive and multifaceted, so that she is able to easily create a cosmology of her own through the vast knowledge she has acquired.
For example, Anywhere Out of the World (2019)—the painting from which the show derives its name—is in conversation simultaneously with the Russian-French modernist artist Marc Chagall and the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Chagall titled his painting based on a line from a Baudelaire poem (“N’importe où hors du monde”) and in his version the colors—about five of them—are mostly dark, providing a sharp, otherworldly contrast to the skies. But in Bee’s cosmos, color is everywhere, is everything. The buildings are still at 90 degrees to the left of the painting. In her world, dogs are on the street, the trees are green, a little girl is playing on the road. There are arrow shapes with eyes peering out of the painting, yet we know that this painting is autobiographical, and that these eyes are actually looking inward. She inserts herself into a conversation that began about a century before she was born, masterfully making the narrative her own.
Bee worked with a lot of source images for the series, and one of the most striking entries is from a newspaper photograph of the British suffragist Charlotte Despard—a prominent member of the Women’s Social and Political Union—addressing a crowd at Trafalgar Square in 1914. In the photograph, Despard, about 70 years old at the time, is seen addressing a huge number of soldiers, in an anti-war campaign. The square’s lion statue is blurred out in the distance. To the right of the photograph, behind a sea of heads, the word “Socialist” is almost impossible to see through the crowd. Despard is the only woman in the picture. With Votes for Women (2018) Bee reimagines the scene. In her version the crowd is a mix of all kinds of people—soldiers, working class men and women, people across different races. There is greenery everywhere. Her lion is solid at the center of the painting. “VOTES FOR Women” is largely printed on a wall behind the speaker. Despard herself is as fierce as she looks in the photograph, with the flowery edges of her dress greatly accentuated by Bee.
It would be impossible to fully grasp Bee’s aim without a consideration of the kind of constellation she is trying to create. In a world bedeviled by divisive autocrats posing as leaders, social injustice, and so on, the series is a journey that sets out firstly to explain to herself the need for art at a time like this. Secondly, it is an attempt to render in visible terms struggles that, although private and existential, pervade the lives of every human being.
To do this, her cosmology embraces angels and monsters, scary and malformed animals, disjointed bodies and body parts, all thrown into popular myths that people can recognize, but with a tinge that transports us from a familiar story into Bee’s constructed world. Jacob’s Ladder (2019) is for example a well-known story: Jacob—the biblical patriarch—fell asleep with his head laid on a stone and dreamt of angels going up and down a ladder that proceeded into heaven. As the story goes in the book of Genesis, Jacob names the place “Bethel” and describes it as a “dreadful place” when he wakes up. But in Bee’s version Bethel is full of stars, of child angels from different races, of trees, of the sun and the moon shining at the same time.
Although the paintings in the series follow the usual manner in which Bee has always worked (colors, shapes, frames happening within frames, so that it looks like each picture has an abstract painting embedded within it), this series is a defining trajectory in her career. This is work borne out of a necessary cry in an era filled with global political upheavals. Standing firm and able to look both inwards and outwards as she paints, one can conveniently say the artist’s cry is heard.