Susan Jane Walp

Four Figs, Two Swans, and Pair of Scissors, 2017, oil on linen, 10.125 x 10″

Matt Klos invited me to sit in on a group Zoom last week with Susan Jane Walp, hosted by Klos and Candice Hill, who teaches in the English Department at Anne Arundel Community College, where Matt teaches painting. Walp has a quiet, distinguished career, living in Vermont, studying Tibetan Buddhism and painting and doing little else, having moved there from Soho where she worked in the 80s. It was a long, interesting conversation partly because so much of it felt attenuated by Walp’s difficulty in putting the most essential elements of what she does into words. That’s refreshing, a person of few words in an era where we live under a tsunami of social media inanity. A lot of the discussion was about a series of improvisational paintings she’s done as a meditation on the loss of her husband six years ago, paintings that somehow remind me of Jung’s The Red Book images, not in form but in spirit—as if she has been sketching emotional and spiritual archetypes drawn from her own subconscious. These are quite different from her core work in still life. What I found most useful was the discussion of these still lifes on linen.

The most interesting questions and answers were on how her work in oil resolves itself into something she considers finished; how she manages to keep the process feeling alive and risky after investing long days and weeks or months into a given painting; and what her primary considerations are, the core values, she tries to observe in the process of making a painting.

This last issue was very appropriate to this particular conversation, because Candice Hill specializes in lyric poetry with a focus on Emily Dickinson and found many parallels between Dickinson’s sidelong, elliptical poetry and Walp’s spare, improvisational watercolors. Walp has said she draws inspiration from Dickinson’s poems, their paradoxical sense of scale, particularly in Dickinson’s ability to evoke cosmic truth through such a tiny pillar of words on the page. That use of scale links her with Dickinson: the leverage involved in using something small to evoke something big. Walp’s paintings feel in some ways even smaller than Dickinson’s gnomic lines. Walp said: “Even in these paintings that are quite small, eight inches by eight inches, if that relationship becomes accurate (between the precise detail and the more indefinite lines of larger areas), I feel there’s something big about the painting.” Given this indebtedness to poetry, it wasn’t shocking that Walp cited Elizabeth Bishop, who was a serious painter as well as a uniquely great poet, as someone who perfectly articulated the three qualities creative work must have. Bishop said every poem needs to be accurate, spontaneous, and mysterious. Walp wants her paintings to hew to those rules.

There is a tremendous tension implicit in those first two qualities. How to be both improvisational and accurate seems to be a core competency for perceptual painters in general and a difficult tightrope to walk for any painter. (Fairfield Porter managed to balance accuracy and spontaneity perfectly again and again toward the end of his career, but Walp’s work doesn’t owe much to the way Porter handled paint, except in a few instances.)

Walp said: “In Dickinson the thing that has struck me in my non-scholarly reading of her work is the way that she can go from some very almost microcosmic detail to just the macrocosm. This idea of scale; how there can be an infinite space in such a physically small poem. That’s something I aspire to certainly in the still lifes . . . Bishop’s . . . three criteria for evaluating poems: accuracy, spontaneity and mystery. I’ve spent a lot of time working on the spontaneity. The mystery is divine grace. It’s given to you in certain work.”

Matt asked about how a painting arrives at a state she considers complete and didn’t get a direct answer, but more of a meditation on her process, especially the symbiotic counterpoint of going from watercolor to oil and back again. Specifically, she touched on a struggle all painters endure: having the courage to do what you don’t know how to do with a painting after having spent many days or weeks or months on it, plus the simple investment in materials, the monetary cost, all of the selfish concerns that work against creativity—how the prospect of loss in time and money can kill the courage required for spontaneity.

I’m a painter so in love with working toward articulating detail and the danger can often be that things kind of tighten up, so working on paper is a way to work more quickly. It has to do with the support I’m using. On paper, there’s a freedom in working on paper. If it doesn’t work out you can just toss it. It doesn’t really matter. Once you have this stretched linen that has been prepared with white lead and the stretchers are ordered custom-made, so there’s a certain pressure to actually bring the painting to completion. On paper it’s a much freer kind of endeavor. I always have worked on the paintings on paper, and I often work on two pieces on paper as I work on something on linen, and it becomes almost like a horse race. In the morning I’ll pick the piece that is the least good, and it’s very freeing because there are two that are better, so it frees you up to be courageous with it.

Klos asked her if the assiduous rendering of a little town on the side of a cork in one of her paintings was the byproduct of the same process that produced the rest of the much less minutely detailed surface. Her answer demonstrated how difficult it can be to describe the impetus of a painter’s quest—the inarticulate imperatives that govern how somebody applies paint in a certain way. Braque is without parallel in this regard, and there is much in her work that reminds me of Braque. His mid-career gueridons all look perfectly realized, and cosmically monumental, but their accuracy and grandeur has little to do with anything Braque could have captured with a photograph. There is nothing but the painting: no familiar source for the image against which to compare it. It has to have its own “inner necessity” as Kandinsky put it. It’s all pushed toward an intricate, decorative flatness, and yet you feel you’re almost looking at a life form he’s evolved in his studio lab rather than an image of anything outside the painting. Every centimeter of a Braque oil from that period is alive and proper in a way that can’t really be arrived at through a reasoned process. Walp talks about working from what she sees but the heart of her process is about “keeping it alive” which is when the representation of what she sees fails to be enough. Like Braque, but in a less radical way than his neo-Cubism.

Walp said, “I’m someone who believes that technique should follow the seeing because I’m working from observation and looking at the motif for a long, long period of time, so the technique just follows and serves the observation. (The question is) how do you keep the surface of the painting alive for as long as it takes to bring the painting to resolution. Every painter finds their own way to work with the surface of the painting so it can continue to receive however many layers are required to take the observation and see where it needs to go.”

She said that she’s reluctant to teach or critique another’s esthetic, and avoids value judgements about work her students have done, preferring to stick with technical tips, matters of craft or motivation and she especially avoids delving into a painter’s internal relationship with the work.

I haven’t taught for a while, but . . . I’ve always admired Morandi, who gave so few interviews. He said the reason he taught only etching is that he only wanted to teach technique, his knowledge of print-making technique. He wouldn’t presume to pass esthetic judgement on his students’ work. That’s always been my favorite way of teaching, someone who wants to know the limited knowledge I have. I’m much more comfortable teaching technique than talking about students’ inner lives.

Matt said, “If spontaneity is the muscle you are trying to work on and accuracy is your home base, maybe using the different substrates is a way to cut against that, and you can remember when you are working on linen the spontaneity (of watercolor and wonder) how can I do that on linen?” She answered:

I start the linen paintings very freely, they start the same way as the paintings on paper. Technically this is something I probably learned from Lennart (Anderson). What you do the first thing in the morning sets the tone for the entire day; what you do first on canvas sets the tone for the rest of the painting. You have that memory of the beginning being very free and spontaneous. It’s important to keep the edges open and not prematurely define those edges. In nature edges are porous, they’re different.

With her watercolors she tries to recapture the tone and mood of a dream she has had. With her still lifes on linen, it’s more about arranging objects without a pre-determined motif in mind, and discovering the right arrangement for a particular painting. It’s a process of discovering the motif rather than re-excavating the dream. This is something I would imagine most painters would recognize, the sense of connection and “rightness” with something seen or imagined.

The set up becomes very important. I take a lot of time to set up the motif. I’m really waiting for this image to appear and it comes with a very strong feeling, and I’m waiting for this feeling of the rightness of it and my connection with it. I do a lot of measuring, and so I’m constantly redrawing, but generally I’m not moving the objects in the motif. At some point I’ll dismantle the motif and it goes on the wall and the painting takes over. That often happens. It’s usually nothing that dramatic. (It’s) important, but nothing very radical at that point. Sometimes it involves bringing out the more abstract properties or a simplification.

Near the end of the Zoom, Matt Klos brought up a particular work, Walp’s simple painting of a luminous greenish-yellow compote she has used in many paintings—she goes back to a certain set of objects again and again as Chardin and many other still life painters have done—and he marveled at the value of the dish in comparison with the background, which is of almost the same value, so that the dish pops toward the viewer only because of its hue, the tone of that vibrant yellow and not because it’s lighter or darker than the ground. It contains a few figs, and is accompanied only by a pair of scissors and a greeting card, maybe, showing a pair of facing, symmetrical swans. (Maybe a callback to the days of her marriage.) It’s probably my favorite of all her oils, probably because of the almost neon intensity of that hybrid yellow-green—a sort of pickle-juice color—that seems to glow in a rambunctious way that oil paint almost never can, alongside the incredibly beautiful and much more typical muted blue-green of the patterned swans below it. That brilliant compote brings the image to life in a unique way, full of a spring-like affirmation of the present moment. And yet if you squint you can hardly see it. It’s a rare technical achievement and an image of rebirth, full of restrained energy.

“The thing that’s so remarkable is that the green is so invisible if you squint,” Klos remarked.

“It’s the same value, yeah.”

“They are just kissing values, and you always talk about the need for experimentation and constant change and people might look at the still lifes and say, oh that’s a Susan Jane Walp. But in this painting and in your work there’s a quality of risk-taking from one show to the next,” he said.

“Yes, this was in the last show. That object, one of my friends in New York alerted me to the fact that it’s Depression-ware and a lot of it is radioactive and I’ve done a lot of research and I’ve decided I’m just to attached to it. At my age, what does it matter. . . “

“Just don’t eat the figs,” he joked.

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