Cutting Loose with Susan Sills


Cutting Loose, Susan Sills, oil on panel

Susan Sills has a delightful solo show of her work from the past two decades at Viridian Artists, perfectly titled Cutting Loose. It’s really two different shows in one, based on her cut-out portraits and figures—life-sized, enlarged pastiches of people lifted from paintings by modernists and Old Masters, painted on birch plywood. The main installation is really a single scene populated with close to twenty of her three-dimensional paintings, arranged as if each of the figures were loitering on the steps of the Metropolitan. An Ingres odalisque reclines in front of a Norman Rockwell girl playing marbles and a bather by Degas. Michelangelo’s Adam reaches for Manet’s guitarist, rather than God. Behind all of them is an enlarged photograph of the Met’s façade, created with wide-format engineering printers, on long three-foot-wide scrolls hung side by side. On the opposite and adjacent walls are shelves displaying the smaller portrait work—Van Gogh, Gauguin, Vermeer and others.

The show does exactly what it’s meant to do: it draws you into the lives of the original sitters while making you feel as if you’re living inside a painting rather than looking at one. It’s all about love and companionship, the love of art history, love of painting, and the love of people in general. Years ago, when I wrote for Buck & Pulleyn, a boutique ad agency in Rochester specializing in marketing for tech companies, on Fridays we often put together something called a “stair party.” It involved pinball. It involved ping-pong. Mostly, though, we hung out on the staircase in our mezzanine/atrium, drinking beer and congratulating one another on getting through another week. The “cutting loose” feel of that cocktail hour is exactly what Sills captures, yet with creatures you would find, normally, in captivity inside the Met, not milling about on the steps out front. The installation embodies for me the sense that painters I love, and even some of their individual works, have been, more than anything else, a source of friendship. Yes, past work and past artists serve as teachers, idols, source of inspiration, models for how to see the world, but mostly remain faithful good friends. My relationship with favorite paintings has all the complexity of feeling and understanding that friendship entails. When I walked into Cutting Loose, my first reaction was, hey, these are my people.

Susan’s been an artist with Viridian since 1979. I spent an hour at the gallery talking with her about her work

on Saturday, and I came away with a better understanding of how she began doing these—I guess you could say they put a new spin on the term “wood cut”—and the motivations behind her work.

How long ago did you begin doing these?

It began twenty years ago. I started as a portrait painter on canvas. I hated doing backgrounds. So I thought, why not just cut them out?   I had to make them function. I came up with this concept of putting them on wood. Canvas wouldn’t work.  I found I really did not like commission work. (A sitter) never really said it, but you knew he probably wanted to looks like this; take that away, add this on . . . it was no fun. I didn’t have to do it for the money. I was doing art because I wanted to. Anyone who does art for the money has to have his head examined. In museums, it struck me that these characters in the Old Master paintings started out as actual people: she was a girl sitting there and Vermeer made her into a painting. I’m reversing the process. Rewind. That’s the thought behind it. They’ve become ordinary people again.

It brings you closer to the spirit of each figure. It’s friendly.

I do have that feeling. I don’t want to be obscure in any way. I’m not intellectualizing things. It’s my personality. I’m saying something about the humanistic aspect of the work. I’ve been doing these for a long time, and I put them around my house. Seeing them around the house I got this idea of having them all assembled on the steps of the Metropolitan. For the print of the Met, I got an image and went to the copy shop and they helped divide it into strips. It comes in three-foot-wide strips. It was stressful because I couldn’t see it, until it was up on the wall here. I kept measuring and hoping. I didn’t know how the figures would look in front of it, or how the steps would work. I kept thinking, oh my God, everything is going to collapse. Until it was up, it was pretty stressful. It’s solid, though. I ordered the boxes from a box company for the steps.

You’ve had solo exhibitions at the Queens College Art Center and Pensacola Museum of Art which sponsored an educational experience for 4500 children and their teachers. Your pieces have also been used as a set for a dance performance at the Whitney Museum.

I was in the Whitney! Only two hours, but still. Pensacola was wonderful. They wanted to have a family program. So they invited every teacher in the county and the yellow school buses rolled in. One at a time, the buses came in with kids and teachers. It made me feel so good. The only downside of it was that being in the Bible belt, we had to drape fabric over the nudes. I’m having second graders come in to Viridian next week. Sixty second-graders, in shifts. On the 17th. I’ll have a project to do cut-outs, give them card stock. I’ll send the teacher a folder of the original paintings.

How do you choose the people you paint?

Three things. I pick what I like, and what will function. Third, I wanted to pick pieces people would recognize. A lot of this is interaction. I get a kick out of people coming in and recognizing the work.

I picked pieces mostly where you can make eye contact with the person. There are only so many I can do that meet my three requirements: that they work, that people know them, and I like them. It’s easier now with the Internet. I can get a picture of anything I want. I used to have to buy a book. Every time I wanted just one image it would cost me $60. Then I found posters on line and that was good. But now with the computer you can find anything you want.

The hard part is cutting the wood. It’s good wood, so it doesn’t splinter. Now and then there’s a void in the layers. I mix sawdust with glue to fill in. First I do a clear acrylic sealant and then paint in oils. No gesso.

It’s interesting how it creates a greater sense of immediacy and intimacy, but it also emphasizes the flatness of the picture plane, ironically. These are three-dimensional objects in a three-dimensional space, but that only highlights how the painting itself is flat. I don’t mean to go all Clement Greenberg on you or anything.

You can see the edges and it’s not related to anything else. Adam comes off the ceiling and he becomes just a guy.

Where did you grow up? Was art a part of your life from an early age?

I do come from an art family. We lived in Jamaica Queens, in an ordinary house, but it was not an ordinary life. My mother worked for a fashion magazine, and she did art. I grew up with art, but not gallery art. My household was not what you would call conventional. We were allowed to do murals on the walls. I got to do the bathroom. I made a garden with grass coming up. I did the bathroom; my mother did this twenty-foot Paris street scene in the basement playroom. My father raised chinchilla’s for fun. This was a hobby but he had a hundred of them. So I didn’t have the normal childhood chores: clean cages and feed the chinchillas. My father wanted to be a farmer, but he lived in Jamaica Queens, so he did what he could. I lived there my whole childhood. As an adult, I lived in Africa a couple years. My husband got a job with an American company in Ghana, and I taught art at the Ghana International School, so we took off for two years, travelled all over Africa. It was fantastic. It gets into your blood.

After Africa, I lived in Greenwich Village for ten years during the Flower Power years. It was a fun time to live in the village. We put on our hippie costumes and the tour buses would come by. I wasn’t a hippie though. We came back and had kids right away. Then to Park Slope. We were pioneers, when it was questionable. It was a little dangerous. We had a little plot of dirt and I wanted to put a bush in. So I planted a bush. A neighbor said, they’ll steal your bush. What? What are you talking about? So I got a bicycle chain and wrapped it around, chained the bush to the gas lamp. Got up in the morning, someone had cut the chain with a bolt cutter and the bush was gone. That’s what the neighborhood was like nearly 40 years ago. Now people leave their $500 strollers out in the street.

It occurs to me that your work is an extension of what you did as a child, painting murals. The work is an environment, something you don’t simply look at. You live inside the world it creates.

A lot of people wonder where they would put the larger figures. People don’t understand, when they think they don’t have room for it. It takes up less room than an actual person. You just move it around the house!

What you’re doing is tangentially related to questions about intellectual property and copyright that have been in the art world news lately.

Once the artist is dead for 70 years, it’s fair. What I’m doing, in fact, wouldn’t be a problem, because it’s changing the original so much. What Richard Prince is doing is horrible. The original artist must be furious. I want people to enter into the past and enter into art history. I want people to be able to understand it, not scratch their heads.

It’s an homage to what has been before, not a critique or commentary.

The idea is that tourists and people sit on the steps of the Metropolitan. And the art is inside. I’m reversing that.

We’re inside our building looking at the work and yet they’re outside enjoying the sun. You’re reversing the process and here they are where they started, ordinary people out here walking around with us.

Then the guard says, get back in here!






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