Attics Days Paintings at the Mahan Gallery
The paintings by Suzannah Sinclair currently on display at the Mahan Gallery are disarmingly earnest and straightforward. This is worth mentioning since, by all rights, they shouldn’t be. You see, Sinclair paints intimate portraits (i.e. nude and semi-nude) of young women culled from vintage men’s magazines. This kind of source material often leads to an artistic statement rife with ill-conceived posturing, from ironic to nostalgic to political. Sinclair seems determined to avoid this approach though; and if she’s not necessarily on the road less traveled, she’s at least on the one that’s less obvious.
Rather than using these women/models as proxies for some larger statement, Sinclair seems content to focus on the personal; capturing moments of reflection, isolation, contemplation, and longing. In doing so, she’s created a group of paintings that transcend their source. A transformation is at work in these paintings, and it’s a process that helps viewers to see old images, often heavy with baggage, in a fresh new light.
After meeting Suzannah at the opening reception for Attic Days, we made arrangements for her to answer some questions for Columbus Underground. What follows are those questions and her replies.
Jeff Regensburger: Your paintings are very well crafted, but take a decidedly non-traditional approach in terms of materials. Describe how you’ve come to prefer working in watercolor on birch panels.
Suzannah Sinclair: I come from a printmaking background and an all around love of paper. Somewhere along the line, years ago, I was trying to give my watercolors a more physical presence as a ‘painting’ rather than a ‘drawing’. The wood panel had so much to offer, the smoothness of the surface is great for pencil and through many experiments I found that sizing the panel made the surface workable for watercolor. It seems like a non-traditional pairing but comes from old master techniques just used in a way that serves me. The color of the wood lends well to the subject matter of the figure and the grain adds an element out of my control. It’s become the norm for me and now it’s fun to go back and forth between painting on panels and paper, each having there own special quality.
JR: The art world has seen a renewed interest in the figure over the last 10-15 years. I’m thinking of high-profile artists like Elizabeth Peyton, Lisa Yuskavage, John Currin, Kehinde Wiley, and Jenny Saville. Do you pay attention to or identify with any current figurative artists? Would you say they’ve influenced you or your work?
SS: I feel encouragement from seeing artists like you mentioned getting recognition and enduring careers and not just because of them being figurative artists but also because of their style. Not just painting figures but toeing the line between traditional materials and painting style and new perspective. There’s been a trend of more cartoon, comic and graffiti style lately, and while I love it and look at a lot of that work, I know that I am of a different breed. Female artists like Elizabeth Peyton and Lisa Yuskavage were people I looked up to in school and I still do. When I saw Peyton’s show at New Museum this past year I was blown away, her new work still is fresh and working will similar imagery she always has. That gives me comfort as I reach for another magazine in the studio. Reaching back a little further I have always loved the all American boys like, Andrew Wyeth and Alex Katz. I think they had a lot of influence on me because I have always been frustrated by their paintings as much as I liked them. They represent this male bourgeois thing going on, like they didn’t have to do anything but sit around and observe and paint. But I think they were held back by being observers and there is a shallowness to their work that I have a one up on. Which bring me to my subject matter, I want to paint women because I am a woman and that’s what I know best and I don’t think a man can do what I do.
JR: The titles of your works are clearly deliberate. They’re cryptic in a way, but also hint at a narrative element. Where do those come from? Do you imagine stories behind the paintings and models?
SS: Titles are a great way to let the viewer into my mind a little more, I never want to give too much away about the work because I find it fascinating what conclusions different people come to on their own. That said, the title can set the mood or give a clue about what I was thinking or feeling when I made the work. They tend to be conversational and poetic but not too heavy. When I paint or go through my day I hear phrases or word pairings pop in my head and I jot them down and match them up later with the painting they match best. Sometimes a title idea will be my notebook for a year or so before I find the perfect match for it. Show titles are even harder to come up with for me because you’re setting the tone for a whole body of work. I am really pleased with “Attic Days” as a title for this show, I found it while reading John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”. The book is so special and talks about some of my favorite places around the country, the phrase ‘Attic Days’ comes up when he’s out west reminiscing about his youth. It’s like saying ‘Memories’ but less cheesy.
JR: Even today, the female nude remains a loaded image. How did you come to that as a primary subject and what is it you hope viewers will take away from your representations?
SS: I kind of talked about this earlier but basically as a woman I feel like a can paint the female nude with a different touch than it has been done historically. Bodies are beautiful and simple, nudity doesn’t have to mean sex. The kind of naked I feel like I paint are the quiet moments one might have alone or with a partner. Lazy mornings. People aren’t necessarily going to see that right away, when my boyfriend sees what I’m working on he might say ‘She’s a hottie’ and I just laugh because he’s right, she is.
JR: Some would suggest that you are reinforcing both sexual stereotypes and the power of the male gaze by utilizing photos from men’s magazines. How would you respond to that?
SS: Ah, the “Male Gaze”, I don’t think I have enough space to get into my feminist/post feminist theory. I grew up in a time where I was told I could do anything and become anything I wanted. I had the same feeling in art school, female artists and feminists had done the first wave of breaking through and addressing stereotypes and I had the privilege of being able to do whatever work I wanted and not having to address it solely on a political level. I am not naÃƒÂ¯ve and I know that to paint women who posed for a magazine for men is very loaded, and I am going to ‘owning it’ route. Taking something that already exists and making is say something else.
JR: You’ve been working in this motif and medium for a number of years. Do you expect a change in direction, or do you feel there are still elements to explore?
SS: I have goals for myself and those align with my work, I always want to become a better painter and communicator. I want to be able to express whatever idea fills my mind. My work will change but in an organic manner. I try not to force anything and follow what unfolds before me.
JR: You’ve had a busy 2009! So what’s next for Suzannah Sinclair?
SS: I did, didn’t I! I like being busy and work best with a deadline and have been very lucky to have so many opportunities to show. Now that the Mahan Gallery show is up, I am focusing on my next solo show which will be at Samson Gallery in Boston at the end of March. Then hopefully more traveling with my work, spending time with my family, running some races and working on my fly-fishing skills.
Attic Days is on exhibit at the Mahan Gallery December 4, 2009 – January 16, 2010.
717 N. High St., Columbus, OH, 43215
Tuesday – Saturday, 11-6pm
Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.