Small Sculptures, 2017. Oil on ceramic and epoxy clay.
SUSAN KLEIN's work weaves in and out of an irreverence for the sacred and a reverence for the banal. Her sculptures and drawings are playful, colorful and humorous. . . and they take themselves seriously. They are complex explorations of ambiguous forms—urns, gravestones, altars, severed fingers—that evoke the human devotional impulse. Susan earned her BFA in Studio Art at University of New Hampshire, followed by her MFA in Painting at University of Oregon. In June 2018, she was an artist-in-residence at the Wassaic Project in Wassaic, New York, and she will be spending July at theInternational Studio and Curatorial Program in Brooklyn. She is the curator of Nighttime For Strangers, which features the work of Skye Gilkerson, Heather Merckle, and Holly Veselka, at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. The show opens this Friday on July 6 and runs through July 27. Her upcoming solo show Susan Klein: New Work opens on September 6, 2018 at the Sumter County Gallery of Art in South Carolina. Susan's work in represented by The Southern. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina.
OtherPeoplesPixels: How do you define the Sacred?
Susan Klein: I think of the sacred as that which is imbued with a specific religious or spiritual significance. This can be an object or living being that is revered and often held as directly connected to a god or gods. I am interested in the arbitrary manner that objects can be consecrated and made sacred. An ordinary object can be transformed into a thing that carries power, weight and spirituality. It can act as the connection between this world and another.
Offering, 2017. Oil and acrylic on ceramic stoneware. 84 x 84 x 6 inches.
SK: This form references a pattern on an Etruscan artifact. I have played with it many times in painting, drawing and sculpture. I like how it can shift between a finger, figure, phallus and monument. It is a form that symbolizes creation, touch and commemoration.
It is interesting that you mention it as a severed finger! The violence associated with that connects the form to Shadow Things (2014-2015), a body of work that directly relates to cemeteries, urns, grave markers and funerary ornament. I was thinking about how these markers or holders of the dead are used to commemorate and bridge the living and the dead. Mausoleum and the related works grew out of visits to museums to see artifacts (Roman and Egyptian funerary artifacts to name a few) and out of my experience in Berlin’s Weissensee Cemetery, the second largest Jewish cemetery in Europe that miraculously survived WWII. Many Jews hid in the mausoleums there, but I think most were found and killed. Despite this history—or maybe because of it—it is an amazingly beautiful place. Humans have a way of turning death into something beautiful. Through religion, commemoration, decoration and the use of the sacred object or altars we find ways to grapple with that which we do not understand.
Three Rainbows, 2017. Oil on canvas and wood. 60 x 48 inches.
OPP: What role does humor play in your work?
SK: Humor is a counter to the heaviness in life. It is a way we can process and manage emotions, trauma and current events. For me, it is also a way to prevent work from becoming literal, heavy-handed, overly simplified and a one-liner. It keeps complexity in the work, and that mirrors the human psyche.
The finger form is as funny as it is serious. I often use shapes or imagery that shift from serious to playful, venerated to irreverent. This slippage is important to me, and one of the main reasons I am currently working with the ubiquitous symbol of the rainbow. It is used in religion, new age spirituality, emojis, stickers, etc. I think it is funny to use a cliched image in "serious," formal work. There are so many associations we have with the rainbow as a symbol. Rainbows are very seductive and silly in reproduction (but a real rainbow is always beautiful). It is fun to play with those associations, to personify and glorify this image. Plus, how can I resist a good color gradient?
Landed, 2018. Oil on ceramic stoneware. 18 x 14 x 7 inches.
OPP: It seems like you began in drawing and painting and moved into sculpture. Is that the case? What led you toward sculpture?
SK: In graduate school, I cut up drawings and made three-dimensional structures out of them. I would use these structures as stand-alone sculptures and as still life subjects for paintings. I also began using small foam and spilled paint sculptures as subjects. This process continued after school for many years. Later, I pulled forms from paintings and made them into sculpture. There has been a continuous back and forth, although I had about three years or so where I focused entirely on painting. A collaborative exhibition in Berlin in 2015 brought sculpture back into my practice. I incorporated the furniture in the exhibition space into my work. That certainly changed things! In some ways, straight painting and image making never satisfied me. I continuously was thinking of the painting as object, so moving into sculpture made perfect sense. Strangely, much of the art I admire most are very quiet paintings, like Giorgio Morandiand Édouard Vuillard. Although Betty Woodman and Jessica Stockholder rock my world.
Looped, 2018. Oil on ceramic stoneware. 15 x 9 x 9.75 inches.
OPP: When did ceramics first enter your tool kit?
SK: In 2016 I began making forms out of Sculpey, epoxy resin and air dry clay as a way to solve an architectural issue with a cement piece. These forms and materials clicked, so I made more and more. A year ago, I had the opportunity to participate in the artist in residence program at Otis College of Art and Design. They have a ceramics studio and an amazing ceramics tech there, so it was the perfect time to experiment with clay. I loved it immediately! Instead of glazing, I fire the clay and oil paint it. This keeps the work firmly connected to painting and allows me to work with a process that more spontaneous than glazing. I also love how the oil paint takes to the fired surface. It is very buttery and satisfying!
OPP: Talk about your choice to present artist statements in the form of audio and video that doesn’t tell us much at all. You could have no statement at all, as many artists do. Are you a contrarian? Or genuinely mystified by writing an artist statement?
SK: Ha! I have "proper" artist statements that I use for applications, exhibitions, and whatnot, but I like resisting language on the website. I think the work creates its own language and presents that to the viewer. I am not so interested in layering verbal/written language on top of that. Although I am an academic, I have a small problem with the academicizing of visual art. Artist statements are a direct result of the proliferation of the MFA and the professionalization of the field. . . so yes, maybe I am a bit contrarian! But I also like that image and sound can exist as a statement or descriptor of the work. There is something pre-lingual in my work and in my experience words can obfuscate, confuse and miscommunicate as often as not. One must be a very good writer to illuminate the world.
Peach Diamond Reverence, 2016. Foam, paint, glitter, resin, clay. 12.5 x 11 x 9 Inches.
OPP: What’s frustrating about how viewers respond to your work?
SK: For some reason, I dislike the word whimsical being applied to my work. I don't know why! Maybe because it makes me think of cuteness. My work incorporates play, humor and improvisation, but it is also rigorous. Whimsy feels a bit fluffy.
OPP: What’s satisfying?
SK: It is satisfying when viewers really engage with the work. When they spend the time to get lost in it a little, when they start to react the dark side as well as the light. I do like to see people having fun with my work as well! My art idol is Elizabeth Murray, who created work that embodies many things at once. It is playful, humorous, rigorous, serious.
To see more of Susan's work, please visit susankleinart.com.