by Lisa Rubenson, WRITER, ART-LOVER AND CONTRIBUTOR TO HAPPENINGSCLT.
Photography courtesy of Donna Bise
Susan Brenner is a painter and mixed media artist who also works with photography and digital imaging. “Natural Histories,” a series of mixed media works on paper that combines digital and hand drawing/painting techniques, is on exhibit at CPCC’s Ross Gallery from August 17 – October 1. Susan will speak about the work on Thursday, September 10 from 12:45 – 1:45 pm in the Elizabeth Building, Lecture Hall 1106, and there will be an Artist’s Reception on Wednesday, September 16 from 5 to 7 pm in the Ross Gallery.
Her original artwork will also be incorporated into the glass panel walls of the elevator towers at two CATS Blue Line Extension stations, one at University City Boulevard and the other at JW Clay.
Susan exhibits widely throughout the country, and has earned many prestigious grants and awards for her work, including a Pollock-Krasner grant and a Southern Arts Federation/National Endowment for the Arts Award in Painting and Works on Paper. She earned her MFA from the University of Southern California and is an associate professor in the College of Art + Architecture at UNC Charlotte.
It takes a little maneuvering to park my awkwardly large car in the angled driveway behind artist Susan Brenner’s home. I get out, fumble for a fresh page in my notebook, and my pen falls. It’s hot, half my hair has escaped its ponytail, and now I’m late. I don’t yet know that my discombobulated state will be the perfect entry point to our discussion of chaos and order, of the unpredictability of life and the artist’s need to shape it and understand it.
Susan has a kind, welcoming smile and a gracious way about her that implies she has deeper things on her mind than my fumbled first impression. She stands in front of a large, wedge-shaped building made of wood, glass walls, and corrugated sheet metal. The studio, designed for her in 2003 by architect and UNCC colleague, Eric Sauda, is both imposing in its size and modernity, and in harmony with its lush surroundings. It rises from the ground as though it had no choice but to tower above the wooded backyard, shield its brow, and stare at the horizon.
Stepping inside the brightly lit space, I’m struck by the intensity of color and scale of Susan’s current works in progress – paintings, digital prints, and drawings – that fill nearly every inch of the side and back walls. The studio contains five or six distinct work areas that serve various purposes: painting, sketching, assembling, printing, or digital manipulation. There’s built-in storage for carefully wrapped canvases, wooden cabinets and metal drawers for paints and prints, and a comfortable seating area directly in the middle of the room. Everything has a place, yet the room hums with such creative energy and urgency that you expect a whirl of ideas and electrons to spin by at any minute.
Photographer Donna Bise joins us, and we walk around the studio and ask Susan about the evolution of her work. She says her art was once more literary, narrative-based, in its representational approach to subjects. Themes ranged from what she describes as the “psycho-social and political manifestations” of the human body – often filtered through second wave feminist theory – to cultural appropriation and mythology.
In early work such as, “Tending the Corporeal Garden,” “Archaeology of Pleasure,” and “Judith Stories” (found in the archive section of her website), Susan was interested in the theoretical consequences of juxtaposing like and unlike images. Despite the fact that her inquiries often involved tropes of femininity, Susan felt limited by the distance between her and her subject.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the elemental aspects of the body,” she says, “the fluidity of form that moves and curves and folds back on itself.” In the mid-2000s, she began to experiment with more abstract forms, using photography and digital imaging to push the limits of interpretation. When creating her “Dissections” series, she used the metaphor of a thickly braided rope to convey the movement, vulnerability and emotions associated with the body. She began by taking pictures of the rope in various positions and settings, digitally manipulating those images, printing them, then using them as a basis for her paintings.
She realized early into the process that she had not so much merged painting and photography into a new medium; rather, she had found her way into what she calls a “third language,” one that she would have to speak fluently if she wanted new ways to express herself artistically.
In “Migrations” and “After Migrations,” she was drawn to the seemingly random movement of substances as they “traveled from one point to another, taking up space in territories already inhabited by others.” This may refer to cells or blood inside the body, ecosystems or, in a larger sense, through the coming together and moving apart of individuals, communities, and nations. (This idea of people and ecosystems in motion is explored more thoroughly in Susan’s designs for the CATS transportation project.)
“I have strong emotional reactions to the push and pull of life,” says Susan. “You see the news, and it’s one disaster after another. Violence creates more violence. There is excess in one place, too little somewhere else. I’m intrigued by the ever present shift from chaos to order, then back again. My most recent work deals with this constant state of flux.”
In the “Natural Histories” series, now on display in the Ross Gallery at CPCC, she digitized images that she had been working with for years, stripping them of color to bring them to what she describes as a lifeless, “fossilized” state. Then, through a combination of digital and hand painted manipulations, she “re-animated” the images, using collage, ink, and painting techniques to alter them and give them new life.
We move to the large computer monitor, where Susan shows us a series of photos from her recent trip to a salvage yard. Standing there taking pictures, amid debris stacked three or four stories high, Susan had seen artistic possibility in the random angles, textures, and colors. For her, this pile of cast-off excess would become a generative space, where associations could be explored and chaos could be shaped into meaning.
“The question I’m trying to answer is what do we need to see?” she says. “What is the form of the image, and what will be eliminated? What will be simplified or exaggerated?”
She then shows us how she digitally removed the color from the photographs, isolated sections, then reworked lines and contours until she had a scaffolding of sorts from which to paint. The end result is a 54” x 72” acrylic on canvas painting that both honors the original and challenges it.
As we leave, Donna and I stop to talk in the driveway. We see Susan closing up the studio for the day, which involves sliding corrugated metal “barn doors” across the glass walls and turning off the lights. At the last minute, Susan’s cat runs past her and into the studio. Susan waves to us, walks back in and turns on the lights. I carefully back out of the driveway, wondering if Susan will consider the unexpected arrival of the cat as a disruption of her plans or an opportunity to keep creating. I imagine that to her, there is very little difference.