Susan Bee at A.I.R. Gallery

Susan Bee’s show, “Anywhere Out of This World,” includes paintings from 2017 to 2020. The title of the exhibition comes from a line by Baudelaire; it characterizes the often-otherworldly nature of her paintings, which often contemplate art historical and mythological influence. The paintings, done on linen, are colorful and flat, demonstrating an affinity with outsider art. Yet Bee is herself highly educated and for a number of years put out an art magazine devoted to social and theoretical issues in the art community. Even should her paintings be categorized as faux naif, their literary allusions and art historical suggestions establish her as an artist of self-awareness and cultural knowledge. This is a time, in art, of extreme eclecticism, so Bee’s claims on the Western past are manifold and consciously nuanced as she brings to the fore ancient stories such as the Orpheus myth. At the same time, art history is a conscious subject; there is one painting, called “Demonology “(2018), that is closely based on James Ensor’s “Self-Portrait with Demons”. Some might find the gap between Bee’s style and the range of her inferences hard to close, but it is clear the artist is demonstrating an affinity with historical culture, in ways that make use of the past in a contemporary manner, by appropriating imagery across time. 

Bee’s borrowings enable her to establish a precedent that frames her own period, indeed her own life. In “Demonology”, there is a tight correspondence between her painting and Ensor’s--but with a major difference: Bee paints herself with shoulder-length brown hair and a purple dress in the same spot where Ensor portrayed himself. As happens in the Ensor portrait, Bee’s demons, exactly following the dark spirits of the original, are benignly countenanced despite their grotesque appearance, their bodies given to acidic green, an unhealthy blue, and bright orange. But the implications of the change by Bee are undeniable: she is reworking a famous painting into a self-based reference, in which the art historical citation implies a grand ambition. The artist means to travel among well-established art personages; thus, “Demonology” evokes a precedent in order to possess its aura. Otherwise, its quotation of Ensor would merely seem quaint. The picture begs a bigger question: What, in general, are we to do now, when it often feels like most everything has been done in art? In alignment with our self-conscious treatment of history, we borrow or steal earlier efforts in an attempt to give our current work gravitas. This is what happens in Bee’s work. In “Anywhere Out of the World” (2020), a painting influenced by a Chagall self-portrait, once again the artist makes use of a major predecessor in order to present her own place as a painter. In this work, we see a schematic self-portrait of Bee, whose face is seen partially submerged in a cloud-shaped pool of light-blue water. Slightly below her, to the right, is the painter’s torso, clothed in a jacket with colored panels, many of them embellished with a partial crescent. She holds an oversize paint brush: the symbol of her trade. On the left edge of the painting, we see a line of colored houses, arranged sideways, accompanied by trees, a dog, a person.

Maybe the key element in the painting, along with the symbolic bush, is a red arrow with an open eye occurring in the upper right. It is most likely a symbol of upward ambition, with the eye being indicative of vision, inspiration. This picture, along with “Demonology”, is meant to place Bee within a circle of painting adepts; at the same time, it celebrates art history’s ability to lend weight to our deeply ahistorical time. But Bee is not interested only in conspicuous allusion; her work can be very directly romantic, as in “My Blue Heaven” (2018), in which a couple stands close beside each other in a field decorated with multi-colored streaks and three trees with differently shaped foliage. In the painting’s middle, we find a slightly angled dirt road, on the other side of which a set of rolling hills on the left and six trees occur. Above is the artist’s blue heaven, accompanied by brown and gray clouds and a small red rose of a sun. The light blue sky is decorated by red and dark blue marks, creating a bit of a vortex. Indeed, the entire landscape seems alive; Bee is nothing if not a painter of historical and natural inspiration. In “Orpheus” (2019), a woman with long hair in a long red sheath of a dress holds a lyre with the pale, lifeless head of the poet; behind her is a large, bright green mass of foliage. The rest of the picture is symbolic: a body of water, rendered in blue with overlapping strokes of black, yellow, and red. Hanging over the water is a large, pale green, scythe-like shape whose meaning is unreadable. The sky is mostly blue, with two clouds containing a strange bird and a roseate sun. This work has a mysterious, mythic quality faithful to Orpheus’s story. As occurs quite often in Bee’s art, references to culture, painterly or literary, ground her imagination in a notable fashion.

The bigger picture orienting the artist’s works has to do with a romantic re-interpretation of culture. There is a strength in doing this, but there is danger as well: the possibility occurs that history will overwhelm the current effort. Bee manages this problem very well, perhaps in part through feminist revision. Famous male painters’ self-portraits become occasions for Bee to celebrate her own persona. We are living in a time when the male canon is being challenged, and Bee nicely moves into a place of resolved ambition in light of work done by male painters before her time. But the question can be asked whether this is too self-conscious a ploy. The possible problem of too much conscious regard in work is not specific to Bee; it exists as an encumbrance in the general culture. This could be the result of our nagging worry that we are no longer original; some decades ago, the critic Arthur C. Danto asserted that art was over. (It is hard to continue when innovation seems moribund!) In a way, Bee’s paintings, nearly scholarly in their quotations, evade the issue by relying on a simple, flat style indicative of outsider art. Such a style allows her to point to previous well-known artworks without being disingenuous. Her allusiveness must not be seen as a fatigued decision so much as an attempt to deepen her imagery with consequence, based on the open display of her cultural perception.

Jonathan Goodman