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Su Su: Recent Paintings

By Tim Hadfield

Originally from Beijing, China, where she studied undergraduate theater design, Su Su came to Pittsburgh for her graduate degree at Carnegie Mellon University in 2011. When her MFA program here enabled her to return to her first love of painting, she grasped the opportunity and never looked back.

This ambitious first new series of paintings since graduation is an outpouring of energy, formal skill and conceptual power, which heralds the emergence of a major new talent.

Su Su’s paintings address many interrelated issues, of identity, culture, sexuality, and the clash of high and low culture that typifies our time. They also examine the ubiquitous influence of digital media, portrayed without irony on large-scale multi-panel canvasses. These have less in common with the flats and backdrops of her early theater background than with her deep interest in film, TV and video, its temporal existence transposed and viewed through the lens of the painted surface.

Su Su, The Wall, 2016, oil on canvas, 5 panels, each panel 36" x 72" overall dimensions 188" x 72." Photo: Jamie Gruzska.

Su Su, The Wall, 2016, oil on canvas, 5 panels, each panel 36" x 72" overall dimensions 188" x 72." Photo: Jamie Gruzska.

The manner in which Su Su prompts us to continually revise our reading of these paintings-begging questions of our initial assumptions, or preconceptions, is gripping, subtle and refreshingly new. In describing this process she speaks of “folding and unfolding an image.” This could be a literal description of the layering, repetition and interruption of form and image found particularly in The Wall, Inauguration, or DeWalt. Her metaphor does, however, more beautifully describe a method of unpacking and revealing the meaning of elements within the work gradually, or piece by piece, through analysis of the painting’s content-which applies to all of these paintings. The way she allows us to do this is one of the greatest strengths of the work: it is what separates her from the pack.

The power of Su Su’s practice is propelled by formidable technical fluency that demands our attention, yet which serves the content. She can seduce us with dazzling brushwork, as finely detailed and exquisitely polished, as say, the torsos in Glimpse. Or, she can leave a figure only just finished enough to play its role successfully, such as in the fractured narrative of The Wall, wherein her subjects are painted with loose and expressionistic brushwork. Ostensibly a deliberate device to obfuscate the personal details of these figures, it prevents them from being read as individuals and instead renders them human ciphers, subjugated to the overarching concept. In contrast, the ‘agents provocateur’ cartoon characters found in most works are suitably laid down as flat as flat can be-and in Inauguration she walks the tightrope of technique between all of the above.

Although these paintings feature quite diverse subjects and environments, certain themes reveal a continuity of sorts. Dislocation, for example, recurs in various forms in the work, as a shift of time, location, or even technique. It is found initially in The Wall, 2015-16, a large four-panel painting and the first of this series.

Here we encounter a group of businessmen, who look as if they have strayed from an office meeting, incongruously traversing a desolate grassy hillside, more suited to hikers. The only bond between them is their smart white shirts, dark pants and shoes, suggesting a common workplace. Ill-equipped to navigate the wet and soggy no-man’s-land, they act as if at someone else’s behest and with mysterious purpose. Down the hill they come, to cross a small stream, jumping precariously from one stepping-stone to another-a balancing act suggesting that of Su Su herself.

As one examines the painting more closely, it becomes clear the characters are not all individuals; some are a sampling of the same group, repeated in an overlapping sequence of interrupted time and space. With no apparent purpose to the journey or destination visible, we sense the men’s frustration at their dislocation, as we too are denied the means to decode their predicament or intent.  Yet we care to know, and the painting holds us in a suspended state of tension, as we attempt to reload a narrative for these players who, looped in a time warp, are destined to repeat the trek as we too fail to reach closure.

Inauguration, 2016, a ravishing five-panel tour-de-force, is a feast of Hollywood red-carpet glamour with all the flash, shimmer and excess of celebrity and fame on which we can gorge. But as Leonardo, Rihanna and Lady Gaga strut their designer gowns and beautiful bodies, paparazzi in tow, Godzilla and Loony Tuners crash the party for their cameos. Beautiful bodies stretch into elastic contortions, lose their heads, or multiply uncontrollably to a digital beat as the paint itself slips and slides about the lush surface of the canvas, skidding from cultural icon to pop culture banality, taking normalcy with it.  Su Su pokes us in the eye with the attraction and repulsion of the American equation of fame and money, suspending these ‘actors’ for us to examine, caught in this scarlet “abstract space,” as Su Su calls it.

Su Su, DeWalt, 2017, oil on canvas, 72" x 30." Photo: Jamie Gruzska

Su Su, DeWalt, 2017, oil on canvas, 72" x 30." Photo: Jamie Gruzska

In Glimpse, 2017, the beautiful bodies return; this time fame and celebrity are banished as anonymous naked models twist, turn, splay and cavort, skin gloss as a porpoise and lit as a lamp. Filtered through a screen of exotic palm fronds, the figures are tossed into different sizes and configurations, the information sown together convincingly by the layered vegetation. Once again, comic and cartoon ‘outtakes’ defuse the erotic, and flowers painted as if from a botanical print, or animation, play with how we read this information. Are we voyeurs here? Or observers? The disengaged nature of the nudes, initially so provocative, mellows as we look further and see figures that have more in common with a compilation of life paintings or an issue of National Geographic Magazine.

Su Su makes us work in these paintings and in DeWalt, 2017, she pushes our acuity to the limit, as we struggle to piece together this blasted image, as a bird’s delicate plumage is blown apart by an infernal leaf blower, wielded by the ghost of a cartoon character.

Now the line between a ‘real’ bird, comics, or animated bird is blurred. We seek the refuge of an easier explanation than Su Su is prepared to give us. Half avian, half ‘toon’, it is nevertheless a tragi-comic image, painful to look at though we somehow empathize with this frightened creature that is itself a disturbing and unsettling image. This powerful painting, built from hypotheticals, pulls the rug of recognition from under our feet and refuses to give us a safety net to grasp. We are on our own.

(April 12 and 13, 2017)

Tim Hadfield, a British artist, educator and curator, is currently a professor of media arts at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh. He has exhibited widely in the United States, Europe and Asia. As a curator, he has presented exhibitions across the U.S. and internationally. In 2003, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and in 2010 co-founded the Sewickley Arts Initiative.

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