Susan's "subject matter, context and medium...present a coherent artistic vision"
John Torreano, Clinical Professor of Studio Art, NYU

"Great stuff. Love your work."
Seymour Chwast

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Manet, My Muse and I

In grad school, one of my classmates, upon viewing my paintings of my cat, Muse, criticized them for their (intentional) lack of anatomical correctness. Then he gratuitously suggested, "If you want to learn how to draw a cat, trace a photograph of a cat." I countered, "Art, even traditional figurative painting, is not a representation, copy, or imitation of life. It is especially not a tracing of life; it is a transcendence of life." The French painter Eduard Manet (1832- 1883) was always careful to filter out the expressive or symbolic content of his models, so that the viewer's attention would not be distracted from the pictorial content--brush strokes and color patches. By this filtering, he transcended the literal meaning of the subject. The model would still have been the inspiration for the painting, but the subject would have been painting. The models in Manet's creations transcend their actual selves and become truer, purer, never-before-seen versions of themselves. They are distilled down to their essence. Manet's paintings were revolutionary visual manifestos of artistic freedom. His canvases exhibited what he believed to be the "natural laws" of the world of painting. Because of this, Manet's works are substantially different from those solidly constructed works of, for example, Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) with their familiar reality. Manet described the natural immediacies of the eyes' perception in terms of painting. The results were broad, flat areas on his canvases using no transitional tones to show what the eye takes in at a glance–not the way things really are. Manet believed that the painter's first loyalty must be to his canvas, not the world outside the canvas. This is the beginning of an attitude which was later to be summed up under the rubric of "Art for Art's Sake." Manet's life was devoted to "pure painting"–to the belief that brushstrokes and color patches themselves, not what they stand for, are an artist's tools, as well as her primary reality. If Manet had painted my cat: Muse would have been a totally new image and the painting's content, although literally Muse's image, would have been about painting itself. The anatomical shapes of Muse's head and body would be less important than the shapes that he would have abstracted from Muse's form. The abstracted shapes would more accurately exhibit Muse's essence than the more literally rendered versions of Muse's "actual" shapes. These "actual" shapes would have inspired Manet. They would not have limited him, as they do less gifted artists who search for "realism" in painting. In his concern for being true to the canvas, Manet would have found the truth, rather than merely the cuteness of a little cat in a three-dimensional "window." He would have had to make painterly decisions and some "sacrifices" at the expense of literal reality. Yet, he would have remained faithful to the canvas–his primary concern. By freeing himself of reproducing literal reality, Manet was able to capture the essence of his subject in a more truthful way. He would have transcended Muse, the signifier, and come to a clearer, purer painting of Muse. Art would have been created and the figurative subject abstracted in such a way as to be totally new and dazzling. When I painted my cat: I was delighted to see there is no more dazzling way to see a signifier abstracted and transcended than to spend an afternoon observing Muse. He is more my muse than my cat. He is, in fact, the perfect example of transcendence. Although he engages in the usual cat-like activities of eating, stretching, napping, purring, stalking and climbing, the shapes he assumes while so doing are more important than the fact he is a feline. The shapes he affects are so abstract as to make me altogether forget that he is a cat. He has transcended cat as animal and in so doing has become a fresher, purer, more universal image. Sometimes he is a ribbon or, perhaps, a comet as he leaps over my head. Then he is a sphere–a ball about to bounce off a shelf. He is a rectangular brick as he stuffs himself into a shoebox for a nap, and is flat as a modernist's canvas, or a pancake, when he tries to squeeze through a tiny space between window and sill. Finally, he is the crescent moon as he arches his back in preparation for battle with the neighbor's cat. Even he seems to know that the shapes he assumes are more significant than the fact that he is a cat. He never loses his "catness," but he transcends it--by leaps and bounds!

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Lovebirds, the Owl and the Alligator

Lovebirds, watercolor on paper, 8 x 11 inches
ONCE THERE WAS a handsome but not so smart young lovebird named Igno. He was content in his life, because he loved Oriole, a fluffy, colorful french songbird who sang sweetly to him every day. She loved him, too. He carried her with him everywhere in a gilded Hermes cage. Upon viewing these two lovebirds, the creatures of Foxglove would ask, " Igno, can't Oriole fly?" "Yes," Igno would reply, "she can, but thank God she doesn't have to." All laughed merrily. Oriole really didn't mind the cage because she was cagey and liked to be with Igno. "It's Hermes for chirp's sake!" she chirped.
Igno's and Oriole's best friend in all of Foxglove was a wise old owl. He accompanied them everywhere. The three of them were very happy. Sadly, one day the wise old owl sauteed his last mouse, hooted his last hoot, fell ill, and died. Igno and Oriole did everything they could to save him, but, alas, they could not. It was time for the wise old owl to cross peacefully over to the Other Side. He did so with grace and dignity, imparting wisdom upon them as he took his leave. "Never admire an alligator's teeth in the sun," he told them.

Alligator,  watercolor on paper 8 x 11 inches

Igno and Oriole were contemplating the loss of their beloved Owl down by the lake one sunny afternoon when an alligator swam right up to them. Paradise lost. The alligator said, her pendulous pink tongue darting in and out between glittering white teeth, "Igno (and, of course, Oriole), my name is Minious and Owl and I were soulmates. I loved him so much, I never even tried to eat him. I won't try to eat you either because you loved Owl. That makes us soulmates." Igno, admiring the alligator's teeth, became blinded by the glare of the sun off of them, lost sight of Oriole and agreed enthusiastically. He was so addled by the glare, he thought that was just what he needed–a sharp-toothed predator to fill the void created by the demise of his beloved friend Owl. The alligator further confused Igno by keeping her smile fixed at a 45 degree angle to the sun for maximum reflection.

Oriole, winging it, warbled a warning into Igno's warped ear. "Minious is green, for chirp's sake, green, chirp chirp–green with envy." "Owl warned us about admiring an alligator's teeth in the sun," she warbled on. Igno said, "Oriole, you're spoiling my fun." She flew away still warbling, but her warning did not register on Igno. It was too late. The reflection from the alligator's teeth had blinded Igno to the truth, causing infidelity, mood swings, poor judgment and danger to him and his loved ones.

Minious allowed Igno to ride around on her slimy, green back so long as he kept on admiring her teeth. They were, indeed, soulmates now. Together, Igno and Minious became one–Ignominious. One cloudy day, Igno finally realized that he really had nothing in common with the uncommonly common alligator and indeed didn't even like her at all. Without the glare of the sun, he came to his senses, realized he loved only Oriole and told Minious he was leaving to look for Oriole. First, he was nearly drowned by large, soggy alligator tears. Then a blinding smile appeared on Minious's face as her big teeth caught the last rays of the setting sun peeking out from the clouds. Unfortunately for Igno, at that very moment a big hunger came over Minious as he leaned in to get a better view of her teeth. She lost control of her appetite, made Igno into a fillet of soulmate, and downed it in one bite. Then she burped, polished her teeth and waddled off, her sated belly dragging through the mud, looking for a new soulmate.

The only good that came of this ignominious affair was that Igno now resides on the Other Side and is having fun again with his old pal, Owl (even if Owl has replaced "hoots" with "told-ya-so's.") They both miss Oriole and are awaiting her arrival. But they know that it will not be anytime soon because Oriole is too smart to admire an alligator's teeth in the sun. She knows that– ...

Alligators make better shoes than soulmates.