Becky Suss

Institute of Contemporary Art

Through December 27th

By Samantha Mitchell

Writing on The Fulbright Triptych (1974), Simon Dinnerstein’s epic autobiographical realist painting, Jonathan Lethem articulates its ability to condense and expand a single moment: “It functions as a time capsule and a mirror for its viewers’ souls, and so, despite personal and historical referential elements, has become permanently contemporary and universal.” The painting is an ambitious interior, depicting the artist and his family surrounded by the objects that composed his life in the studio at the time: artwork, tools, photographs, postcards, plants, and a view flattened by the frame of a window. There is something unique about the intimacy created by paintings of interior spaces, where personal objects, however impersonal to us, create a common thread from artist to viewer, subsequently activating our own landscape of memory.

A similar kind of suspension of personal space and time carries through Becky Suss’ paintings. While her interiors are absent of living presences (save one dog), they communicate in the language of timeless objects, hyper-real textures, and the geometry of interior design, simultaneously flattening and expanding the spaces she depicts. In her current exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, Suss focuses almost exclusively on the austere, mid-century modern interior of her grandparents’ home. Through seven large-scale canvases, nine smaller studies, and an assortment of ceramic pieces, Suss creates multiple portals into these spaces, largely culled and interpreted from her own memories. With a focus on individual objects found in these spaces – wiggly vases, hypnotically patterned textiles, various sculptures of the human form – these shapes appear in both paintings and sculpture. Among the painstakingly detailed and dimensionally flat canvases, these objects seem to form a constellation of meaning between the 3D and 2D work throughout the exhibition.

What makes Suss’ objects so engaging is that while they are highly rendered and often recognizable as discrete things, they are often ambiguous and impersonal, at least to the viewer. Her approach keeps its distance, while the canvases are large enough to physically enter the spaces. Absent are indications that these spaces are timeworn or lived-in, gestures of nostalgia one might expect from representations of the home of beloved grandparents. This is partially due to their particularly modern design aesthetic – I imagine it would be difficult to represent these kinds of objets d’arte as well-loved and handled – but also comes from the artists’ distinctive approach to pattern, perspective, and space. In Bedroom, the entire space of the painting is consumed by a bedspread, printed with a hypnotic, Matisse-like green and white pattern, which extends directly into the sides of the canvas in an awkward, arresting way. It puts the viewer in an impossible, almost aerial position, considering the bed from above, lost in its jungle of a bedspread, which is – save one small fold at the end – completely formless. Despite their lack of specificity, there is an intimacy created by the strange, dreamlike perspective that defines these spaces, allowing them to become more personally resonant with the viewer.

Another element that articulates a narrative thread is Suss’ recreations of other works of art. On one wall, she displays five meticulously recreated post-impressionist lithographs (a few of which appear in other paintings as well) deviating from their originals through slight distortions of line and the addition of metallic borders. This odd detour into quasi-plagiarism illuminates an element Suss plays with throughout: the muddiness of reinterpretation via the imperfect vehicle of memory. These prints clearly resonated with the artist within the walls of the spaces she depicts and are appropriated in the same way as other elements, despite their identity as discrete, famous artworks.

When depicted in Suss’ cool style, these domestic scenes shed emotional attachment or the kind of imperfections and idiosyncrasies that make things specific and personal. At the same time, the visual relationships and tensions that the things in the paintings maintain belie a different kind of attachment. Particularly effective is Bedroom (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám), where a layered dimensionally patterned blanket butts up against the sculptural banana-leaf wallpaper print and the marbled wood grain of the floorboards. The patterns jockey for space, the only reprieve found through the spatially confusing reflection in a mirror, where an open door offers an out. The hypnotic claustrophobia becomes almost narrative.

Suss shares a vocabulary of small interior objects with a number of contemporary artists, including Paul Wackers, using these forms to be both topically engaging and aesthetically complex. They can operate as commercially recognizable references to affluent, artistically minded homes. Suss seems to seek the deconstruction of modernist aesthetic while simultaneously relying on it, emerging from an intense attraction to its simplicity of form while using it to articulate an interest in subtle kinds of chaos. While Wackers uses this domestic vocabulary to allude to something extraterrestrial or psychically challenging, Suss taps into the subtle deviations of dense pattern to create a kind of hyper-reality. The objects remain true to their basic nature, but the obsessive detail lavished upon them flattens their form and sharpens their boundaries. In 76 Meadow Woods Road, a series of figurative sculptures are arranged on a windowsill, facing the viewer before a landscape of trees and shrubs vibrant with stippled marks. Before this chaos, the figures appear pensive and alive, their monochrome bodies absorbing the information behind them. An effect of the dizzying array of pattern and texture throughout Suss’ work is that everything seems to pulse slightly, each shape humming or buzzing in place as we scan the vast surface of the paintings. This ruffles the distanced approach to the scenes that Suss creates, introducing a sense of instability and unease in these highly composed and serenely static interiors.

Suss mentions a recent fascination with memory reconsolidation in an interview with ICA, articulating how memories are essentially altered with each recollection, as they are created through new neural pathways each time we call them to mind. “I find this mechanism similar to the process of painting itself,” says Suss. “If I think of the distortions and inaccuracies of both my memories and the paintings themselves through the lens of this theory, I can understand the final product as its own legitimate and accurate depiction of itself, not a skewed or distorted version of something else.” In this way, the paintings too become unstable, a process of remembering for the viewer as well. We too can access these rooms, wander around in a stranger’s house, and create our own relationships in the context of individualized interior landscapes.

Samantha Dylan Mitchell is an artist, writer, and teacher living in Philadelphia.