Sue Scott Gallery

Suzanne McClelland at Paul Kasmin

Robert Mahoney, May 1996

Suzanne McClelland has made a special niche for herself in abstract painting by fashioning the architecture of her pictorial space with expressive words. In previous series, McClelland has concentrated on the ear-ringing impact of definitive utterances that people say in moments of crisis. A single word like “no,” “sure, sure,sure” or “anymore”—using the metaphor of its echoing effect, filled the canvas and controlled its space. That word then grew into an exuberant web of new life that sometimes seemed to predict a rebirth for the abstract program.

Her new body of work has a different energy. The catalog essay accompanying the exhibition makes reference to the mythos of the Tower of Babel and its allegory of a verbal-architectural challenge to God, who, insulted, scattered a single voice into many languages. A series of works here is called “baybel,” and would seem to hoist itself up on the notion of a challenge. But in truth McClelland’s words are no longer challenging and controlling her space: in fact, these canvases are interesting, intriguing, dramatic but, for the artist, dangerous, because it feels like she is on the other side of the challenge lost, her once singular voice scattered by acknowledgement of a greater power.

The power that scatters language here is nature: evoked by a heavy use of weathering effects on the canvases. Some of these artifacts of McClelland’s new word-ark were left out in the rain, others inspired by a road trip which included the vistas of the waste of the Dakotas and whips of the winds of the plains. These meteorological sub-voices are now calling the shots, pushing letters every which way, breaking down the presumption of architecture, control, power and emotional breakthrough. The expressive wind-rotations are further emphasized by the use of charcoal, which lends a sullen, blown-away quality to some canvases. The powers that be also twist letters into phonetic scrambles like “baybel” and “zohnalfloh” (the name of a wind) and in a series of drawings seem to force nature itself to get up, call out a letter, and walk with it.

As their titles imply, these diptychs are portraits-double portraits-though not of the familiar sort: They are pictures of dialogue (McClelland cites Gertrude Stein’s “word portraits” as an inspiration). The material they handle is language- specifically, language the artist has culled from videotapes she made of conversations between the mothers and daughters for whom each painting is named. (The videos, not meant to be exhibited, served essentially as sketches for the finished work.) As with any portraits, only those who know the subjects can judge for likeness, but each canvas within the diptychs conveys a sense of stubborn individuality, just as their pairing forms an entangled but conflicted unity that is differently constituted in each case.

Of these conversation paintings, Frankie and Tallulah is the densest visually but the simplest compositionally, with its clear contrasts of black against white, perspectival recession against projection. Nina and Sophia is the most unruffled and lyrical, with its watery fields of greenish yellow and pink floating over delicate curling tendril-like lines of polymer emulsion, not to mention its goofy, bulbous, Peter Max-ish lettering of scattered phrases, insistent yet faltering, like “you you you get into into my life.” Cynthia and Angela is a vast, empty, resounding architecture infested with frothy marginalia. Each of these works evokes a specific ethos and makes enough room for the viewer to enter it. The paintings neither illustrate the words they contain nor subsume them to a purely visual schema. You can’t read them all the way through, but you can’t just look at them as graphic shapes either. Instead, word and image, text and matter seem to erupt from within one another, each with an enormous plastic power with respect to the other. Four small single-panel paintings hanging in an adjoining room will seem more familiar to those who know McClelland’s previous work, though they also pursue the notion of portraiture (one is a Dubuffet-esque Self Portrait). They are denser than their larger cousins, but less conclusive.