Interview with Sue Johnson about Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines
VisArts Exhibiting Artist from September 11th – January 3rd, 2021
interviewed by Megan Koeppel, the VisArts Exhibition Programming Coordinator
Sue Johnson (b. San Francisco, CA) earned an MFA in Painting from Columbia University and a BFA in Painting from Syracuse University, and studied painting in London, England and Florence, Italy with Syracuse University. To learn more about Sue & her work visit suejohnson1.com
When did you first realize that Art was a primary part of your life?
I grew up in a family that embraced art and artists making things. While my mother didn’t pursue a professional life in the arts, she worked in drawing, ceramics and mosaics as a significant activity throughout my childhood. My brothers and I always had art supplies and a place to work, the family went to museums and the theater, and we traveled to historical places in the US by car a lot. In high school I had an opportunity to go to France for a spring break trip, and that whet my appetite to study abroad in college, which I did. On that first trip my memories are very clear — the Louvre (one of my favorite paintings remains Gericault’s enormous The Raft of the Medusa), L’Orangerie (where I saw Monet’s immersive installation of his waterlilies) and visiting Montmartre (where my imagination recreated the turn of the 20th century art scene there with Picasso and Braque at work and café scene). It was the experience of studying abroad in London for my junior year followed by summer in Florence and traveling some in Italy – seeing so much art in person, being introduced to practicing artists, the independence of that year – it was then that I decided to change my major to painting and from then onwards, art has been my path. Of course, I didn’t know what I was getting into, but a year later when I had been accepted into the MFA program at Columbia University, I moved to New York, and just kept moving forward.
Did you ever consider another path other than visual art?
Indeed, I did. During high school I remember distinctly to this day, I was poring over my art teacher’s book on Picasso and being very aware of my gender and that I didn’t see many women in the role of artist and saying to myself – this isn’t what women can do – I just couldn’t see myself pursuing art in that way. Balancing that, my mother always wanted me to be an artist, and I also suppose that being a teenage contrarian, I tried to become something else. Going into college, I thought I would pursue creative writing or psychology, and I always had an affinity and curiosity about the world of advertising. I first attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College initially focusing on psychology and writing courses as well as taking art courses. Very quickly in my first semester I realized, actually, I did want to study art with the thought that maybe I could become an artist – or be in the arts in some way. I transferred into the advertising program at Syracuse University. A year later by the time I was studying abroad I realized I was devoting more of my energies to painting and drawing classes instead of advertising classes – and I changed my major to painting.
How were you working as a fine artist, while also working to make money? Were you an educator after graduating?
During graduate school I worked as a studio assistant for Arlene Slavin, who was a pattern painter at the time – and a great role model. Later, I worked at Lincoln Center at the gallery there, and through some twists of fate became the gallery director after a few years. It wasn’t until after graduate school, that I thought about teaching. To put it into context, it was the 1970s and with a very few exceptions, all my professors were men. I never thought of myself as having that kind of role for myself when I was in school. Some grad school friends and I began to apply for teaching jobs, and I was very fortunate to get a full-time teaching job when I just twenty-six. It was a bit of a leap of faith – I left New York City, my job at Lincoln Center, and the loft I helped renovate in Hoboken, NJ. I moved to Indianapolis, Indiana to teach at the Herron School of Art. The job was just for two years, but even so, I got a great deal of work done in the studio and had eight solo shows in those 2 years. This was my first time in the Midwest and the proximity to Chicago introduced me to artists I hadn’t known about before – Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who. My painting at the time was more abstract than representational though it was based on scientific and natural history images and popular culture, and it was at this time that I started to use found materials like linoleum tiles and plastic objects merged with paintings to create installations. When I returned to New York, I found studio space and an apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and about five years later moved back to Manhattan on the Lower East Side. My work started to be shown in alternative spaces like White Columns and Art in General and commercial galleries – Jill Newhouse Gallery, Stiebel Modern and Ruth Seigel Gallery. I taught as an adjunct at Parsons School of Design and Marymount Manhattan College, and also worked in custom framing, did freelance work in the home furnishings industry by hand-painting textile patterns, and for five years was the Program Coordinator for Triangle Artists’ Workshop. I was cobbling together a lot of part-time work to keep living and working in the city. I loved living in New York – it was an amazing time. I decided to leave NYC when there was a big economic downturn that really impacted the arts and at the same time I was offered a tenure-track teaching job at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. I think that the teaching part of my life as an artist has been something that has developed over the years, but it was not intentional at first – one opportunity led to another.
Who are your main influences within art, and specifically Dada and Surrealism?
My art influences are diverse and broad across time and culture from Greek and Roman art and architecture, the remains of Pompeii, Medieval manuscripts, Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque paintings from northern to southern Europe, trompe l’oeil and still life works from many times and cultures, paintings from China, Korea, India and Japan, Islamic pattern and design work, American painting, natural history illustrations, printing history, costume and fashion and the decorative arts. From the 19th century on, early modern painting and the history of photography is important for my work – the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge for example, and early photographic portraits and books on the human figure. Artist residencies have afforded me invaluable extended time to travel and see art in the US, Germany, Austria, France, Italy, England, Ireland, Belgium and The Netherlands with additional travel to Spain and the Czech Republic.
There are much earlier examples of surrealism with a small ‘s’- like 16th century Italian painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo who is best known for his head portraits that are made entirely of inanimate objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, books, and fishes. Bosch and Bruegel also figure into earlier manifestations of the surreal, and in the 19th century artists like J.J. Grandville and his famous Les Fleurs Animees. I should mention my early devotion to the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico whom the Surrealists would like to have claimed as one of their own despite his work predating the Surrealist movement itself. So, there is a great deal outside of the Dada and Surrealist movements of the 20th century that informs my work and ideas.
At its core, my work adapts Surrealist practices and procedures – like collage and the recontextualization of found objects and textures, both of which juxtapose recognizable things in unexpected ways to create new associations and meanings. My work often creates the condition for everyday objects to transform, suggesting a secret life of objects that would otherwise be assumed to be inanimate, or not alive like humans. Contemporary audiences are quite familiar with and accept surreality, many people find the uncanny intriguing and are interested in tapping into the unconscious and dream imagery. Particular Surrealist artists of influence and interest to me include Max Ernst, René Magritte, Meret Oppenheim, Louise Bourgeois, Man Ray, Grete Stern, Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali, Dora Maar, and even Pablo Picasso who for a time was associated with the Surrealists. The enigmatic figure, Marcel Duchamp contributed important works and ideas to the art of the early 20th century and yet cannot be easily categorized though was involved with the Dada and Surrealist artists. Paired with a surrealistic methodology, I should say my work also leans into the history of modernist abstract painting, and Color Field painting in particular.
What themes have your previous projects revolved around that lead to your most recent body of work? Have you always worked with archived and vintage materials?
From my earliest work during graduate school, I was looking at scientific and natural history documents like land-sat photographs of the Earth, telescope images of the universe, microscope images and illustrations of plant and animal life. Over time my interests expanded into the history of the printed image and since it was well before the Internet and easy availability of images, I started collecting early publications by and for women and out-of-date encyclopedias. I became very interested in cabinets of curiosities, which are natural and cultural proposals for histories of how the world is organized – told through objects – artificial and natural, which in term led me to explore the anthropomorphic, the burring of the boundaries between what humans define as animate and inanimate, across time and culture.
Throughout, the history of science has been a major area of my investigation, and posing questions about who gets to write and document history – and with that question in mind I started a long-term project called The Alternate Encyclopedia. The project imagined what might have been alternate histories if someone else, often times, a women, would have been writing the history of science, the history of discoveries and new knowledge at various moments in time. This included archival research that led me to create works that propose fictional visual artifacts of marginalized or fully excluded histories in science and art. Some bodies of work focused on the role of the amateur in science, which was oftentimes the only possible role for a woman – like botanical study.
In time, my researches led me to consider my own history, and in doing that to focus on the mid-20th century when I was a child. This meant that I was constructing a kind of archival time-machine to go back in history to my mother’s life experience and try to re-vision what she undoubtedly conveyed to me as a young girl, or what I socially and culturally absorbed more generally. My mother passed away over thirty years ago, so building an archive became my primary source. These materials fell into two categories – popular culture artifacts like women’s magazines which remarkably covered a lot of ground, and at the same time the art history of the early modernist period. This is ultimately what led me to my current project, Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines.
What does your current process of working with archives look like? Please walk me through it.
Much of my work is grounded in popular culture, art historical imagery, the history of images especially the printed image, and objects of consumer culture. For many exhibitions, I often do preliminary research in local libraries, and am always interested to meet with experts on site who guide me to highlights in their collections, or they will suggest obscure archival materials once they learn about my interests. To confess, I also have a lot of stuff, though I am trying to own less, it’s a work in progress. My own collection source materials have grown and grown and include art books of course, but also books and printed materials on the history of fashion and costume, design, textiles, ceramics, antiques, natural history and science and entire year runs of various women’s magazines and many sets of out-of-date encyclopedias. When I was working on The Alternate Encyclopedia, I kept a huge physical clipping file organized by subject, but now I keep mostly digital image folders, and have stacks and stacks of magazines in one of my studio rooms along with a scanner and big table to sort materials and make preliminary studies.
As Internet resources have vastly expanded in the last decade, I use consumer sites like eBay to do research as well as Google image searches and other online image collections, and track the history of particular domestic objects through various company websites. In my experience, good eBay sellers will list important historical information on vintage items – and I don’t necessarily buy but instead keep an image record for reference. That said, I do buy. All of the collage materials I use to create the portrait images are scanned or photographed by me from the original materials I actually own – mostly old magazines and product manuals and now vintage objects. I do this because images on the Internet are usually not at high resolution and I need very high-resolution images to make my digitally stitched together collages. To make my images, I’m always changing the scales of different elements, sometimes widening or narrowing them, removing logos and brand names, sometimes using tools to put an element into perspective, flipping orientations, enhancing or desaturating the color and editing background elements out. My collage images could not be done with scissors and glue because of all the digital editing I do to create a more seamless new image rather than one that looks overtly collaged. I also need to understand the context of the image, so I spend a lot of time reading old magazines from a particular year, then going backward or forward in time to understand the changes over time rather than randomizing the information.
Can you talk about the significance of the title of the project, Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines?
To begin, the title presents a rupture between descriptive language and what is actually depicted, like the surrealist strategy of juxtaposing two unlike things, while it also signals itself as a visual satire for constructive social criticism. For a hall of portraits, the expectations would be a showcase of a family’s or country’s famous ancestors or heroes, most often male but these have also depicted females in the role of the ruling and upper classes. Also, portraits often include attributes of the sitter, objects associated with the virtues or activities of their life. In a pictorial history of machines what would be expected are things that are inanimate or mechanical – not human beings – shown to make them attractive to a potential customer, or document a history of progress and innovation. Conjoining these two aspects in the title and then picturing portraits of hybridized women with mechanical devices associated with the domestic sphere – this is unexpected, surreal, and unsettling.
Once the works are seen, the title shifts to be interpreted as this is a history of women, a history that idealizes women for their roles in which machine-like domestic efficiency is prized. It also references the history of how our own contemporary consumer culture has been built on the appetites of the recent past for and the abundance of things that embrace the latest model, the newest inventions and innovations and a resulting culture of disposability with built-in planned obsolescence. In the images of this project, the hybridized female forms seem recognizable, sometimes with a moment of uncomfortable humor, then the images occupy the realm of the cyborgs that they are. My modest proposal is that these beings are our ancestors in a way, because these new women come from authentic advertising images of domestic products and from pictures of women who also inhabit the pages of popular magazines of the same era, images of new women who are both consumers and are what I would say the consumed at the same time. There is a self-awareness of this predicament that I hope comes through in the new fictionalized yet also ‘real’ representations of the women.
There are references to the work of Marcel Duchamp in your work, can you explain how this ties in?
There are many overlapping ways that Duchamp’s work is referenced. I would start with his painting Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 that was first exhibited in America in the 1913 Amory Show to scandalous review. Futurist and Cubist elements are combined in the work that pictures an abstracted, mechanicalized, and I would say de-humanized female form descending a set of stairs. Like other artists of his time, it is known that Duchamp was influenced by the photographic motion studies done by Muybridge and Marey in the late 19th century. Then too, there are his readymades that re-present everyday manufactured objects, without the artist’s manipulation, but in the context of a gallery, often on a pedestal or otherwise on display.
There is a specific but somewhat hidden reference to his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, also known as The Large Glass. This work has a lot to unpack in it, but on one level it presents an abstracted human-like narrative through the picturing of quite animated mechanical objects – cylinders, a chocolate grinder, ropes and pulleys, etcetera. The images in the work are trapped between two panes of glass that appear similar to a storefront shop window – a kind of commercial display. In notes left by Duchamp in a work known as the Green Box, Duchamp describes his working ideas, an alchemical way that the nine bachelors in the lower panel attempt to enact their desires or otherwise vie to impregnate the object of their desire, the bride, who is in the upper panel. In much of Duchamp’s other work, the female is an object upon which actions are enacted or proposed. To create a dialogue with Duchamp in my work that seeks to explore taxonomies of the representation of women, I established the height of the monumental scale works in Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines to be the exact height of The Large Glass which is 109.25 inches tall.
How does your work grapple with the inherent objectification of women in surrealist imagery? In what ways do you try to place a contemporary spin on surrealist imagery and ideas?
In recent years an important revisionist art history is taking place within the male-dominated art historical canon of the Surrealist movement, a narrative that excluded or marginalized the women who were very much part of the Surrealist movement – as artists. The role of muse – rather than as active artist – has traditionally been the central lens through which women Surrealists have be seen or understood. Meret Oppenheim was well-known from the earliest documentation of the movement – and yet her work and its reception underscores the complicated and marginalized way woman appear and are used or depicted in the work of the movement. It is particularly exciting to see the work of artists like Dora Maar given more prominence with recent exhibitions and publications. Of course, the work of Frida Kahlo has been known for longer, telling the stories from a female perspective, and using self-portraiture as a powerful and authoritative device.
The disquieting muse, often sexualized, sometimes literally depicted like an inanimate object or dehumanized to be acted upon, is part of the patriarchal fantasy that is referenced and can be seen in my own work. The contemporary spin or re-casting I’d like to propose is to create images that show the self-aware muse, rather than the muse to be seen as an object for the enjoyment of the male gaze. With their origins coming from advertising campaigns pitched to female readers, my new muse-objects appear at first to have been taken to a faux naïf consumer culture extreme in which a kind of useful super-efficient domestic object has been achieved. More unsettlingly, it might be that the women transform into cyborgs, part human part machine, but now more powerful than a vacuum cleaner or coffee maker – super-human. In Hall of Portraits from The History of Machines, the machine-women exude an abstracted self-awareness, poised to take control of their circumstances. While individual portraits show these new women in different states of transformation, as a larger group of images taken together they seem to exude an ever-greater consciousness, an empowered collective consciousness.
I think it’s interesting how you were talking about faux naïf work. Can you talk more about how your use of the faux naïf plays into the narrative of your work?
When I allude to a faux naïf stance, this idea is related to the role of the amateur – that historically women have largely been relegated to the role of amateur in most fields of endeavor, and this history is how part of the project’s satire is grounded. For example, it’s about what happens when a person and, in this case a woman, is excluded from science, and cannot get the training required to allow her to fully participate in ways deemed as professional. Still very skilled, oftentimes educated through family members, and being aware of the same kind of advances that men in the field are aware of, but not being a fully enfranchised participant. When she engages in scientific pursuits, some element of the work, perhaps, has an embedded misunderstanding due to the exclusion from official and sanctioned training, or altogether does not receive official acceptance.
In Hall of Portraits from History of Machines, the female body is constructed from and merged with domestic mechanical devices that have been invented for home use, provided to women in order to be more efficient, to keep their households running smoothly. A cultural condition is created in which women learn to want these devices and begin to see them as part of their identity, so much so that unconsciously, naïvely, the efficient attributes of the device become the longed for attributes of self-identity. The resulting dissonance between a human self and a machine ideal sets in motion a conflict, and an increasing self-awareness. Revealed in the frozen moments within the portraits, the women are both the consumer and the consumed, beings that are in flux on the continuum of what is considered animate and inanimate.
Many Surrealists are drawing on pre-existing narratives and different types of lore. Does any of your work reference older stories?
The overall project presents itself as a disquieting visual satire that draws on many narratives and constructs, some of which overlap with Surrealists subjects, including the femme fatale, the muse, the waking dream, goddesses, female warriors and superheroes, and what is known as the ‘cult of the machine’. Also, I am interested in the literary genre known as the coming of age novel, or what happens in so many stories that is the shero’s journey through a difficult and unknown landscape through which transformation occurs.
A well-travelled theme in the arts and literature, and in my work, is the notion of the femme fatale, the dangerous woman, a situation in which for the observer there is both fear and desire experienced together. In tandem with the femme fatale, my work has been informed by what emerged in the culture of the early 20th century of what is known as the ‘cult of the machine’ – a desire and belief that technology would solve all human problems. There were many artists like the Futurists for example, who embraced futurity and machine culture, and in their manifestos made it clear their ideas glorified war and anarchy and contempt for women. In another example, Fernand Léger, who after his horrific experiences in WWI, begins to depict the human form as sleek and machine-like, often with the female form as the subject-object. In the work of Marcel Duchamp and also Francis Picabia, the female form is mechanicalized, or takes on attributes of the machine. These and other examples in early modern art can be seen as mirrors of larger cultural ideas about women, how women have been dehumanized, and how over time in the picturing of women this becomes an accepted way to represent the female form. In my work, familiar images of women merge with the machine. When that merging is given visual form, there is desire and also fear of the dangerous, a fear of the automaton or cyborg, of both wanting to control it and worrying about being controlled by it. To my way of thinking, this is absolutely central to an understanding of what emerges in the 20th century as a new ideal for the modern woman. With regard to the desire for new technology and a growing fear in giving machines power and voice, there are earliest precedents. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus predates this time frame but gives monstrous form what was already being felt in the early 19th century.
Surrealism as a movement embraced visual art and writing, and in this the illusive muse was often a subject or vehicle for the story. The images I’m creating on a monumental scale are meant to have a sense of being sculptures on a pedestal but as flat and without too much illusion, an image of a woman that is both elevated and stilled so as to gaze upon her – created as an alternate, empowered new narrative. Mythological stories related to goddesses, and female warriors, are also related to the femme fatale and stereotypical representations or roles for women. In fact, many of my depictions of machine-women border on superheroes.
I am interested in the literary genre of the coming of age novel, a journey to adulthood where there are a series of threshold, transformative experiences, through which ultimately a greater awareness emerges from childhood to adulthood. Surrealist landscapes often present a vast landscape through which one must traverse, or in collage novels like Une Semaine du Bonte by Max Ernst, these are journeys through dream spaces and sequences. Taken together, all the images of the women are meant to have this sense of journey that they are each transforming toward a greater awareness, so that it’s not just to see one of them, but to see the amalgam of them as undertaking a journey together, as a collective.
What types of responses do people, especially women, have to your work?
Responses are like peeling an onion…when people see the work in person, first there is the physical spectacle and awe when confronted by the enormous scale of portraits. Then they begin to decode the images, seeing the parts separately, a sense of recognizing something just out of reach, something sensed as familiar, yet also unsettling – uncanny. I’ve had some powerfully intense conversations with women who were young adults in the mid 20th century – the work really resonates with them, but it also resonates with younger audiences because of the contemporaneity of the on-going predicament of women’s roles in society.
Everyone wants to know more about the source materials I find, and how the entire image is made including the surrounding ground plane – both aspects aren’t clear on the surface of things in how they were made. In response to such conversations, I decided to create The Facsimiles so there is a record of all the source materials and to make this accessible in exhibitions. The prints show the original advertisements and fashion pages used to create each hybrid woman.
The color-field backgrounds also elicit a kind of pleasure of recognition, once viewers can figure out the tool that was used, or learn how it was done. I use every day domestic objects and tools like different brands of disposable paper towels, anonymously-authored embroideries, coffee filters and machine-made decorative lace to imprint patterns in the paint, or window cleaning squeegees to scrap off paint in layers and DIY wood graining tools that are used to create faux wood grain surfaces.