el·e·gance (l-gns) n. 1. a. Refinement, grace, and beauty in movement, appearance, or manners. b. Tasteful opulence in form, decoration, or presentation.
"I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things.” ~ Henri Matisse
Susan Blackmon’s paintings appear simple; they’re not. Her work, quite simply stated (excuse the pun), distills the dialectic between figure, abstraction, painting, drawing and technology (she uses an app on her IPad to create studies for her paintings) and the handmade into a seamless, delicate and immediate location of self. The results are an eloquent and elegant artifact of self-acceptance, of what cannot be seen and cannot be heard, but of what can be felt.
The work comes from the lineage of decorative (and I mean that in the highest sense) works by Matisse, late Brice Marden and Mary Heilman, and aligns and extends their language through her use of line, flat luminous color planes, subsumed gestural handling of paint and bending of geometric forms that create ambiguous spatial relationships; actualizing the complexity of what makes us all human.
While Blackmon’s oeuvre includes poured Geometric paintings such as The Slide, and the complex and incredibly subtle and intimate Femme, as well as the landscape-like monochromatic abstracts (earlier series) entitled The Four Seasons, it is her most recent series, Lay It on the Line, that I choose to discuss here.
I posit that this series is the distillation and culmination of Blackmon’s work. Spare, Zen-like, cool, warm, at once abstract and figurative, the process and the subject merge into the space Matisse describes as the “difference between things.”
These are finely-tuned and calibrated works, where the resolution of the disparate elements of Blackmon’s practice merge into one seamless and breathless original statement.
Prepping her panels and canvases with a smooth but subtly-textured surface, she then takes a wide brush and lays down rows of equally intuitive and structural grounds of color. She will then, with the same brush, make one or two transparent but thicker passes of whites and grays over the original ground. She then takes an acutely tuned, transparent color (oftentimes based on a complement to the ground) and creates a transparent veil, which sets up a complex overall vibration, pulse and hum on the surface.
Her “under” painting is specifically considered; from surface, to brush size, to the color of the imprimatur anticipating the color of the final complementary pass of paint. The unsophisticated eye at first glance may see “just white”, but the longer the viewer stands in front paintings the more they feel the artist’s touch, commitment and intimate design.
Working quickly and incessantly with her IPad, Blackmon sketches endlessly; developing drawings that have volume and weight that reference nature, architecture and the human form. The quality of these digital sketches, with the their variation of line, weight, volume of form and immediacy, recall the draughtsmanship found in Matisse, Arp and Ben Nicholson. Then she flips the switch again, by taking a hand-made, primitive (as far away from digital as humanly possible) tool she has invented made from a trimmed rubber blotch, to go back into her wet fields of subtle, luminous surface and scribe the “figures” from the sketches of her IPad, revealing the color of the imprimatur that had anticipated the last pass of complementary veil, which creates an absolute fusion of line, color, gesture, form - the intuitive and the deliberate.
There is something wholly new in the seeming paradox between her sensitivity and touch, this restating of early modernism and digital workmanship. As a painter myself, I find Blackmon’s transformation of this digital drawing technique expansive and invigorating, and an extension of the tools available to painting as we approach the middle of the second decade of the 21st century.
All of my theories about her work, and my advocacy for the rigor of it’s conceptual underpinning would not mean a thing if in the end these works did not stand up on their own so beautifully.
In paintings like Lay it On the Line #7 and Continuum, all of these complex, subtle, intuitive and highly considered elements come together to create paintings of great beauty and emotion. The fragile line quality of #7 Line, from the proportion of the drawing to the format of the rectangle, creates a feeling of human figure bending, pushing against its surrounding environment. In the grand scale of Continuum, the drawing and the color seem to all at once quote mid-century modernist design and a couple embracing. In these paintings, Blackmon, by expanding her own “comfort zone”, takes all of the disparate elements of drawing, painting, abstraction, figuration, digital technology and the handmade and fuses them together in a highly personal space; creating a moment, a place we have not quite experienced before. With all great art, the viewer experiences “something” they have never before seen. In that moment, the viewer suspends their disbelief and is transformed by the artists practice, the artist’s record of their own transformation.
The greater the degree of the artist’s transformation, the greater the record of transformation that the viewer can experience. Blackmon’s series Lay it On the Line, does just that. Give these paintings the time they demand, slow down and listen to their quite complex challenging vibration and hum, feel their luminosity, and you will be rewarded by their beauty, courage and integrity.
Michael David 9-26-13