by Brit Washburn
In order to experience anything fully, we must first resist the urge to translate it into thought, and its henchman, language—that insufferably reductive impulse. This is true of emotional and ecstatic experience, as well as of our experiences of art, including poetry, music and, importantly, the paintings, drawings and sculptures of Susan Klein (b. 1979). Visual art exists to be seen, and the longer we can inhabit the experience of seeing, rather than translate what we see back into the thought or idea from which it may or may not have sprung, the more likely we are to be transformed by it. “Understanding color” Klein has said, “is just challenging as understanding Foucault.”
In the midsection, a field of variegated colbalt blue, suggestive of sky, or mountains in shadow. Above, amorphous white and grey, like cloud coverage, and above that, a multicolored swath like burlap beneath a dun-brown expanse containing an unidentifiable object in the upper right corner. Back at ground level, blue-black “burlap” slung with what appears to be knotted metal hanging over—what?—a window ledge?
Klein herself demonstrates a finely honed practice in seeing. She walks around, observes, and photographs the streets, a process she refers to as “ambulatory meditation.” By means of this physical activity, Klein forges an intimate relationship with place, which is abundantly evident in her work. Klein’s investment of her own time and attention results in an awareness of place as a vessel which, in her words, “contains the past and anchors us to time.” The material world is affected by the passage of time, which in turn informs what she sees, and what we see on the canvas and the page: wear and tear, irregular surfaces, “architecture, botany, fences, screens, and bricks” combine to create a “dense visual obstacle course” for the viewer. Thus the experience of seeing becomes almost athletic in its demands: the heart pounds, the breath quickens, the eyes focus and shift and refocus, and finally we arrive at stillness.
This physical engagement, on her part and on ours, is antidote to the habit of thinking, which tends to assert itself the moment our other faculties acquiesce. Klein’s work assists in preventing us from falling prey to passivity by virtue of its textured terrain. Like hikers traversing a rugged landscape in questionable weather, we must remain alert to both “the sky overhead and the mud” underfoot, as Klein makes clear, “shadow and slippage,” objects in space which may be closer—or farther away—than they appear. We are affected by shifts in atmospheric pressure as well as by the tension between bodies: chain links and blossoms; skyscrapers and abstracted landscapes viewed through doors, windows, barbed wire, slats.
Klein’s is a slow process, which often involves painting over and sanding off. Her images are thus literally layered and, like the rings in trees or the lines in stratified rock, contain the otherwise uncontainable entity that is time—sometimes apparent, sometimes hidden, sometimes intimated. There is a ruthlessness about Klein’s willingness to rework and revise, as though no matter how long she has invested in a piece, it is not precious or exempt from continued scrutiny. Klein describes a pivotal experience in this regard as having come of an encounter with Tom Burckhardt, who said “Is it good? Or is it just good enough?” with respect to determining whether or not a piece is finished or resolved. While admitting that “everything can’t be monumental,” Klein nonetheless holds herself to this rigorous standard.
Drawings, collages and, recently, cut-outs, are “a lot faster” and “physically easier” to execute than her paintings on canvas, which vary widely in scale, reports Klein. Consequently, these works on paper provide an opportunity for greater spontaneity and immediacy and a chance to get “unstuck.” Jed Perl, describing an exhibit of cut-outs by Henri Matisse at the Museum of Modern Art in the fall of 2014, writes of his “manic energy” and “triumphant confidence”—the antithesis of the painstaking and belabored. But for Klein, the magic occurs somewhere in between. She neither relies exclusively on “inspiration” nor does she eschew it.
To this end, she attempts to tune in to her intuition, as all artists must. Intuition is a fundamental part of the process, “tied to the intellect, not separate from it,” explains Klein. “Work intuitively,” she tells herself, “then take a step back and give your work thoughtful criticism…then go back to not thinking as you make. It is a back-and-forth. And failure: failure is a great thing.” Failure, for Klein, is an opportunity to change the way you see something, which can in turn give rise to something entirely new. “I love failure,” she exclaims.
“’Poetry’” writes Georges Braque, “is what distinguishes the cubist paintings Picasso and I arrived at intuitively from the lifeless sort of painting those who followed us tried, with such unfortunate results, to arrive at theoretically.” And Klein is nothing if not a poets’ painter. In her work, we see rhythm and cadence, slant rhyme and meter. More lyric than narrative, her paintings present a-linear moments unencumbered by the prosaic elements of plot and character, yet tonally rich and replete with mood and style.
As an undergraduate student of studio art at New York University, Klein studied drawing with Stephen Ellis, whom she describes as a “hard ass.” “He wouldn’t let you coast, especially if you had ability.” It was in this context that Klein learned about “perception, discipline, standards of excellence, and teaching.” In graduate school, at the University of Oregon (where Klein earned her MFA in Painting in 2004), Klein worked closely with the artist Amanda Wojick. Herself primarily a sculptor, Wojick allowed Klein to “explore the space between sculpture and painting” and to play with their fluidity. Klein credits Wojick with showing her that “one can be serious, yet still maintain a playfulness and humor.”
Both Klein and her work exude this combination of gravity and playfulness to this day. “Work keeps me working,” she claims, and “living, and therefore the fact of death,” motivate and excites her. “Life, death, desire, memory, disappointment, aging, politics, culture” – a curiosity about and engagement with all these things inform her work and also inform her work as a teacher. Klein seeks to challenge her students to “think critically about everything around them.” While traditional, technical skills may be “important to the development of spatial thinking and perceptual understanding,” what is essential is that the artist “question, question, question.” Curiosity, Klein insists, is key, as well as a fierce work ethic and the ability to follow through on ideas. The conceptual must be transformed into the tactile, the mind-stuff must be made manifest by the hands.
Although Klein often has the sense that her work has evolved considerably over time, she also acknowledges that many ideas dating back as far as graduate school, eleven or twelve years ago, continue to assert themselves—she’s simply approaching them from a different direction, and with a more mature perspective. “We are who we are,” she concedes. Life experiences may change us, “but the changes that seem momentous inside ourselves may manifest in minor ways outside.” Klein is now slower and more patient and, she hopes, more thoughtful, “a little wiser, more open, and more committed and obsessed. Because in the end,” she writes, “that is what sustains the artist and keeps us coming back again and again: obsession.”
“I just want to never feel comfortable in my practice,” Klein claims, “I want to make work that never finds an answer, but keeps engaging with questions.” To this end, intrigued by Bill Brown’s writings on the subject and a talk given by the artist Michael Graeves, she has been thinking about object theory, and “the difference between a thing and an object, where the line is, and what it means to make something with no use.” Graeves provided Klein with a reading list which she intends to use a foundation for her research—“and then forget it all so (she) can make things,” she says with a laugh.
Since relocating to Charleston in the fall of 2014, Klein has been focused on larger oil paintings, which she thinks of as pictures rather than objects, with a mind to creating images or “pictorial narratives.” On fellowship in Berlin for the summer of 2015, something shifted. For the first time in four or five years, she began making sculpture, and “thinking about the physical relationship between paintings, drawings, and sculptures.”
In some of this recent work—large drawings cut and contorted to form three-dimensional sculptures or “urns,” vessels which in turn may serve as supports or props for paintings or vice versa—Klein has followed her own dictum and manifest in space an idea—that of “things sitting on things”—that had previously appeared in her work as imagery. Rather than simply depict the idea of one object supporting another as an image in a painting, her installations involve paintings serving as actual physical supports for sculptures, and sculptures for paintings. Here we see the dialogue between concept and creation enacted as if it were a dance.
“Writing about painting is like dancing about architecture,” goes the famous dictum most reliably attributed to Martin Mull, but perhaps all art is in fact ekphrasis, a speaking out in an attempt to make vivid a scene or experience that would otherwise remain ineffable. Perhaps the impulse is not folly, but evidence of the indefatigable human spirit, undeterred by the futility of its efforts. Or perhaps those who would make art of life are indeed shameless fools, but somehow admirable for that.
Art exists on a continuum between concept and craft. Both components are essential. Concept in the absence of craft is philosophy, conjecture. Craft in the absence of concept is merely that. What distinguishes art from crafts is the conceptual element undergirding craftsmanship. What distinguishes art from philosophy is its craftedness, its madeness, its physicality.
To view Susan Klein’s works is to witness—and participate in—this synthesis of thought and form through a visual medium, unmediated and un- intruded-upon by language. Like all encounters with the transcendent, it is at once a challenging and a liberating experience.
Susan Klein has exhibited her work both nationally and internationally. She has shown at the Brooklyn Artists Gym, Brooklyn NY, 3433 Gallery, Chicago, IL, PDX Contemporary Art, Portland, OR, University of Ulsan, South Korea, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI, as well as other venues. Recent awards include a full fellowship to the Vermont Studio Center, an Ox-bow artist in residence fellowship, residency at Arteles, in Finland, and a College of Charleston Faculty Research Grant to attend the Takt Berlin residency, summer 2015. Klein received her MFA in 2004 from University of Oregon and a BFA in 2001 from University of New Hampshire. She is currently Assistant Professor of Art at the College of Charleston.
A keen sense of grasping, a knowledge that memory will dissolve.
Accumulation and losses.
The tension between two shapes. The sky overhead. The mud beneath.
Wear and tear.
Irregular surfaces. Time piles. A dense visual obstacle course.
The gnarly terrain.
An anchor, an anvil, a tether, a veil.
A collision of the physical, the imagined, the remembered.