One day, Suzan sent me a message that suggested I interview one of her artist friends. After checking out her website www.suzanshutan.com, I knew I had to chat with her. She’s a stunning installation artist. Here’s our cool chat…
“I want there to be a broad range of interpretations of my work. I don't want my work to be just one statement.”
MICHAEL: Hello Suzan, Your website is fantastic. It's a beautiful showcase for your work. Let's start with the site. There are so many artists out there who STILL don't have personal websites that they control. Your thoughts? Also, what was the thinking behind your own site?
SUZAN: Hi Michael, Good question. Thank you for asking and I appreciate hearing that my site is appealing! I spent years giving thought to my website and making notes on what I liked about other sites. I knew I had to have a website because I was not being taken seriously enough without one when applying for funding or exhibitions or art-related work.
I wanted a site that I could manage, not one where I was dependent upon someone and at their mercy to add changes every month. A big part of my decision to go with Square Space was that the monthly fee was reasonable, only $8.00. The bigger issue was figuring out a template I could live with. I wanted a site that would upload fast, was easy to navigate, the images were not too small, you could see many images of one "material" at once. In the end, my site was a compromise, but one I could live with.
MICHAEL: The site really is great.
SUZAN: The entire process was so overwhelming once I got started that I decided to save money and hire a person to upload everything. We were in constant discussion once it all began; what type face to use and what size should the images be and where does the information go, etc. I had little patience for it all and wanted to quit halfway through as it ate away at any down time. Thankfully, the person I hired was kind and patient! The one thing I was certain about was that I knew I had ten seconds - if that - to hold onto a viewer. I knew I wanted to show as an introduction, how the audience could interact with some of my work. A friend visiting a group exhibit I was in, witnessed a mom filming her son playing with my piece "Flock" (pom poms and wire illustrating one of many patterns of Starling Birds). I received contact info and the rest is history, it became my opening page.
MICHAEL: Very cool. Your installations are so well executed. I usually think of installations as 3-D paintings or paintings that are pulled into real life and brought closer to us. What do you like about installations?
SUZAN: Michael, I agree with you and often think of my installations in the same vein. By extending a line into space, the walls become a canvas for action. What I like about installations is that a space can become a vehicle for installing an idea. At its best, the audience becomes a part of the piece or its surroundings. The execution is crucial for me. I don’t want people getting hung up on glue or a seam. I want them to engage fully from its parts to how it functions as a whole. Also, I am drawn to installations because for me, it’s the difference of standing in front of a small work as one would watch a television or computer screen versus being swallowed up by a large work in the thick of it moving through it like being in a movie theater with a huge screen. On some level you forget where you are. You become in that moment.
MICHAEL: Installations, as you describe them, seem to leave the door wide open for individual interpretation despite your own personal message through the work. Is this problematic for you?
SUZAN: No not problematic for me at all. I want there to be a broad range of interpretations of my work. I don't want my work to be just one statement. But I always hope that what I felt making the work comes across. While I might have an idea of what I want my work to be about or to feel like, I often don't know what it will become until the end of making it.
MICHAEL: Have you ever gone back and changed something after you thought it was completed? Or have you ever destroyed your works?
SUZAN: I have, but that was in the past. Now I work to what I feel is completion and allow it to live in that place of a temporal, finished state. When I work on an installation, which usually takes maybe two days depending on size and a big installation with two assistants taking a week’s worth of time, I format the work to the space and surrounding architecture which is different with each invite. Working toward completion is like a dance of adding and subtracting, give and take, until it intuitively feels complete.
I never fully destroy a work, not to say that I haven't in the past. I usually will save the part of it that worked. Sometimes I will reuse that part, but often I study it to understand how to reenact it again successfully.
I created a wall relief installation at Kenise Barnes Fine Art. We discussed how beautiful it would be to walk under a canopy of cut tar paper using reflective light. Kenise gave me permission to give it a try, not something many gallery owners would be willing to do. Keep in mind, I had a limited time frame of a few days to complete my entire install. I ended up building a frame for the tar paper and spent 12 hours with the aid of her two assistants making and then installing the canopy. It was late night when we finally got it hung. We were all exhausted and the gallery should have been closed four hours earlier. After all that hard work, I stood back and realized that it did not work at all. It had to come down. The problem was, the frame was rigid and somewhat geometric where as the tar paper was more amorphous and about growth and expansion. It was a hard call, but I am so happy I made that decision to remove it. I have since resolved how it can be done. Kenise was instrumental in finding a way.
MICHAEL: Some people - mainly artists I suspect - don't like it when artists have staffs that participate in the creation of a work. I guess they think it smacks of manufacturing products rather than pure art. Thoughts?
SUZAN: True Michael, It’s a touchy subject. I always made my own work. Still do for the most part. However, almost seven years ago I feel ill. It was a five-year period that kept me from being in a studio. All of my work had to be made in bed if I wanted to continue to make art. I learned how to make work that was in components or sections that could be expanded and added onto so that the work could become very large and encompassing – installation-based. Friends, family and former students lent a hand helping to install my work when I could not. They have remained in my life and I am so grateful for them and their help. I am now well again and back to doing most work myself, but I will never knock it when someone needs assistance. You never know what is driving the need for help. I now try to pay it forward.
MICHAEL: That story you just told could really change the entire art world model if people just woke up. Of course, it's pie in the sky, but it seems to me that things are so fractured right now and if the art world really banned together, it would be a powerful voting block - if nothing else - that could truly affect more positive change. I don't know.
SUZAN: Michael you are so right. Sometimes I wish the art world took itself back by storm. Imagine all that we could be then?
MICHAEL: Back to your work. You really like to explore and use man-made materials in your work - papers, straws, string, etc. What's that all about?
SUZAN: Actually, there are many years worth of using tumble weed and moss and natural substances in my work. I often waver between the two. However, I have been in a decade-long cycle of going to dumps, hardware and craft stores and recycling plants in search of my materials. They are my "penny candies." I like the fact that the materials are easily accessible and inexpensive, but there is something unequivocally thrilling for me about pre and post consumer materials. Something about the mass production of an object, its multiplicity, that I am attracted to. The object becomes less precious when there are thousands of it, allowing me to be fearless in exploring its possibilities.
I love the challenge of investigating and transforming a material, pushing it beyond what it is to become something else. In doing so, I allow myself a freedom of "making," one that is a playful experimentation. That is why I often seek out materials that are malleable, that can expand and contract.
Not only might a form, color, texture or objects function draw me in, but the fact that the manufactured material is a cultural artifact adds impetus and another level of relevance for me. For example, tar paper used primarily for roofing and construction is harmful to the environment. The ends of rolls get dumped into waste sites leaking oil and tar into the ground and inevitably groundwater. By repurposing the tarpaper which is a forgiving and flexible material into undulating patterns, it can mimic moments of ephemeral beauty in the midst of toxic transformation. The same goes for plastic straws. They reference water, but we are consuming dangerous PVC's (Polyvinyl Chloride). While these underlining issues are timely and most relevant, in the end it comes down to my being lured by the material qualities such as a plastic straw’s translucence aspect and its array of colors or its form being a line that I can extend into space.
MICHAEL: And so, when you create these installations, you're really making a statement about recycling and repurposing in our throwaway culture. Unfortunately, you'll never run out of material. Ultimately though, so many people don't want to be responsible. Thoughts?
SUZAN: Yes exactly! It's an indirect statement, but if people read into the materials and then beyond their patterning into something deeper and richer, then I invite that. Sadly, it's so true we are such a throwaway culture and the world seems to be adopting the attitude of "leave it for the next generation to clean up." It’s heartbreaking to read about the effects of fracking upon the land and the carcinogens it produces or sea animals choking to death on plastic. The best I can to in terms of personal responsibility is to recycle and repurpose and hope the materials speak for themselves on all these levels.
MICHAEL: Both installation and public art seem to ultimately be about social commentary. Most people don't even think about buying installations unless they're wealthy and have a LOT of display space at home. What do you think about this? Does this affect the way you create at all?
SUZAN: There are many installations that are not necessarily intended to be social commentary, like the work of Tara Donovan or Maya Lin, who look at patterns in nature as I do.
I think most of us who make installation art are doing it for other reasons. We're realistic, we understand that this type of work is voluminous and not easy to sell although it certainly would be nice to and artists like Jessica Stockholder and Judy Pfaff have been able to sell to collectors to museums and even commissioned to do some public art. Being able to realize an idea on a large scale is often my driving force. Walking "into" an art work creates a whole other level of observation and engagement.
You ask does it affect the way I create? It does. It affects the way I construct. I have a very small studio which has become entirely storage of works now, so the open areas are the floor or dining room table. Prior to this, when I was sick and confined to bed, I had to devise a system in which I could make my work in bed. I started to build small sections of individual components that were able to be expanded or contracted in size that could be assembled together into an installation. I still continue to work this way.
I am starting to question if I should hold on to some of my very large bulky pieces, like my tarpaper pieces, in hopes of them becoming part of a collection or if I should let go? The tarpaper pieces for example, can be rolled; their materials are very forgiving, but the industrial-strength glue that I use is no longer as good as it was eight years ago and often if I unwrap a large piece to reinstall, I have to re-glue it which is essentially rebuilding it. So making large installation work creates all these issues that for me really need to be considered.
MICHAEL: Well, you already gave those materials a longer life than they would've had. What did you learn about art and life as a result of having been ill and confined to bed? Illness is never pleasant.
SUZAN: So true Michael, I gave the materials a longer life. What I learned about art and life as a result of being bed-bound was that art kept me spiritually, emotionally and physically engaged and actually allowed me to forget my pain while working. It was the crux of my joy. By saying yes to opportunities that came my way instead of feeling doubt about my ability to make the work, I established challenges for myself that in the end, benefited my work, growing and pushing it to the next level. Now that I am well again, I understand that making art must always take precedence in my life. I cannot back-burner it for survival sake like I have in the past.
MICHAEL: What do you think about the art world/art market today and how they function? We celebrate dead, famous artists and practically ignore poor, struggling, living ones.
SUZAN: Such a loaded question. I have lots to say, but will keep it to a minimum. I like that many artists are opening up their own gallery spaces and curating shows as well as starting group collectives and blogging and writing from an artist’s perspective as you do here Michael. I see this as artists taking back the art world, changing the criteria, developing new ground, pushing out of the traditional box. I love this aspect and I think it's really important that the art world remain visionary and not limited or locked in by short lived trends which it tends to do.
I think that there is too much emphasis on art fairs as the new solo launching ground of artist’s careers. I may be wrong, but it seems to be becoming a main mode of survival and yet galleries need to pay the rent.
Here’s my wish list for the art world: I wish for more mid-career and older artists being acknowledged, shown and collected by the art world. I can't tell you how many artists I know who’ve been working 20-70 years, totally committed to their art practice and they make powerful work that remains current, but gets overlooked. I wish for the art world to create affordable housing for artists, especially for aging artists who have no surviving families. I wish for more federal funding for the arts with much of it going into artist pockets instead of organizational support alone where good intentions get lost with few funds trickling down to the artists in need.
I wish for less elitism and more sharing of spirit and opportunity. I wish for more generosity and that publicly, the arts be understood as an intellectual and spiritual necessity that advances culture.
MICHAEL: Finally Suzan, What do you want people to take away after experiencing your work? Also, what's the point of art anyway? So many people think contemporary art is silly and useless.
SUZAN: I hope people will become exhilarated and captivated by my work. I hope that it will create a kinesthetic response that makes visible connections to forms and their own relationship to them, and to the systems that shape their lives (both natural and otherwise). There are only a few works of art that as a child, I take away a visual memory of. These works, including a sculpture by Lucas Samaras made of mirrors that you could climb in and view yourself into infinity, impacted the way I see and experience the world. As a result, optical aspects such as shadow and dimension have become a big part of the work I make. So I suppose I could hope for this, for others to remember a piece of mine that might change or challenge their thinking. This would be the ultimate compliment.
You ask what's the point of art and that people think contemporary art is silly and useless? I think that as long as our culture does not value teaching art appreciation from elementary school on up, then sadly, people grow up uneducated about what art can be and therefore threatened by what they don't understand. Often, they intuitively know what something might be about, but are fearful of being wrong or misunderstood as a visual interloper. This is sad. As an educator, I try to encourage free thought. With a little bit of probing, people can discover that the visual arts can be as enriching as a walk in the woods or a swim in coral reefs or listening to a song or reading a book - that art can touch the soul.
MICHAEL: Nicely said. Thanks Suzan. This has been great.
SUZAN: Michael, I have so enjoyed your questions. Thank you for inviting me to become part of your passionate art advocacy and legacy. It has been most enriching.
Check out Suzan and her work at www.suzanshutan.com.