Curator Statement - Joan Backes
Vault Series: Susanna Coffey explores the many facets of the artist's ongoing body of work. While viewers will undoubtedly be familiar with her self-portraits, Coffey also addresses themes of war, still life and plein air landscape often painted at night. This exhibition recognizes how Coffey continually revisits traditional subjects in order to discover new meanings in her work.
Painterly and luminous, these intimately sized self-portraits address androgyny and the gendered image. They form a series in which we can see the many different appearances of just one person. Sometimes she is wearing a baseball cap, while in other canvasses she is seen just above the surface of a pond or in front of a battle. There are hats, scarves and turbans, but never do we see much of her hair. Because of this, and that the figure is only seen from the shoulders up, it is unclear which gender we are viewing. There is something mask-like about these portraits. Individuality is in question.
Coffey often uses photos from news media and from well-known paintings and projects them onto the wall behind her mirror. With this approach she is able to place the figure in these various worlds of her choosing.
Spanish painters such as Goya and Zurbaran have been major influences throughout her career. Alberto Giacometti figures strongly as well. Both his sculpture and his painting are related to her method of working. Giacometti constantly edited and scraped away a day's work, never quite satisfied with his results. Coffey also scrapes, sands, and then adds again onto her surface in her effort to make it right.
Included in this exhibition is a portrait of Coffey's father, Edwin Coffey. Along with this work is a painting of the artist seen with a backdrop of war shown through the yellow and red colors of fire. We see military fighters at the bottom of the painting and fire and explosion throughout. Mr. Coffey saw hard duty in WWII and this painter's concern with the dilemma and tragedy that is war began long before her artistic career.
Coffey grew up in the country and often returns to her Connecticut home where she can observe and embrace nature as she does in her landscape paintings. Her flower paintings are elegiac with the blossoms laid down horizontally and flat, not in a vase. This series began in her TriBeCa studio during fall 2001. They are about the passing of the beautiful, as she states, "I am trying to make beauty from beauty."
Artist Statement - Susanna Coffey
When Joan Backes, the Curator of Vault Series at The New Bedford Museum contacted me about exhibiting my paintings there, I was very interested in doing so. Your city has long held an important place in my imagination. New Bedford in the 1840's was home to two of America's most influential artists, the writer Herman Melville and the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. Both are known for works that reveal a human consciousness that is inextricably merged with the "natural" world. According to this Transcendentalist vision each of us is bound in ongoing and dynamic interchange with the surrounding earth, water and air. I am one of many artists whose work is deeply influenced by this way of seeing, by these two sons of New Bedford. As a painter, Ryder has been an early and consistent source of inspiration. The powerful abstractness of his figurative paintings shows me that a "realistic" image is not enough. One must see how an image is placed on the rectangle of the canvas and how the paint itself appears in order to fully access an authentic iteration of that image. Melville, the writer challenged me to look closely and hard at the world and it's creatures. His ability to impart his perceptions in a clear and accessible language challenged me to do the same. More than anything, reading Melville has helped me throughout those many "dark drizzly Novembers in my soul" that are familiar to any mature artist. I am so pleased to be a part of this exhibition series.
A few words about the paintings in this exhibition: While the portraits are focused on individual faces, the landscape elements that surround the figure provide essential clues about her or his interiority. Without clouds or foliage, without a specific proportion of figure to ground, without a sense of light or dark, there could be no feeling to these figures. The night paintings also seek to evoke not only the appearance of a place but also the way it can feel to see in the dark, to be alone in it looking at the colors of night. The flower paintings are detailed and intimate arrangements of a single species. These careful arrangements of wild plants are meant to suggest a "letter from the world", a moment of formalized nature. Although the blossoms are cut and becoming dry, these paintings preserve something of their last vivid coloration and patterning.