About this time last year Becky Suss’s first solo show was set to open at the ICA in Philadelphia. Upon entering the room, one felt a curious sense of abandonment; this is because there are no figures in the all too human spaces Suss gives us. The expansive bare walls of the Eleanor Biddle Lloyd Gallery were the perfect setting for her large scale work. Some paintings are as big as seven by nine feet installed alongside smaller still lives consisting of ceramic vases and stacked books placed neatly on the floor. The show has long since closed but the impression it left with me remains.
This was my first visit to the ICA but as it turns out the timing was fortunate. While I was getting to know Philadelphia’s art institutions better I was also thinking a lot about the role of memory and trace in my own work. Suss paints flat surfaces using vibrantly colored patterns to inject an element of play between interior and exterior spaces. The palm print bedspread and fern like wallpaper are treated in much the same way as a garden view. The mid-century modern rooms feel familiar. They are both generic and specific enough to give the viewer that haunting sense of déjà vu. Like the eerily deserted airport terminals of the Langoliers, Suss’s rooms seem frozen in time. Later that day I left the ICA, went home and began to write a blog entry (a blog entry that I never completed).
Finally summer at PAFA rolled around and in yet another spot of good luck Becky Suss turned out to be a visiting artist. During her talk she opened up about the process she uses to build an image placing the work in an even richer context. As she puts it, “I always flatten, I always pattern, I always stack.” One of the reasons her paintings feel both personal and generically “of a moment” is because she uses family keepsakes in combination with research documents to build an image.
The body of work she presented at the ICA began with the death of her grandfather, who she described as, “the last of a generation.” Surrounded by his books she saw his possessions as artifacts, only, some of them were missing. As Suss moved through the presentation and the slides progressed you could see her work shift away from strict adherence to reality. Embracing elements of the imagination she began to construct spaces that “felt” true, inserting objects her grandparents “might” have owned. She finished the talk with two paintings completed after the conclusion of her show at the ICA. These included a fictional bathroom with teal color tiles and an apartment reminiscent of one remembered from childhood.
Suss’s works are unabashedly nostalgic. She is mining her own family history and combining it with plausible elements of fiction in order to reveal things concealed by time. What can we learn from the intersection between memory and imagination? The more we understand about the way humans form memories, the more we understand their changeable nature.
By Liz Ayerle
Suss will be speaking again at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts this coming December. Click here for more details.
Click here to listen to a radio lab on memory loved by both Becky Suss and post author Liz Ayerle