Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Say hello to Susanna Bluhm

Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows
30” x 30”, Oil on Canvas, 2010

The majority of your work can be read as abstracted landscapes, based on specific yet altered places. Can you talk about the idea of “place” and how it influences your work?

I think I use landscape as a way to start paintings. With most painters, you can kind of tell if they treat their paintings as though they’re meant to be inhabited by figures or places. (For example, I’m thinking of painters I like: Nicholas Nyland’s paintings seem place-y, Gala Bent’s read as figurative, yours read as figurative.) I think there are a lot of formal and conceptual decisions that you make instinctively. I think I gravitate towards “place” because I personally feel very oriented by where I am physically. I’m also really interested in cues and symbols in landscapes that come to have meanings and associations of their own. A palm tree means something different than a fir tree.

Your name is perfume poured out; therefore the virgins love you
40” x 40”, Oil on Canvas, 2009

In 2009, you embarked on an ambitious multi-year painting series centered around the Bible's Song of Songs. I think it's a beautiful gesture for a gay artist to use a book from the Bible as a love letter to their wife and son. Do you view these paintings as a reclamation?

That’s an interesting choice of words. I just looked up reclamation and it comes from the Latin reclamare “cry out against.” By that definition, yes, I would say the series is a reclamation. I was raised Catholic and have lost some once-dear relatives over the gay marriage debate. For me, the Bible is tainted by Christians. Yet I’ve repeatedly come across the Song of Solomon in cultural references and have decided, loudly, that this part isn’t tainted.

With great delight I sat in her shadow, and her fruit was sweet to my taste
95” x 71”, Oil on Canvas, 2009

Song of Solomon is also one of the Bible's steamiest books. I love your quote, “It’s rather amusing that some Biblical scholars believe it is about God’s relationship to the Holy Land. In that case, God and the Holy Land should probably get a room.” How do the paintings and the poem relate?

The Song of Solomon is about love and sex and relationships, and the paintings are too. The text in the poem is explicit [“My beloved thrust his hand into the opening, and my inmost being yearned for him. I arose to open to my beloved, and my hands dripped with myrrh, my fingers with liquid myrrh, upon the handles of the bolt. I opened to my beloved, but my beloved had turned and was gone… I am faint with love.”], whereas the paintings are abstract. I’m not really interpreting the text so much as using it for my own purpose. The poem’s narrative describes a relationship between the female narrator and her lover from giddy romance to sex to anxiety to nightmares to marriage. My version has a similar arc. The first paintings in the series represent our young love and share the beginning of the poem’s aroused, verdant state. The second group of paintings represents new-relationship devotion and protectiveness [“Catch us the foxes, the little foxes, that ruin the vineyards—for our vineyards are in blossom.”], and the trying to get pregnant and anxious optimism after miscarriage. [“Arise my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.”]

Arise, my love, my fair one. Now the winter has past, the rain over and gone
50” x 50”, Oil on Canvas, 2010

What comes next in the series? How many paintings will there be when you’re done?

I’ve done eleven paintings so far and there will be forty in all. What comes next is the part of the poem that is the narrator’s nightmare. She dreams that she’s lost her love and she’s wandering the streets searching for him. My counterpart for the paintings will be abstract renderings of the medical complications I had during pregnancy and the early, traumatic birth of our son. It has been hard to start working on these. It was much easier to throw myself into the sunny landscapes of falling in love. I don’t usually have such specifically personal subject matter in my work. It still feels weird to talk about it, but it is so connected to what the paintings are about that I can’t talk about them without talking about it.

The Parade (Costa Rica Revisit: the Mary Parade 3)
24” x 48”, Oil on Canvas, 2006

It reminds me of Claire Cowie's show Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth. I wonder how you folks manage to paint nightmares and keep them from spilling off your paintings and into your real life?

Well, in my case the nightmare was my real life for a year and a half. But it was kind of like a nightmare in that I got to “wake up” and now everybody is healthy and fine. It was this really weird feeling of an alternate reality that doesn’t show up too often in my life now. Except that I just realized yesterday that my new studio has a grand view of the hospital where I was sick and my son spent his last trimester. I’ve also got a great view of a giant March of Dimes billboard right now. Ah, irony.

You Were A Soldier From The War, Waltzing Me All The Way Home
50” x 52”, Mixed media on paper, 2007

Can you talk about the connection between your series Waltzing Me all the Way Home and The 6ths song of the same name?

Yes I can! I didn’t know anyone in Seattle when I had a show of that work at Shift in 2007 so no one really asked about it and I am just dying to talk about it. It’s a series of drawings about my lifelong crush on Paris featuring clichéd nostalgia and tempered longings and a paranormal photographic experience in the Notre Dame. (I took a bunch of pictures there and ONE came out with colorful light beams darting around and hairy lavender wisps.) Doing the drawings, I worked abstractedly from photographs of my first trip there. It was everything I’d dreamed of (and more!—how often does that happen?) and it felt like I was home in a creepy, wonderful way. The song “Waltzing Me All the Way Home” was written by Stephin Merritt and sung by Odetta on the 6ths album. It’s a haunting, lilting, nostalgic song. (You were a soldier from the war, waltzing me all the way home. I'd never seen your kind before, your every word was a poem. Thank you for giving me reasons for living, more reasons than I'd ever known. Thank you for giving me new worlds to live in and waltzing me all the way home.) In an interview, Stephin Merritt talks about how Odetta interpreted the song as being about two black, gay soliders in WWII. I love that interpretation and used it as a sentimental (and admittedly melodramatic) tribute to the impossibility of my love for Paris as an American.

Gold Umbrella (Costa Rica Revisit: the Mary Parade 4)
24” x 48”, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 2006

You recently co-curated a show, Bloom & Collapse with Amanda Manitach. Was this your first time curating?

Yes it was my first time, but Amanda has had more experience curating at the Living Room. The whole process was really exciting. We had a lot of email exchanges that featured a lot of ALL CAPS and exclamation points. It was just fun figuring out how all of these great artists would work together and hearing about what people were working on. Pairing up artists to work collaboratively was really interesting; it was fun being the matchmakers. It was wonderful to have the space, the freedom -- and most importantly -- the community to experiment with.

On the Banks of the Spree
86” x 205”, Acrylic and Oil on Canvas, 2005

What have you got coming up in 2011?

I’m in the process of moving my studio to the old INS building (now INSCAPE). In September I’m doing a two-person show at SOIL with Cable Griffith. It will be a painting show about Islands.


Susanna Bluhm is a member of SOIL where her work is currently on view.


Unknown said...

Suzanna, I love your work. Joey, thanks for the smart interview. Seattle's a better place because of you both.

Dave Budd

Kip Deeds said...

I especially enjoyed "Arise, my love, my fair one. Now the winter has past, the rain over and gone"

I feel like I have been on that path.