Susan Still Scott’s show “Righteous Ordinary” is on view in the Members’ Gallery during the month of April, 2013. Recently, I interviewed her by phone and email to try to enrich my understanding of this intriguing body of work.
— Linda L. Brown
LLB: I am interested in the show title Righteous Ordinary as an entry into the work. How does the word “Righteous” inform, nuance, support or contradict the term “Ordinary”?
SSS: Righteous Ordinary is meant to be a contradiction of sorts in the way that opposing elements provide friction. Though really the two words don’t negate each other in any way. They are just an uncommon pair. Most of my titles are free associations. I try not to overthink them. They’re not literal. I go by how they sound and how they feel. I keep running lists of words that occur to me when I’m working. If you look at the walls in my studio, there are little words in pencil around the room. When it’s time to do a show, I go around and look for the right combinations of words for titles. It works for me because this way the words have already been there for some time, part of a longer, larger stream of consciousness, that’s part of the space of my studio. In this case, Righteous was a word used over and over again in a novel I was reading by Cheryl Strayed. She used it in a sympathetic way meaning that something simply had a right to be, that it was natural and good, without pomp or ceremony or ego. It just was as it should be and had every right to be. It was not to be dismissed or passed over lightly. Ordinary happens all the time, but is no less important than anything else. My work is made out of ordinary art materials, ordinary found objects and materials. I use things that seem to me full of possibility and that refer, literally or obliquely, to some kind of function or purpose that I can imagine using in a painting.
LLB: Do you consider these works to be paintings or “paint things”?
SSS: My work has been called constructed paintings and painted sculptures. I don’t really think about what to call them. My background is painting. I feel I look at things in a way that is centered around image — how we are looking at something. The time I spent in Italy seeing and studying the work of the earliest Renaissance painters in person was formational in ways I don’t think I realized then. All of those paintings were intended for specific situations, whether it was an altarpiece panel, the focal point of a chapel, or a small devotional piece. Cimabue’s Crucifixion at San Croce in Florence taught me how powerful a work of art can be — not in the religious sense — I’m not Catholic. It’s a massive shaped panel suspended from the ceiling alone, in it’s own space, far from the wall that serves as its backdrop. It’s a painting and an object with a terrific presence.
At the Boston Museum of Fine Arts there’s a Duccio — a portable tabletop size altarpiece. The panels have hinges so they close and they’re painted on both sides. The center panel contains stacked and layered space balanced beautifully with the absolute flatness of gold leaf. This panel’s frame is painted pictorially with a differently scaled reality above. There’s a distinction between how the central and peripheral images are meant to be read; they have different meanings.
The Fra Angelicos in the monks’ cells in San Marco in Florence have everything to do with placement and proximity to the viewer and they are sublimely integrated into the architecture of the monastery. This art is intended to be instructional. A lot of it is meant to be contemplated for hours, in silence. In contrast, on a public level, a masterpiece and an exquisite example of drawing and sculpture combined, is Ghiberti’s North Doors on the Florence Baptistry, dubbed the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo. The doors tower above the people looking at them. The perspective, scale and surface take that into account. These artists formed our idea of what Western art is. They had no trouble straddling a two-dimensional/three-dimensional divide because for them it wasn’t there. I think for them it was a continuum — flat space, deep space and our space. I absorbed all of this early on in my education, and I believe it had a lot to do with how I look at all the other art I have learned about since. I still love this work, especially the Cimabue…
LLB: The rational, the emotive, the relational all seem to have a place within your work. How do you balance these modes of address to your viewers? Do you consider one to be more important than the others in this work?
SSS: I like that you see multiple aspects. My work does contain the each of qualities you mention, but when I’m working on them I’m not thinking in terms of emphasizing one more than another. It’s more like an orchestration of relationships between the materials and between myself and the whole of the piece. I’m always trying to learn new ways to work that either encourage unexpected situations or lead to results I couldn’t predict. I like to be in a state where I’m not sure what my next move will be. It may be a rational response to a practical issue, like “how is this thing going to stay on the wall?” but the solution has to consider to the rest of the painting overall. That’s the wholeness of the piece.
A singular work of art has all of its aspects working together. It may not necessarily be harmonious, but it can’t be devoid of an overall sense of what it is. Most of my pieces are problematic, compromised in some way — but the idea is to work with that. Maybe that has something to do with the careful consideration that goes into each piece, because it all matters, down from the overall form, tonality, texture and timing down to something that may seem inconsequential, like a bit of colored thread hanging off the side.
LLB: Issues of presentation seem to be highlighted in this body of work. The way each piece relates to the wall or its support seems crucial to its personality and meaning. What is it about this relationship that is so interesting to you?
SSS: I did play more with presentation with this work than I have before. It seemed like a natural extension of the piece out into the space of the gallery. In terms of art history, images have been coming out of their frames for some time now — canvas from its support, sculpture from its pedestal… I’m not pushing the idea further as much as I feel I’m re-enacting it with some of these pieces. It may be a way to imbue strictly formal abstraction an element of narrative. I want people to wonder how did the painting get this way?
LLB: it seems as if Necessity in an evolutionary sense has become issue for you- the work bears traces of your responses to circumstances, and of solving problems.
SSS: It’s a kind of acknowledgment, an acceptance of the circumstances at hand. I want to explore this idea more — the idea of one’s response to the conditions of reality. For instance, one piece has a metal handle on the back that is kind of awkward. It appears that the work has “evolved” this handle. Or maybe it was forced onto it. I like finding humor in the absurdity of our habits and assumptions-why do we do things the way we do?
LLB: Right. It seems we all have adapted to the circumstantial environments of our lives with various kinds of “handles.”