Linda Leslie Brown Interviews Susan Still Scott: Some Questions About “Righteous Ordinary”

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.

Hollow Bunny
Susan Still Scott, Hollow Bunny, installation view, 2013

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.

Cimabue, Crucifixion, San Croce, Florence, 1288

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.

Duccio, Altarpiece Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 1318

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…

Fra Angelico, Annunciation, monk’s cell, San Marco, Florence, 1436–45
Baptistry Doors
Ghiberti, North Doors of the Florence Baptistry, finished 1452

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.

Susan Still Scott, Greetings, 2013

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?

This is Paddlehead
Susan Still Scott, This is Paddle Head, 2013

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?

Triumph of Geometry
Susan Still Scott, The Triumph of Geometry, views from each side, 2013 

LLB: Right. It seems we all have adapted to the circumstantial environments of our lives with various kinds of “handles.” 

Karen Meninno: Sculpture Remix and Robert Maloney: Points of Intersection

 On a recent rainy Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting and considering again the current exhibits – Karen Meninno in the Main Gallery and Robert Maloney in the Center Gallery. These exhibits and Susan Scott’s show Righteous Ordinary are up through April 30 at the Kingston Gallery.

Inspired by architecture and a recent trip to Rome, Karen Meninno’s work, which gestated as small sculptural elements, has evolved to digital wall coverings, displayed as scrolls of almost hallucinatory endless patterns. At first you don’t know what you are looking at – highly decorative, jewel-like images that reflect and mirror themselves. Totems of repetition, shape and colors evocative of another culture, they become both a hybrid and a translation, from sculptural objects to repeated patterns of pure delight. Her work resonates with a strong trend in Europe and here in the States of artists working in a variety of mediums who are creating wallpaper as part of their practice. She is aware of and inspired by many of them, like Kiki Smith, who work with Studio Printworks in New York. The artist seems poised to take orders!

Robert Maloney is also interested in the city, and takes us on a wonderful ride in a postindustrial world. His pieces straddle the line between structures being torn down and those being erected, as well as the elements of modern life that go unnoticed. A recent article in the New York Times, The Poetry in the Ruins of New York speaks to Maloney’s eye and his interest in this subject, and also alerts us to what is unseen. His wall of prints of repeated images push the medium, and explore a place, which becomes, through the treatment of the materials themselves, something new and knowable. A highlight of the exhibit is one of the small evocative sculptures, situated in a high corner, attached to the ceiling, which further explores the edges and disregarded parts of our urban environment.  These seem to be an especially strong new direction for the artist, and one that this viewer hopes he continues to follow, bringing his viewers with him.