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The Beauty of Tragic Times: An Interview with Susanna Coffey

“You could stand on top of a building and see the parts, the ruin… you could feel the death.”

By Arts & Culture

The artist talks about her award-winning work and its relation to devastation and the individual

A series of paintings which were exhibited at Maya Polsky Gallery this past summer focused on the human cost of militarism and war.

In “Fall,” Susanna Coffey portrays herself wearing a backwards-turned baseball cap. She stands in front of a city being bombed. A raging fire glows orange, sparking smaller fires. Dark drips of paint angle down the canvas, deftly recreating falling flak. The figure’s blue eye-makeup is a stolen hue. It is the blue of the deceptively peaceful evening shadows. It is the blue of the columns of chemical smoke rising from the bombardment.

The tension of witnessing the attack is heightened by the fact that we are looking beyond a rigid face. This is a person who disregards the despoiling of the world behind her. Whether or not we can hear the screams in that distant city, we know that there are screams. Uncomfortably, we locate ourselves mirrored in Coffey’s proud and dispassionate stance.

It is no coincidence that many of Coffey’s works parallel the devastation of structures with the disintegration of the individual. Susanna Coffey’s origins make her a painter who innately understands the integrity and significance of place.

“My father was a construction worker on roads,” Coffey said. She believes that this early experience inspired her choice to become a painter.

“It’s the love of materiality and construction, because paintings are like fantasy constructions…I always knew I wanted to be an artist, from my very early years, and maybe it has to do with the making of things, being around when people were making roads and bridges and mountains and tunnels… It was amazing to watch the people who did things with their hands and machines. It was very rich and exciting.”

At the age of nine, Susanna Coffey recalls seeing the Willem DeKooning painting “Excavation.” Until that time Coffey says she had never seen “an image of energy.”

“Something about that [painting] merged with my love of the jazz music and it seemed true to me. The thing that I loved about the construction sites is that they were about matter and movement of matter. They weren’t images per se, like a horse or a duck; they were essentially abstract. I think children love realism, and for me realism was located in an explanation of the spatial phenomenon of energy—that life is, and children know that life moves and shifts and that there’s wind and water. Children know all of that and are fascinated by it. However, there are very few images that communicate that, because a picture of a stream doesn’t do what a stream does, but a De Kooning might.”

In her twenties, Coffey attended the University of Connecticut. “It was the seventies, the death of painting. Minimalism: Carl Andre and Donald Judd were very important and being written about. I liked that work very much,” states Coffey. But to her, the idea of using non-art materials for art was not new.

“The rusting Cor-ten steel and the fact that after a detonation, there’d be a pile of rocks the same size and shape of the hole. That is very beautiful—the proportions and the wearing away. I’d always seen the beauty in looking at the sky through culvert pipes. I thought, ‘what’s the big deal? It looks like art to me.’ It didn’t seem at all ground-breaking and I understand in retrospect that it was, but it wasn’t for me.”

“I entered the art world in this odd way, and then I chose to be a painter which was different than what was going around me at the time—it was a time a little bit like this time.” Coffey adds, “Painting dies all of the time.”

Yet if one were to judge by Coffey’s work, painting seems very much alive.

Much of Susanna Coffey’s surfaces have the quality of chiseled stone or exactingly poured cement. Contoured segments of color, each artfully bounded, are, in their aggregate, like the bricks in an exquisite wall.

“I paint a color and a shape in a location. Like some kind of idiosyncratic survey map [but] the image isn’t my working interest. It had to do with what kind of image I’m going after and the meaning.”

In her paintings Coffey employs her signature use of a centrally positioned foreground figure, an icon who is pivotal to our interpretation of all other elements portrayed. The face she illustrates for our scrutiny is most often her own.

In “Self Portrait (cast),” Coffey’s face is transformed by virtue of odd illumination into a guilefully leering mask. “My work is inspired by West African figurative sculpture and masking tradition,” she says. “To make an image of a human is in part to determine what it is to be human.”

Coffey says that she is “inspired by the idea of the head as a metaphor…a signifier that can express the way that we are psychological beings…beings of spiritual aspirations, we are creatures of history and lineage, we have a collective identity as a species, and we are animals. In each painting, I’m after the way that I might fit into or be closer to one or other of those things.”

Coffey’s exploration of facial expression and distortion is equal parts self-examination and self-sacrifice. As any spiritualist might, Susanna Coffey becomes the conduit. “I just let the work work on me. Whatever it wants, I’ll do.”

Consequently, her powers of observation penetrate many levels beyond the corporeal. Susanna Coffey’s recent paintings open a window into the beauty of tragic times.

In the work “Conveyance,” Coffey emerges, haggard and ghostly, from an atmospheric cloud of gray dust. The figure’s expression illustrates the overwhelming weariness and despair of the survivors of 9/11.

“My studio is very close to the World Trade Center in New York, and I was there when it happened. I was very fortunate that I wasn’t hurt.”

After the bombing Coffey did volunteer work, “like every other Type-A New Yorker.” She served as a bicycle messenger, as well as a coordinator for people who were looking for the remains of their loved ones.

“I was just having the first-hand experience which I intellectually understand to be true of many, many people of the world, that war is chaotic. You could stand on top of a building and see the parts, the ruin… you could feel the death.” By being unspecific about the location of the catastrophe, Coffey makes this a universally pertinent image; an event that can happen anywhere in the world.

Ultimately the experience of living through 9/11 comes full circle when viewed through the eyes of a builder’s daughter. Susanna remembers her father commenting about the erecting of the twin towers. “My dad would talk about the ‘I’ beams… he watched them brought into the city.

“Both of my parents were veterans of World War II.” Susanna’s father “joined when he was too young. He became a lieutenant [and] was in both theaters, in Asia and in Europe, and he was there on D-Day. My mother was a combat nurse in a jungle hospital on the Burma Road, so she saw unspeakable things. All the adults of my [parents’] generation, if they weren’t veterans, they were holocaust survivors, or they were Asian people who’d been incarcerated. They were people who were damaged by the war…there was really no victory, and there’s not a sense that you ever win, or that there’s a culmination or that it’s ever over…Everybody around me was traumatized by this period in time. It was very formative to me.”

In the painting titled “Self-portrait (Cassandra will),” Coffey seems to be presenting herself as a modern version of Aeschylus’ Cassandra, the visionary whose prophecies were cursed by Apollo to go unheeded. In the play Agamemnon, Cassandra, who has been abducted from the ashes of her vanquished homeland, sees the Furies roosting on the roof of her victorious captor’s home. She intuits images of the crime that her captor Agamemnon has perpetrated. Cassandra sees that Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia will earn him a violent death. As when she cautioned against allowing the Trojan horse into her city, Cassandra discerns that within the arrogance of the powerful is harbored their defeat.

Coffey’s expressive face, as painted in “Self-portrait (Cassandra will)” alludes to an unspecified and terrible realization. As is often the case in Coffey’s recent paintings, her figure could as easily be looking at us, her viewers, as she could be taking in a sight of the Trojan horse or the roosting Furies.

Positioned in the painting as if she were on a plane above the viewer she stares down in mute horror. If she is reviewing the crimes of war, then her appalled face indicates that she considers her viewer party to that conquest.

When Coffey made this painting, was she pondering the loss of so many Iraqi and American lives? Was she as horrified as Cassandra had been by the greed which motivates such an unprovoked and bloody attack?

Having foreseen the folly of the war on Iraq, Coffey herself “demonstrated and did all those things, but hardly anyone [else] did, and the war just went on as if it were a video game and was going to be over in six weeks, and it seemed clear that this wasn’t going to happen and that there would be many, many repercussions.”

“In the beginning of the war I was collecting all these images from the New York Times. I was just so disturbed by their beauty and I was so appalled by the coverage of the war, which was so ass-kissing, so really jingoistic. You knew how much suffering was going to happen on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqi people, everyone in that part of the world and everyone in this part of the world. War is like a pebble in a pond.”

In another work, “Embedded,” Coffey points to the ways that militarism is increasingly integral to our culture. Coffey portrays herself as a sexually ambiguous figure whose skin meshes in an almost snake-like way within a pattern of military camouflage. The subject’s hair is closely cropped and he/she stands at attention. A dark stripe of shadow bisects the subject, seeming to partially darken its vision.

By blurring these lines, Coffey forces upon the viewer a number of questions. The painting’s emphasis on hidden uniformity parallel America’s history of poorly hidden geopolitical agendas.

Coffey asserts that there is a corrupting influence on all who participate, even passively, in conquest. The image is perceivable as either militarized combatant or militarized civilian in order to depict the concept. As she puts it, “there is a culpability by presence and, regardless of one’s intentions, sometimes one is culpable.”

Coffey’s sense of “culpability by presence” began very early in life. “My mother was from Alabama and [we were] in a bus station there and I’d just learned how to read—I was like five or something—and I saw a fountain that said ‘colored,’ and of course colors are better than not colors for a child. I ran towards the fountain, and then I remember people grabbing me and pulling me back and I understood that something was wrong, that something was very fucked up and that there was some kind of evil logic involved with the words ‘white’ and ‘colored’ and these water fountains….”

Coffey asserts that “politics are not impersonal, because that’s the place about which we all have such strong feelings about how the world treats us. As artists wishing to make work that is political, we must rely on our capacity to relate difficult truths by employing the finest ‘building’ skills.

“Beauty is the thing that allows us to wrap our minds around even the worst.”

Biographical Information

F.H. Sellers Professor, Painting and Drawing, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

BFA magna cum laude, 1976,
University of Connecticut

MFA, 1982 Yale University

Recipient of The American Academy of
Arts and Letters Award

John Simon Guggenheim Memorial
Foundation Fellowship

Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award

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