A selected group exhibition of site-specific work in a variety of media, created for the private rooms and public spaces of the Great Eastern Hotel, London in conjunction with CAN.05 Contemporary Art Norwich.
The first thing that strikes you about Susan Gunn’s abstract paintings is their physicality. Most are larger and heavier than their spectator. This monumentality provokes the awe and respect associated with large steel sculptures. Mostly monochrome, they appear dense at first, a single ground, until you get closer and textures start to play with light and multiply before you.
Although her two works in the Great Eastern Hotel are made using the same process, they are quite different. The first, Sacro Terra is an almost square, smooth liniment white painting, incorporating a smaller rectangle with a rough, broken surface inside it, highlighting Gunn’s method and the oppositions she constructs. While the ‘surround’ is highly polished and reflective, the rectangle within is fissured, like an aerial image of a landscape in drought, a spectacular aridity in macro view or the micro view of a lived-in, creased face. In a five-star hotel where appearances count, the painting acts as a mirror, asking how we judge other people, reading their age, class, experience of sorrow or happiness in the frame of their face. The cracked landscape is at once distant and intimate, recalling the craquelure of an Old Master, cherished through time, or a lunar landscape, uninhabited yet imbued with dramatic presence. There is a sense of haunting that emanates from the canvas, a mourning for fresh-faced youth, or the earth unspoilt by the destructiveness of human industrialisation.
The painting is a living memorial – the cracking suggests time passing, flaws exposed, honesty delivered and the possibility of further cracking, while the smooth-surfaced section is both worn and loved, as revered as a marble altarpiece or a tombstone, standing with a quiet solemnity. It’s the colour of pale flesh, of bone; giving it the physical presence of a body, an absent body memorialised by the smooth section and mourned by the troubled, pitted skin within it. Resilience meets decay in these two surfaces, each beautiful, each necessary to give the other resonance. Together they are a strong rebuttal of mortality. They argue with change, how to halt it, how to let it happen. Their matter wrestles with memory – if the memory is lost, so is the pain, but if the pain is lost there is nothing to remember the loss by. Thus the object of the pain becomes more unreal. Grief and acceptance rove over these surfaces, both a repetition and an undoing of it, repressing pain and digging it up again – eloquently creating universal understanding of a tragic loss.
This tussle between living and letting go of life, remembering and forgetting, pigment and ground, is fought out in the materiality of Gunn’s process. Firstly she covers the canvas with a traditional gesso ground – a mix of rabbit skin glue and whiting (a chalk substance mined from sedimentary rock). She allows this to dry and where most artists would then apply paint, Gunn prepares the surface again, either letting it crack or covering the cracks, sanding, waxing, rubbing the surface with a wet linen cloth. In a laborious physical process, she builds up layer upon layer of gesso, a facade that takes all her strength and incorporates cells of her skin and sweat. Gunn’s fluid, tactile interaction with the canvas invites a pre-verbal, poetic state to emerge that is raw, passionate and profound. The canvas is cared for like a precious, living, unfixed entity. It recalls all that is absorbed through touch, scents and intuition by an infant, until her works exude a powerful, nurturing aura commonly associated with the maternal. Here memory is held safe and cherished in the laundering and polishing ritual.
This recurring, inchoate surface becomes Gunn’s art, making the ground the fore, thus challenging the conventions of painting. She intervenes in the shifting ground in the debate about painting itself, not by gesture but by its erasure and by allowing the ground to accrue density and erupt into the gaps that language cannot accommodate. Referring back to work by artists like Malevich and Ryman, Gunn aligns herself as new modern. Her surfaces mirror our fear of disintegration, of the mask cracking, the self being betrayed. As Helene Cixious wrote of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector: “Classical narration is made of appearances, caught in codes…Rather than a narrative order, there is an organic order.” 1
Gunn’s second piece, Specto Specus (from the Latin specto, to look, and specus, a den or cavity), consists of two huge oblong panels layered with gesso, carmine pigment and wax which dominate the reception area of the hotel with their sumptuous, potent presence. Carmine, one of the reddest natural dyes, is obtained from the blood of the female cochineal beetle. This double painting is less about ageing than about life force, the blood that signifies, life, death, and the ability to sustain life. It immediately recalls the red leather of boardroom chairs and men-only clubs, but this red can’t be handled or used. Red also denotes passion, sex and excess and this deep dark shade sucks in the light around it, subverting the masculine corporate aesthetic of the foyer and its largely male, business body. The cracks across its surface are more linear, curvaceous, like traces of veins under the skin and the female form. While less about appearances, it’s also, like Sacro Terra, about what’s hidden – the emotions we curtail in public, the passion we learn to channel into a tame acceptance of the ordered social world. If this is a landscape, it is not drought, it’s flowing tributaries, undercutting the body politic with a pregnant sense of imminence, as if renewed life is about to emerge from this specus.
In both paintings there is a subtle tension between the golden section formalism of their geometry and the unruliness of the free-form cracking. They each balance control and abandon, deliberation and chance. This is not the frivolous feminine but the ferocious one, celebrating healing from trauma and taking up space, unapologetically, majestically.
1 Helene Cixious, foreword to ‘The Stream of Life’, Clarice Lispector, University of Minnesota Press, 1989, pp.ix
Essay by: Cherry Smyth
Exhibition publication produced by Commissions East and funded by Arts Council England, East.
ISBN: 0 9541447 1 6
‘As you leave reception and turn to go towards the lift, you pass between two huge canvases, one on each side. One is white, the other, a deep deep red. They seem casual. They are utterly arresting. The red is the red of cochineal blood – the canvas is savage, and rich and, in the rich reception, brilliantly shocking in its luxuriousness.’
‘The white canvas makes you stop and look at it closely. A gradation of wax and pigment on its surface suggests something seen from very far above, an old military bombardment aerial photograph, maybe – or is it something very, very small, seen through a microscope, a living form?
Are you witnessing the far away or the very close-up?
Landscape or microbe? The living or the dead? ‘
STAY Publication © COMMISSIONS EAST, THE ARTISTS, CHERRY SMYTH AND ALI SMITH . 2005