Susan Klein

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SUSAN KLEIN

Artist-in-Residence

 
 

About the Artist

 
 

Susan is a visual artist based in Charleston, South Carolina.

 
 
 
 

INTERVIEW

with D. K. Broderick, June 2018

Your work has developed out of painting and is currently moving more towards sculpture, specifically ceramics. How has your thought process shifted with the change in materials and production methods?

I've always had difficulty thinking in pictures, so painting for me has been about object and surface. For a long time I was making sculptures and using them as still-life elements in my paintings. I made representational paintings that looked completely abstract because of the source materials. In my production of imagery, sculpture had played a supporting role. During graduate school I made a bit of sculpture, though. It's been an ongoing interest and, at this point in my life, I've relaxed a little and no longer feel a need to produce only paintings — to fight to make a picture. I've let go of that and it has really opened up my practice.


You often look to artifacts of the past for inspiration. What draws you to these cultural objects (circulating in museum collections) and how do they inform the whimsical work that you make in the present?

You can look at an object in a museum, like a painted Mayan ceramic vessel, and it wasn't necessarily thought of as big "A" art when it was made. It was crafted for a specific purpose and decorated accordingly. Its placement in a museum also casts it as a placeholder for the past and a container for the histories of a particular people and place. I think of object making, whether it's painting or sculpture, in that way. It allows one to capture time, becoming a placeholder for the time in which it was made. It's amazing to think about how something so still and concrete can carry all this motion and time in it. When I use “pop” references in the objects they definitely take on a more playful spirit.


What are some of the things you're working on now that bring together cultural artifacts and pop culture?

Last fall, I made a piece called “Offering.” This work consists of 15 painted ceramic phallus finger figures. Displayed on a large triangle floating wall, they reference votive objects and altars. The colors and shapes relate to current design trends — making the work act like an artifact of the present.

The things I'm producing right now deal with some of the same concepts. I'm making objects in which the touch and gesture of the hand are important. I like to work with a symbol system taken from artifacts, religious objects, spiritual traditions, the history of abstraction, and vernacular culture. At the moment I'm thinking about different personifications of rainbows, a sad rainbow, a huddled rainbow, an empty rainbow, an emoji rainbow, etc.

I guess my interest in artifacts and my interest in pop culture are related through their position as opposites. Rainbow stuff is so cheesy and it's such a silly symbol, yet the symbol is used in New Age imagery as well as biblical imagery. And a rainbow in real life is always beautiful. Perhaps I don’t see these things as opposites after all — the pop culture of the past becomes artifact.


Humor seems to be significant to your practice. What role does irreverence play in your production of pop-inspired objects that casually appropriate motifs and forms from various cultural traditions and artifacts?

I certainly respect the importance of these cultural traditions but I also question systems of power and hierarchy. So, yeah there's definitely irreverence at play in my work.


Do the objects that you produce — irreverent or not — hold any power for you?

Yes. I made this one piece recently, it was a big painting piece with some sculptural components on it. It sat on a stepped pyramid form that was covered in purple glitter. And it was such a ridiculously silly piece but it really was a painting alter to me. I named it "Alter to Making and Daydreaming" because that's the importance that these objects hold. Things that don't have quantifiable reasons to exist, measurable outcomes, and are not logical in that way seem vital in an age of STEM education, standardized tests, and a national economy that is based on unending growth. Daydreaming is a crucial aspect of humanity as are all processes and things that don't have a use.

Artists spend a lot of time defending their practices when, in reality, the act of making doesn't need to be defended at all. As I've gotten older I've let go of feeling like I have to defend my practice. I don't necessarily feel like work has to be important for a specific social or political reason. I've always felt guilty about my work in a certain sense. Like, "I'm a feminist but my work doesn't directly engage with the same concerns, that's a problem." I'm easing up on this type of thinking and it's gotten easier to accept with age. Imagination is of value.

 
 

Artists spend a lot of time defending their practices when, in reality, the act of making doesn’t need to be defended at all. As I’ve gotten older I’ve let go of feeling like I have to defend my practice.
— Susan Klein
 
 
 
 

Being “something” certainly doesn’t mean one has to make work about that “something.” It's fascinating that, in your own experience, you link this realization to the process of aging and the perspectives that may or may not come with it.

While you've been talking about your work I've been noticing your tattoos. Having never seen your work, your tattoos resonate with a lot of what you've been saying. Would you like to speak about this connection at all, are the two — your work and your tattoos — related in anyway?

I got my first tattoo later in life — I was 35. I felt like I could not commit to an image on my body. I don't know if it was just getting older and feeling like I finally knew myself as an artist and a person, but whatever the reason was, once I got the first one the rest followed quickly. The tattoos always come after the work. This is of a metal gate that's in Berlin. I've used the pattern in many paintings and forms. The summer that I got this tattoo was a turning point in my practice. It's when I started integrate found objects into the work. This other tattoo is of a sculpture I made. And this one has that rainbow imagery that we were discussing a bit earlier. This shape occurs a lot in my work. And this one — I mean, I don't know. Is having tattoos of the art you've made just the most intense form of egoism imaginable? [Laughs]


Sure, tattoos can take the form of egotistical ornamentation but they can also serve important functions in processes of ritual and embodiment. It seems like the process of you getting tattoos related to your work is especially significant given that your work is about producing your own subjective rituals and relics — playful or not.

Returning to an earlier conversation around "playful spirits," why is it important for you to hold a space for play in your practice, and how has the space grown overtime?

Sadness has humor in it and humor has sadness — emotions are complex. If I couldn't play or I didn't have that sense of humor about art and about myself and about humanity in general, I think I would just be depressed all the time. I'm not an optimistic person. I've chosen to not have children because I don't feel like procreating is a good idea and that's how pessimistic I feel about how things are going. Like, I don't wanna make another consumer that lives in an environmental wasteland and drinks toxic breast milk. Art making is a reminder to me of the reasons that I want to be alive. If play and humor aren't a part of those reasons, I don't know what is.

Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to be an artist, and for whatever reason I've always held painting in super high esteem. So for me working with the materials of a discipline that I was not trained in has allowed me to make up my own rules. That is complicated for me because I teach painting and value technical craft. I like to hope that I also encourage students to play and experiment, though! Working with ceramics has helped me think about my painting differently. I've loosened up and let go of my rigidity. It's helped me be more irreverent while maintaining my own practice and being a part of academia. I really don't like systems and hierarchies.


Yeah, there are a lot of people in academia that feel that way.

[Laughs]


Do you ever collaborate on projects with your students?

That's so funny you ask, because a student I stayed in contact with recently reached out to me and asked if I'd ever wanna do a collaboration. And I said, "Sure!" So she just sent me a box of drawings in the mail. I'm about to start working on them. Half of the drawings are started and half of them are blank. I'll work on the ones she started and start the ones that are blank. Once I'm done I'll send them back to her. I think her work is amazing. Hopefully it becomes an ongoing exchange, but we'll see where it goes.

 
 

Art making is a reminder to me of the reasons that I want to be alive. If play and humor aren’t a part of those reasons, I don’t know what is.
— Susan Klein
 
 
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Photos by Walker Esner