Susan English, June 2016
"My work is inspired by light — the way it refracts in the wind on the surface of the Hudson, or is absorbed by the shadow of a building, or slices through venetian blinds. Observations of light in relation to objects and spaces are a pool from which I draw to create colors, atmospheres and surfaces in my abstract work. Landscapes condense into shapes of color for me: when I look at a mountain across the river I see it’s blue shadow as a separate solid, a discrete entity. I will try to precisely determine what that color is, it’s density, it’s timbre and how I would make and evoke this expression of light and mass. In her reflections on light in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard writes…
“I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam. … The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff”
The idea of putting oneself in the path of light - for a moment dissolving ego and self and becoming the thing that you are observing is a quality of porousness. In a time when our visual and sensual experiences are too often limited and flattened by screen engagement and when our planet is at risk of being destroyed by climate change – this kind of immersive experience is important to me.
The surface and color in these works is made by pouring layers of tinted polymer on panels. The poured polymer mimics nature: a layer of paint hardens like ice or mud – it’s thickness and viscosity impacting how the surface dries. The drawing in the paintings: collected areas of paint, cracks and coagulations, is the result of a delicate and flexible relationship between control and accident. I assemble the poured panels into horizontal or vertical sequences to create a narrative of color, space and light. The surfaces range from dull to glossy - either absorbing or reflecting the light, existing always in relationship to the light in the room or the position of the viewer. In this way the work relates to Light and Space artists such as James Turell and Robert Irwin, both artists whose work inspires me."
Susan English's most recent works are painted panels of color assembled into wide horizontal sequences. The surface is created by pouring multiple layers of tinted polymer, often upwards of 10-15 layers, giving the works a deep luminosity and visceral presence. In her working process she positions and re-positions the panels, continuing to pour and cut before arriving at a final order. The work is complete when a very particular relationship has been arrived at - one that creates a narrative of color, space and light. The surfaces range from dull to glossy - either absorbing or reflecting the light, responding always to the light in the room, so that although the relationships between the colors and panels are specific, they are also fluid. Carter Ratcliff, in his 2014 essay on English's work, wrote about the painting Blue, "With these tonal shifts as her theme, English plays a series of variations that evoke a particularly complex and engaging episode in the life of the color blue."
English refers to these works as Vertical Landscapes. The duality implied in the title refers to the horizontal orientation, which references landscape, and the fact that this horizontal strip is made with multiple vertical sections. The work can be taken in as a whole yet the divisions also create a progression that can, in a sense, be read. Ultimately, the viewer enters the work at any point of the progression thus conflating the idea of a beginning, middle and end. English is interested in how ends can be abrupt or fade; how beginnings can be startling or slow; and, perhaps most particularly, in the vastness of the middle.
English's ideas from the poured works translated into watercolor have resulted in vast transparent spaces structured by vertical bleeding lines. She makes these linear marks with a single direct stroke loading the brush with pigment and then continuing to layer color into these marks. The result is a kind of visceral saturation: a physical presence not ordinarily seen in this medium.
Susan English received an MFA in painting at Hunter College. She currently lives and works in the Hudson Valley.
Carter Ratcliff, 2014
Some of these panels are dark and absorbent. Others catch the light and modulate it with subtle interplays of color and tone. All her panels, even the most luminous, have the solid presence of palpable facts; and each painting's procession has an air of inevitability, like the events in the sort of narrative that advances confidently to a satisfying conclusion. These works possess, in a word, unity. Moreover, their unity has an origin - one could even say, an ancestry - for English's panels are up-to-the-moment descendants of the monochrome paintings that epitomize early modernism's ideal of unified form.
In 1915, Kasimir Malevich painted Black Square, following it three years later with Suprematist Composition White on White. In the following decade, Władysław Strzemiński painted all-white canvases under the banner of Unism. The British avant-gardist Ben Nicholson made white-on-white reliefs in the 1930s and two decades later, when Ad Reinhardt painted the first of his black canvases, the monochrome canvas had become a well-established option: a genre of abstract painting. English contributes to this history with the paintings in her Aequora: Poured series, several of which are on view here.
Malevich's Black Square presents a single, uninflected expanse of black. In Reinhardt's black paintings, there are always four shades of the prevailing hue, one in each of the four quadrants of the canvas. The image is thus tightly enclosed within the geometry of the rectangular surface. English, by contrast, opens that geometry to the allusions she produces by pouring paint over tilted surfaces. As she says in a statement from 2010, the flow and eventual solidification of her colors resembles that of water freezing to ice or mud hardening to stable ground. Yet there is nothing muddy about her imagery. Mixing pigment into a transparent acrylic medium, she shows us physical things interacting with the light that renders them visible. Following the modulations of hue across the surface of a painting in the Aequora series, we see light condensed into something almost tangible. Yet these panels also feel expansive, for their scale is infinitely flexible. Some of them look like vast portions of sky.
Despite her monochrome roots, English was never devoted to the stark oneness Strzemiński celebrated with the word "Unism." Perhaps she saw oneness as an ideal not to be cultivated but overcome. Monochrome appears in her paintings as a kind of memory, a premise left behind as its possibilities are realized - as, for example, pigment accumulates along the edge of a poured panel and darkens to the point where it almost seems as if a new color has emerged. Geographies of cracks and fissures give certain panels the feel of landscapes. Each panel is rife with implications and when English combines them into larger works, she multiplies their multiplicities. In addition, she creates a puzzle with "vertical landscape," a phrase that recurs often in the titles of her multi-paneled works. Why attach the word "vertical" to paintings that are so emphatically horizontal?
The answer lies in the buildups of pigment mentioned earlier. Reminders of the part gravity plays in the artist's method, these areas of intensified color appear first along the lower edges of her panels - then along the upper edges, as she rotates the panels one-hundred and eighty degrees for inclusion in the Aequora series. In the more recent, multi-paneled paintings, the pigment buildups run along the sides of the panels, for English rotates them by only ninety degrees before joining them together. Thus, horizontal reminders of her process become vertical markers in intricately inflected compositions; and they inspire echoes: vertical color-strips the artist adds after the original surfaces have dried. With monochrome as her premise, English has found her way to a style of abstraction rich with implication and alive with drama.
Blue, 2014, begins on an ambiguous note. The leftmost panel looks dark against the airily blue one just to its right, and yet it looks light in contrast to the blackish strip that comes next. With these tonal shifts as her theme, English plays a series of variations that evoke a particularly complex and engaging episode in the life of the color blue. Because that life is strictly visual, we make more sense of this painting by looking than by talking. Nonetheless, it is worth noting the impact of the two dark panels, their surfaces freighted with heavy streaks of pigment, that appear two-thirds of the way to the right. Coming after the flickering delicacy of earlier passages, they feel monumental - and possibly ominous. As the painting moves to its conclusion, lighter tones reappear. This reprise is optimistic and yet shadowed, perhaps, by the visually massive presence of the dark panels.
The danger built into English's multi-paneled paintings is that they will turn out to be too wide for their height: the center will sag. Yet this never happens. Whether we view these works quickly or at a slow, contemplative tempo, they are sustained by the cogency of their pictorial logic, the coherence of what I have been calling their narratives. Of course, a painting's panels are not words in a sentence. Nonetheless, we usually read them left to right. Reading them the other way, we find that coherence remains and everything else changes. As it happens, one of the artist's statements tells of walking through the woods on the same path, repeatedly, and then reversing her direction and seeing her surroundings with new eyes.
A moment comes, however, when metaphors of narrative direction and logical progression fall away. It's a moment anticipated by one of her titles: The middle is everywhere and everything, which suggests that, ultimately, English's paintings have no beginnings and no endings. Everything in them, everything they mean, is present simultaneously. For she has not simply rejected the obvious unity of the monochrome surface. Embracing that obviousness, she has induced it to generate unities of a more elusive - and more challenging - kind."