PAINT BY NUMBERS: SUZANNE MCCLELLAND
by Nancy Princenthal, Art in America, 2014
The weather is heavy in Suzanne McClelland's new paintings, where paint surges, lines whip and skid, and fragmentary letters and numbers collapse, inflate and slam into each other, hard. Words have a longstanding place in McClelland's work, often formed in a way that links their visible shape to their voiced sound, and to their origin in breath and body. Recently, the artist has shifted her attention from the link between spoken and written language to the juncture between letters and numbers. But as before, multitudes of ideas race through these images at speed. The works' range of social and cultural observation is matched by an extravagantly free dispersal of mediums across a variety of supports. Painting, pouring, dripping, splattering, writing and drawing, McClelland produces surfaces that are variously rococo, catastrophic, sparkly and black as dried blood.
Included in her show at Team Gallery this fall were three examples from a new series of paintings titled "Ideal Proportions" (2013), all incorporating lists of measurements, in inches. As sketchily painted words indicate, they are the circumferences of arms, chest, waist, thighs and calvesâ€”specifically, though this is not spelled out in the paintings, those of professional bodybuilders. The 7-by-12-foot diptych Phil "The Gift" and Jay "Cuts," for example, features statistics for the current competitors Phil Heath and Jay Cutler. In the left panel, a column of numbers in flaming pink soars up toward the right, the names of body parts they measure unfurling alongside like a banner. To the left is a congealed pool of queasily colorless polymer medium; McClelland is partial to off-label uses of paint's components. In this diptych's opposing panel, a list of numbers, in black, drops down a gully of marbled jade-green; above it is a cheery burst of small painted gold bubbles. For these works, McClelland has used portrait linen, its fine thread and tight weave producing a hard, smooth surface on which fluids tend to float and dry pigments scatter; among the other mediums in play are gesso, oil paint and charcoal.
In Frank "The Chemist," what looks like a spray of coal dust appears below a tumble of numbers, these the measurements of bodybuilder Frank Zane. A handful of small, irregular, black-rimmed circles that evoke bullet holes are scattered here and there, discreetly sinister. More benign are faint numerals seemingly scratched into a puddle of polymer medium, an evocation of finger painting that brings the term "digital artwork" to mind. Reading puns into this work is, in fact, welcomed by McClelland, who acknowledges that the "Ideal Proportions" series constitutes a form of figure drawing, with "figure" meant to be read at least two ways.1 She points out, too, that in bodybuilding competitionsâ€”which involve flexing limbs and striking poses, not lifting weightsâ€”contestants are judged by their graceful transitions from one position to the next, and, notably, by their muscles' definition and form, the latter criteria also applicable to traditional figure painting (which McClelland studied as an undergraduate, at the University of Michigan).
by Barry Schwabsky, BOMB Magazine
â€śAn artist who is trying to make paint do things it hasnâ€™t done beforeâ€ťâ€”thatâ€™s the way Roberta Smith described Suzanne McClelland when she burst onto the New York scene 20 years ago. The critic had put her finger on something that was instantly clear to a lot of us. It was around that time that I began a conversation with McClelland that continues to this day. Over the ensuing decades Iâ€™ve seen her not only succeed in making paint do unprecedented things, but also continue to experimentâ€”at times dismantling her own accomplishments to find out how she could continue to paint otherwise. Not that there havenâ€™t been constants. For one thing, her work has always involved language. But unlike almost any painter you can think of who uses wordsâ€”whether the visual reference is print, as with Richard Prince, or handwriting, as with Cy Twombly or Julian Schnabelâ€”McClelland is concerned not only with the visual and semantic aspects of language but also, just as much, with its acoustic form. She aims to capture its resonances and overtones, the wake it leaves in the air when a phrase has just been whispered under someoneâ€™s breath, or tossed in passing to someone walking the other way, or yelled from one room to another. When youâ€™ve had a long, ongoing conversation with someone, a lot of the dialogue takes place in between the wordsâ€”in the spacings and shadings of the sculpted pauses. Things are communicated without quite being said. So when we caught up this late summer as McClelland was preparing for her fall exhibition at Sue Scott Gallery in New York, it was a refreshing change to sit down togetherâ€”with an MP3 recorder, a couple of glasses of wine, and a sound track of Long Island crickets and tree frogsâ€”to try to fill in some of the implications usually left hanging between words.
Barry Schwabsky Letâ€™s start at the beginning of our story, which for me is when I saw your My Pleasure painting at the Wolff Gallery. When was that?
Suzanne Mcclelland In the fall of 1990.
BS I remember fantasizing with the painter David Humphrey about how we could buy the painting together and share it by taking turns and each having it six months at a time. We had a long talk about whether it was a masculine or feminine painting, and it seemed to leave us in the air about that.
SM I donâ€™t know what feminine and masculine are, really. Do you?
BS Who does?
SM To me, the feminine can be very physical, at times aggressive, even bombasticâ€”some qualities that people associate with masculine. So I get confused about what people mean by it.