I explore painting as an articulate, sensual instrument of visual thinking rather than of narrative, conceptual illustration, or critique.  No stories, no politics, no theory. Painting as possibility rather than a stance; not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.
 
I consider my paintings to be the material analogs of my pre-verbal perception, and I want them to be as clear as possible, in keeping with painting’s unique capacity for mute precision.  Beyond merely recording the “white noise” of perceptual experience, I wish to capture the vitality and complexity of the moment at which perception begins to cohere, rendering it in lucid visual structures where gesture and geometry join color and light in a dynamic equilibrium of harmony and dissonance. 
 
For nearly 20 years, I’ve been painting from digital montages created from photo-fragments of my own previous work.  The results resemble a gamut of loosely related genealogies.  In tandem with this particular painting process, I produce works -- collages, paintings, and mixed media on paper -- that are independent of digital intervention.  Both registers engage chance and artifice as equal players in a restless process of filtering that keeps my work energized while satisfying a need for structure and the rigors of problem-solving. The essence of the work is renewal via the recycling of energy and identity from one context to another, conveying, I hope, a sense of live matter in constant flux.
 
 
 

Below is text and an interview from the catalog of my 2018 solo show, titled "Impure Situation(s)".  For the French translation of this text and images from this show, as well images and text from previous shows, see the text links in the "Exhibition Images" gallery:  https://www.susancantrickart.com/exhibition-images

 
Sometimes I see it and then paint it.  Other times I paint it and then see it.  Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither.”
                                                                                                                                                         Jasper Johns
 
Thank you, Jasper Johns, for providing such a straightforward path into the painter’s process.
Though I myself would never have put it that way, Johns’ statement is one of the most articulate descriptions of the painter’s process that I’ve encountered so far.  Whether or not one adheres exactly or always to both situations, one grasps and accepts that impurity is built into painting’s reflexive loop: seeing-painting-seeing.  Taking the idea a (parenthetic) step further, one might conclude that there is only one impure situation:  the amalgam of perception and painting.

In assigning my show the title of Impure Situation(s) I am foregrounding what I understand to be Johns’ reference to the “chemistry” of painting -- its fundamentally hybrid nature as the synthesis of action and perception -- and how it can influence the painter to see and paint in a variety of modes that are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  Today, those modes could be conceptual, narrative, critical, abstract, or some hybrid.  And painting(s), as both process and object, can be impure on both levels.

One is also grateful for Johns’ equanimity toward ordering:  “I prefer neither.”  Though this could be dismissed as nonchalant ambivalence, I read it as an assertion of the artist’s freedom not to choose – not to be exclusive -- but rather to embrace painting’s innately impure condition.

In my own work, the impurity shows up in a number of ways that are both visible and embedded and are almost always involved with that most impure of genres, the collage.  When I paint from digital collages -- studies that are generated from photo-fragments of my own previous work -- the results resemble a gamut of genealogies or the earth’s geological layering.  The impurities can accumulate in the digital Petri dish as well as in the physical painting or collage.  If they are “contagious,” they will “contaminate” the viewer.

Since as a non-conceptual artist I situate myself at the threshold of cognition, -- the sub-linguistic space between sensing and saying -- I consider my paintings to be analogs of my visual thinking.  But, of course, there’s more to it than merely presenting simulations of the chaotic perceptual melting pot.  Like its mute cousin music, painting has the capacity to project great clarity without words – a clarity distinct from certitude.  I hope to locate the intelligibility that is possible within painting's non-verbal space, to articulate a psychology of that space, where opposing forces vie for placement. The process is a dynamic equilibrium in which chance and artifice are equal players in constant flux, and its essence is renewal via the recycling of energy and identity from one context to another.

                                                                                                                             Susan Cantrick, February 2018

 
Interview of Susan Cantrick by Madeleine Beaufort, art historian, Paris, January 2018
 

Could you expand a bit on what you think Johns meant by the term “impure”?  Was he referring to chance "accidents" that led him to find good solutions vs. pre-planned compositions that did not change much in the final painting?
 
It’s quite possible that Johns would consider chance to be among the impurities implied by the situation of painting and perception.  I myself certainly do.  But I think his meaning goes beyond just that.
 
Because I’m not a Johns scholar and don’t know in what context Johns might have used the quoted statement, I take it at face value:  painting and perception constitute a compound, reflexive experience.  What I do know about Johns, however, enables me to think I’m right to take him at his word.  Johns is an iconoclast who has never made concessions to trends in art practice or criticism.  Not even to (or probably especially not to) Clement Greenberg, the highly influential American art critic of the post-war era, for whom “purity” – truth to the medium’s materials -- was dear.  So, Johns’ use of the term “impure” – if his statement does indeed date from the Greenberg era – could easily be interpreted as a defiance of the purist attitude prevalent at that time.
 
In the context of talking about what Johns meant by “impure,” I think it’s worth pointing out that it’s hard to come up with any other word to substitute in his statement.  And yet, it’s possible that Johns chose it because of its potential ambiguity, even if he himself attached no moral or negative meaning to it in the context of his statement.  The word itself thus becomes impure…
 
In your statement preceding this interview, you talk about the impurities in your own work.  Could you elaborate on that in terms of how your works relate to one another?
 
Most of my paintings start with digital studies that are generated from photo-fragments of my own previous work.  Occasionally, a photo of something in the real world will also get incorporated.  As I create new works, elements from previous paintings are folded in, with the results resembling a gamut of genealogies. Talk about impurities! This process is not methodical -- I don’t usually work in series -- so the relationships from painting to painting within any one period may or may not be direct.  In the two series that I have created so far, (ponge.pebble.paint and Transitive, in 2012 and 2013 respectively) the resemblances are quite obvious, as between brothers and sisters.  For much of my other work, the DNA is more eclectically distributed.  It’s a process that evokes notions of identity and how it can be transformed by a shift in context. 
 
I find that this way of working both challenges and advances one of my fundamental concerns, i.e., visual clarity.  Painting, like music, has the capacity to be quite precise without using words (a precision that is, as I said earlier, quite distinct from certitude).  The process described above generates immense combinative possibilities that can be compared to a kind of perceptual white noise; as a painter, my challenge is to filter the noise and convert it into coherent visual analogs of sub-linguistic cognition.
 
Is the constant state of flux suggested in your paintings related to the world we live in?  Do you mean in your work to suggest that nothing is permanent and everything is transitory – that time doesn’t stand still but seems to flow or evolve?
 
This is a particularly good question because it leads to the issue of intentionality.  Often, though not always, intention is more likely to be assigned by the viewer than pre-conceived by the artist. The artist makes the work and the viewer responds.  In the best of cases, the artist will have set up the viewer for a rich sensorial experience leading to a variety of psycho-intellectual responses.
 
More specifically, I would say that while my paintings can project a sense of flux and transition – or at least have that sense built into the overall process and the relationships between paintings -- that kind of energy is aimed at activating the eye and spirit of the spectator rather than conveying any feeling I have about time and transience. It’s really a strategy for animating the material evidence of my visual thinking as opposed to making “pictures” or illustrating concepts.  But it also reflects what I was getting at in a show I had in 2013, entitled Transitive:  the notion of a painting having a transitive (as opposed to transitory) nature as both object and process, noun and verb.  As something that, though complete in itself, implies possibility, imminent transition; something that might be becoming something else.
 
Is the size you choose for your paintings related to a message you want to convey?
 
No, in that I don’t think of my work as conveying any message.  It projects, expresses, has an impact, stimulates -- or at least I hope so.  To paraphrase the last line of Archibald MacLeish’s Ars Poetica (substituting “painting” for “poem”): “a painting should not mean, but be.”  Careful not to take that as an anachronistic viewpoint!  In fact, here in the post-post-modern art world, after seven decades of evolution, painting, far from being dead (that was only a theory, anyway) has come nearly full circle, with changed attitudes among both practitioners and critics allowing it just to be itself, but in new guises.  To just be, not as some ideal, transcendent gestalt à la Clement Greenberg, but as an impure amalgam capable, more than ever – by virtue of its lively history -- of being a powerful catalyst for stimulating the imagination.
 
But to return to your question:  size is an important consideration, but for other reasons.  The relationship between the size of the painting space and the scale that is evoked within it has a direct influence on the visual impact of any given work, so one wants to get it right.  I tend to work more on mid- to large-sized paintings, because there is more breathing space for all that’s going on with color and composition.  If the dimensions are roughly human scale, or at least that of a torso, there is space for the viewer to “enter” the painting and move around.
 
(Sometimes, of course, size is simply a practical consideration, determined by the size of one’s studio space, or the demands of galleries and clients, or of curators with limited exhibition space.) 
 
What is the relationship between your works on paper and your paintings on canvas?  Are the works on paper sketches or preparatory ideas?  How do you work on paper? 
 
I consider all the media I use to be equal in artistic terms, i.e., there are no essential differences in my artistic approach to working on paper, canvas, panel, or any other surface – only technical ones.  The texture and hardness of the medium’s surface determines the paint handling and appearance of the work, and of course paper is generally more fragile than either wood panel or canvas.  (Preparatory studies, when I use them, are done in Photoshop and printed on paper, but I don’t usually consider those printed studies to be finished works.)
 
In both artistic and technical terms, the works on paper have often evolved a bit differently than those on canvas.  In 2012, in conjunction with a solo show entitled ponge.pebble.paint, I started experimenting with combining ink-jet printing and painting. A whole new process was generated by the subject matter – the deconstruction of an aggregate.  For example, I sanded down the printed surface, painted on top of it, and then sometimes printed again over that; occasionally also adding some collaged elements.  A kind of sandwich – print-paint-print, or the reverse. The results were as interesting to me for the rich build-up of pentimento as for their ability to convey some sense of my subject in this project.  I’ve continued to make some works in that vein, but I’m limited somewhat by the paper size constrictions of my printer.
 
As an alternative, I’ve been reworking some larger paintings on paper that I’d left unfinished or deemed unsatisfactory.  That’s been a challenging project because it’s somewhat difficult to reclaim a space that is already occupied. You’d think the opposite would be true, but I think that it’s a matter of timing.  Returning to a different time and place requires a certain amount of reorientation.  It’s a good thing that I like problem solving.
 
Lately, I’ve pushed that process further, physically deconstructing some of the unfinished/unsatisfactory works – literally cutting them up into pieces and then recombining them in collages.  For this work, I’ve tried to limit or eliminate altogether the Photoshop interface in the reconstructions, trying to suss out the relationships that already exist rather than creating new virtual ones.  It’s another very stimulating way of approaching spatial ambiguity.
   
Has any new material or technique changed the direction of your work?
 
I’ve been using Photoshop for about 15 years now as a compositional tool, and it has profoundly influenced my work in many ways.  As mentioned earlier, I usually compose digital models for my paintings, using photo-fragments of my previous work.  Photoshop permits transparent layering, cropping, and color changes that I would never be able to achieve if working with classic collage techniques.  Further, I am able to save each stage as I go, which enables me to work almost at the speed at which I think.  If I come to an impasse while painting, I can photograph that stage and then go back to the computer to try ideas for moving it forward without fear of losing the good stuff that is already there in the physical work.  It’s very liberating, and I surprise myself at every stage.  It’s a great tool (quite common among artists these days, by the way).  But it’s only a tool, and like all tools, has its limits. The Photoshop study is only the beginning.  Once the painting starts, another world opens up. 
 
It seems as though in your recent work you are using tints (white added) rather than color coming right from the tube.  Does this have anything to do with creating transparent effects?  Do you avoid complementary colors by choice?
 
I can’t resist saying here that my color is quite impure!  Always has been.  I mix colors a lot (besides just tinting or shading them).  I like to contrast soft and strong colors, letting them play off each other, evoking a variety of possible dualities (dark/light, dull/bright, weak/strong, soft/hard, quiet/loud, distant/near, etc.).
 
Transparency is achieved in a variety of ways, not so much via tinting as with washes (diluted paint applications that let the under-layer show through) or just plain illusionistic painting techniques.
 
Complementary colors:  I actually do use a lot of red and green counterpoint, but less blue/orange or yellow/violet.  I can’t really say why because I don’t, as a rule, think consciously about color as I work.  Color theory can be interesting, but it has always seemed to me to be a bit like what some great master (Ingres, maybe?) said about painting the human body:   “Learn anatomy and then forget it!”  You need to know the basics, but then you have to figure out how to use them imaginatively, or rather how not to let them get in the way of what you really want to convey.  For me, as for many other artists, that’s a pretty intuitive process.
Stanley Whitney (American abstract painter) said in a recent interview that I had the pleasure of hearing in person: ”I don’t want color to behave!”  Not that that is my viewpoint exactly, but it goes to the notion of color being a bit of a chameleon, an unpredictable “beast” whose character is determined by its context rather than by some set of pre-determined, autonomous rules.

Can you discuss how you think about space?  You seem to use transparent areas to create the illusion of shallow space.  But sometimes the space you create looks fairly deep, with what seem to be references to architecture.  
 
Richard Tuttle says: “Showing the question of space is the answer.”  In terms of painting, I take this to mean not depicting space but rather showing its ambiguities by bringing attention to the questions that are raised by the picture plane itself.  One of the classic tensions in painting is the one that exists between surface and spatial illusion.  In its early stages, abstraction tried to eliminate spatial illusion, but gradually it has crept back in, and to advantage, when it’s used well.  In figurative painting, spatial illusion takes priority, whereas abstraction can lend itself more easily to putting surface and depth into a contrapuntal relationship, or to setting up an equilibrium between them.  Although I tend consciously to make my spaces shallow (and, yes, transparency helps achieve that effect) in order to keep the painting coming back to the surface, I’m actually happy to hear that you are detecting some deep space here and there, because sometimes I do try to evoke a simultaneous sense of distance and imminence.  The simultaneous near and far that one senses, for instance, in a dream, or when one suddenly has a distant memory while feeling quite situated in the present.
And yes, often body and landscape (both urban and natural) show up in my work, unsolicited.  It’s not surprising -- after all, one lives in a physical world.  But even if I never intentionally depict anything, I’m beginning to accept that the work sometimes appears somewhat referential.  “Abstraction” has become a very impure situation…
 
Ultimately, it’s just a matter of creating an interesting painting. The relationship between visual structuring and its building blocks presents challenges that often provoke unexpected results, and one must learn how to exploit them.  It reminds me (a bit obliquely) of what the poet Raymond Carver once said:  “You have to make your mistakes look intentional, you know?”
 
This all leads back to the Johns quote:  seeing and then painting versus painting and then seeing what one has painted.  In the end, for me, both go on simultaneously.