Cracks in the Light
Into the Echo Suzan Woodruff’s art inhabits the void. Embracing both the natural and the metaphysical, her work is as exuberant as it is contemplative, as kinetic as it is hermetic. Picture the chasm of swirling mist beyond the cliff’s edge in Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above The Sea of Fog, remove the human figure on the crag, and the unfathomable expanse beneath might belong to a Woodruff painting. The sparks that fly out from the multicolored paroxysm of Umberto Boccioni’s Elasticity are also caught in Woodruff’s paintings. Her work explores where the abyss meets — and becomes — the spectacle. Woodruff has contemplated the nature of sacrifice and renewal in a Promethean performance-art ceremony (Burning Woman). Her paintings have reflected on weather patterns of the world and the spirit (Monsoons), impermanence and evanescence (Buddha’s Dust), the mind beneath and within the sea (What Water Dreams), and enigmas of light (Luminous Matters). With each series, Woodruff continues to spelunk in her painting, descending ever further within the aesthetic and psychic interior. She is a nature artist of the contemporary period, drawing upon current technology for inspiration — computer imaging of heat signatures and satellite maps from the Hubble Space Telescope. She unites the scientific and the spiritual in an effort to tame chaos, or as Woodruff herself puts it, “to capture cosmic dust.” Her latest series, Echo Maker, investigates echoes of all kinds in nature and memory, those images that recur and resonate well beyond our ability to explain them, the inherent and inherited patterns and symmetries that guide us. “Echo maker” is the Ojibwa phrase for cranes, whose migratory routes find their way into these paintings as well. With the Echo Maker paintings, Woodruff continues her explorations into a restless and dynamic universe, one she dutifully and carefully captures so we can carry it with us in our eyes and minds and grapple with its mysteries. — Anthony Miller, 2013
This book was produced in collaboration with the Katherine Cone Gallery. Cover: Occultation, 48 x 70 inches 2013
Tarantella, 48 x 70 inches 2013
There is a crack in everything Thatâ€™s how the light gets in - Leonard Cohen
Lunar Palpatations II, 48 x 90 inches 2013
ARTWEEK - 1999 Suzan Woodruff at Highways Gallery By Shana Nys Dambrot The paintings in The Burning Woman Project, an exhibition by Los Angeles—based artist Suzan Woodruff, were mandalas, almost entirely abstract. The paintings are not, however, formal exercises in reduction. Rather, they are meant to convey states of mind or being, with titles like Transmogrification, Secret Life and The Lost Wave. Their size, vivid colors and floral compositions invite obvious comparisons to O’Keeffe and Frankenthaler. Aside from comparisons of basic formal concerns, these two pioneer artists acted on impulses similar to Woodruff’s, seeking to capture in their paintings a sort of archetypal feminine energy, extremely powerful and unabashedly sexual. All three of these women draw on the conventions of art history as well as the symbol and myth of ancient cultures to build their cases. But Woodruff adds another dimension to this ongoing discourse—modern politics. The political implications do not necessarily manifest themselves on the ample canvases, which are richly hued, serene and utterly mesmerizing. The work itself is abstract in the way it can launch the viewer into a semi meditative state, instigating meandering considerations of the most personal kind in each individual. The colorfields have optical characteristics which give off a rippling effect as they are looked at, echoing the motion of their own making. This is especially true of the sublime cobalt blue and positively radiant yellow Woodruff favors. It was the text, conversation and ritual events surrounding the exhibition which expressed the work’s political content. The exhibition closed with a performance event on Halloween evening. Two of the paintings, Transmortification and Transcendence, represented the before and after spiritual states of the papier-mache effigy of the artist awaiting immolation in the courtyard out back. The ritual burning of the figure set in motion the discarding of restrictive physical form and the clinging past, leading to the release of pure feminine energy no longer trapped inside. The importance of liberation for the female body and spirit is the link to the political realm for Woodruff. A cause close to her heart is the repression and enslavement of the female populations in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the domestic abuse suffered by countless American women. The life—sized cast of the artist was displayed in the back courtyard behind the gallery space, arranged at the center of a painstaking spiral sand mandala circumscribed with rocks and water vessels. It was a waxy, flesh—colored nude, hands clasped above her head, ringed lightly in barbed wire. There was some question as to how exactly the figure would burn-would it char, crumble, fall, explode? Letting go was part of the event; it is a rare artist indeed who is comfortable setting events in motion, then taking her place in the audience. This sense of letting go is an intuitive, inclusive approach which comes from the same point of view as the meditation paintings—a powerful and essentially feminine paradigm. The way the figure burned, was, in fact, almost too perfect. It could not possibly have happened in a more synchronous, symbolically emphatic manner. The entire figure burned briefly, then began to extinguish slowly. The only area of the figure that continued to burn strongly was the genitals, which soon re—ignited the entire figure via the breast, neck and head. It had the ring of truth about it, and a sense of connectedness to the supernatural which was almost eerie, especially on Halloween. It was the sort of experience which defies being labeled coincidence. It was operatic, the way the effigy gracefully evaporated into smoke and sank into itself at the center of the spiral, the desired union of the poetic and the political having been achieved.
Occultation, 48 x 70 inches 2013
Suzan Woodruff: Making the World My art is grounded in the belief of one universal energy which runs through everything: from insect to man, from man to spectre, from spectre to plant from plant to galaxy. My works are the irrigation veins of this universal fluid. Through them ascend the ancestral sap, the original beliefs, the primordial accumulations, the unconscious thoughts that animate the world. — Ana Mendieta Suzan Woodruff makes ethereal, viscous, shimmering paintings that look nothing like the sexualized, narrative, extremely figurative and frequently self-portrait-based work of the late Ana Mendieta. They look even less like the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, Joan Mitchell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Nancy Spero, or Marina Abramovic. Yet in a very real sense, Woodruff is the spiritual and art historical heir to those women and to the many vectors of their careers. These art-historical kinships transcend formal influences, giving rise to Woodruff’s glorious abstract allegories, her non-figurative feminist pictures, which bring to the surface what has been sublimated — even as her surface is where all the action is. But then again, her Burning Woman series — a periodically revisited performance project based on a ritual burning and with conceptual roots in related paintings — does look very much like something Mendieta might have done; in the use of earth, air and fire, the direct references to the/her own female body, the performative element, the mass, the totemic, pagan magic at the heart of it — all transformed through the prism of art. So how can Woodruff have ancestors like those and yet make such lyrical, sumptuous, aggressively beautiful work? The answer lies just beneath those iridescent, mesmerizing surfaces — beyond what one sees in the picture and into what one knows to be true about the world. “Sometimes I feel like I’m channeling the universe, working in a kind of trance like a deep meditation,” Woodruff says. “In the studio, I also use my body, but to paint instead of burn.” In her paintings she contains and choreographs her self-engineered chaos through a proprietary, durational, and seriously physical process, involving constant motion and remaining open to “apparitions and visitations,” and what she invokes Leonard Cohen in calling the “cracks where the light comes in.” Her micro/macro, fractal-friendly point of view hinges on her belief in the essential interconnectedness of all light and all darkness, all space and all matter — and that includes living beings. Like another of her art-historical ancestors, J.M.W. Turner, Woodruff takes artistic license with science and industry. There’s a voice of sense-memory and atavistic dream-time that sings a primordial lullaby of fractals and whirlwinds in her process that is about not depicting, but instead replicating natural phenomena — from the cellular level to the sweep of dust storms, undersea volcanoes, wildfire, rushing water, flocking birds, the contours of a fjord, hurricanes seen from space, clouds of steam and rain, and even ghosts haunting the harbor. This pattern-seeking with an unapologetically spiritual insight does directly invigorate her relationship not only to Turner but also to Frankenthaler and O’Keeffe — both of whom also worked along this abstraction/humanism/naturalism continuum, and both of whom knew very well that the world isn’t always trying to hear it from a lady. Letting go of the need to control and dominate the laws of nature is scary to some people. That letting go is operative in Woodruff’s process, generating an allegorical abstraction in which the method of formal execution is more than a means to an aesthetic end, but integral to the armature of meaning. That form/content dynamic is a vector of the persistent perception of the feminine as a dangerous force.
And indeed it is a fine primal line between desire and fear. Some say that’s why Mendieta died, victim to a terror of the very untameable, ancient feminineenergy she was courting and creating in her work. Someone once said to Woodruff, “I can’t decide if your painting looks like the beginning or the end of the world.” Her reply? “Why not both?”
Rembrandt’s Hat Slight Return, 48 x 70 inches 2013
– Shana Nys Dambrot, 2013
Self Similarities, 54 x 27 inches 2013
Visitation, 48 x 60 inches 2012
Ghosting, 48 x 90 inches 2013
Secret Pink, 60 x 48 inches 2012
Transit of Venus, 60 x 48 inches 2012
Apparition, 60 x 48 inches 2012
Immersion, 60 x 48 inches 2012
Pompeii, 48 x 90 inches 2013
Vortex Trail, 70 x 48 inches 2013
The Color of Heat II, 60 x 46 inches 2013
Art Ltd. - 2007 Force of Nature by George Melrod Deeply informed by nature and physics, and the ways in which they interact, Suzan Woodruff engages her chosen subject with playful material dexterity, and a kind of implicit spiritual reverence. Her work draws inspiration from the geographical and meteorological patterns found in global perspectives of the earth as seen from afar, as well as other natural phenomena observed from life. Her technique, which she has developed assiduously over a decade, emphasizes actively manipulating paint on a surface and embracing the occasionally unpredictable results that exploration offers. One might say that for her, the act of painting is not simply about portraying the physical processes of nature, but symbolically reproducing them. Woodruff, who has her studio in Mar Vista in Los Angeles, creates elegant abstractions that seem to capture the dynamism of natural phenomena; her work ranges widely in its implied imagery, from Turneresque sunsets to sedate seascapes to turbulent tornadoes. “People say it looks like weather patterns or geographic wonders,” she observes. “It could be water, fire, it could be the sky. People come up with different ideas about what the paintings look like. But it always looks like nature, one way or another.” Filtered through a discerning painterly eye, her compositions feature lush liquid forms and brilliant colors, ranging from rich red iron oxides to oceanic ultramarine blues. “Really intense colors make me happy,” she concedes. The extraordinary effects Woodruff achieves is testament both to her technical sophistication and the time she has taken to evolve her process, which involves applying acrylic paint on gesso board. Indeed, it is not just her imagery that derives from nature forces, but her very technique. “After I came back from India [in 2001], I started working on the flat boards, which changed it a lot,” she recalls. “The paint lays right on the surface. Because the back is bright white, the colors are very intense, the pigment shows very vividly. It moves around the surface rapidly. It opened a whole new method for me,” she explains. “I could control the direction [of the paint] just by spinning, flipping, tipping, spraying, using gravity. It looks like something made in nature, the same way you watch water from the ocean pull back sand with the waves, or when you look at the sky and see the clouds being pushed by wind.” The process starts with a particular idea and her selection of pigments; from there, each work determines its own timeline. “It can happen relatively quickly, or go on for 16 hours,” she explains, of her labor-intensive working method, maneuvering the paint. “That’s the first part of the process, moving it,” she says. “Then, making it stop moving is the second part.” Woodruff’s interest in natural grandeur dates back to her youth: she grew up in Phoenix, Arizona on the city’s edge, where it abruptly turns to desert. “I could be completely isolated,in these large desert spaces, but I felt entirely at home,” she recalls. Today, she also draws inspirationfrom long-range views of earth derived from an orbital perspective, such as NASA space photos taken from the web, as well as weather patterns and satellite imagery. “I’m in awe of nature and science.” Nature aside, Woodruff counts among her influences various seminal abstractionists, particularly Rothko, for his “use of color and the emotional and spiritual impact it has.” In addition to Polock and Frankenthaler, she admires Georgia O’Keeffe “for her use of feminine and sexual imagery.” She adds, “I think I bring a feminine viewpoint to my process. I’m painting from a very emotional and personal place.”
Tilt-A-Whirl Sumptuous and mesmerizing, Suzan Woodruff’s turbulent paintings suggest vast natural forces and big weather, all rendered with the iridescent delicacy of a dragonfly’s wings. Their sense of scale is disorienting: sliding effortlessly from micro to macro, they seem to be allowing the earth its dramatic, Cecil B. DeMille close-up, while simultaneously regarding it with an air of distant detachment granted us by NASA. The fact is, although we have lived on this planet ever since our amphibious ancestors plodded up from the watery depths in search of oxygen and some dry beachfront real estate, we never really knew what it looked like until we were able to gaze back at it. What we saw was a twirling azure marble, its roiling surfaces born of ponderous storms and clouds, icecaps and oceans, rivers and continents and archipelagos, all flowing in and out of each other in ever-changing flux, on the fluid contours of its twirling, planetary canvas. What a revelation it was to view Earth from afar – our first global “selfie” – and with it, the churning palette of forces and elements from which we arose. Cut to 2013: through the webwork of satellites and computer technology, we now haveaccess to images of our earth, its geography and weather patterns, at the press of a keystroke, or the silent swish of a mouse. We are more meteorologically informed than ever, with a panoply of screens and technologies to display for us the planet’s ever-shifting visage. At the same time, thanks to global climate change, and tempestuous furies like Sandy and Katrina, we know too well the ferocious side of our planet’s temperament. We read weather patterns like tea leaves, parsing them for hints of our comfort or distress, for clues to our future. As much as any viewer, Woodruff is well aware of the striking range of geological and meteorological allusions inherent in her works. Some of them resemble melting glaciers or patterns of silt and sea in the mouths of great river deltas; others suggest underwater volcanoes, or turbulent squalls – dynamic dualities like land and ocean, soil and vapor, sunlight and crystal, fire and ice, set in motion by the earth’s own thermodynamic tilt-a-whirl. Her artistic practice, evolved deliberately over the course of a decade, simulates such natural/geophysical processes. In recent years, she has been working off a large moveable mount, created to her specifications by master fabricator Jack Brogan, which occupies the center of her studio. Like the earth, it swivels on an axis. Woodruff’s works are masterful in their material dexterity and extraordinary to behold. Like an orchestral conductor, she sweeps and swoops, cajoling her chosen pigments into play. Spilling freely, they swirl with fluid force, culling order from chaos, and vice versa. Within the strict parameters she has defined for them, her paintings are experiential and improvisatory, each one the tangible and immersive chronicle of its own creation. But her works are also well-grounded in an aesthetic geology: one thinks of Pollock for his energy, pacing the narrow border between the walls of his East Hampton shack and the arena of his canvas, flicking paint, or Georgia O’Keeffe, for her conflation of effusive natural imagery and personal, feminine expressiveness, of spiritual reverence and earthly delight. The most vital precursor might be Helen Frankenthaler, who likewise laid her picture planes horizontally, on the floor, caressing them with lush, washy stains of color, the fluidity of the color melding with the surface to become its form. In fact, Frankenthaler’s work originally derived from landscape before evolving to embrace its post-painterly abstract voice. In their own way, Woodruff’s fictional geographies too seem to flow between states of being; though open-ended in their allusions, we recognize their veracity by instinct. Intriguingly, while visiting her studio, Woodruff once told me that she wasn’t sure that she would call her work abstractions. And why should she? Their material presence is so fluid and multivalent, their meaning should be too. Rather, why not let them be what they are: eloquent prose poems to the wondrousness of natural phenomena, made from love and sweat and pigment, sung back to the earth and to its residents in its own lyrical tongue. – George Melrod, 2013
Smoke, 48 x 70 inches 2013
Thin Blue Ice, 60 x 48 inches 2012
Dragonâ€™s Tail, 70 x 48 inches 2011
Psychopomp, 48 x 70 inches 2011
Luminous Matters These paintings pertain to light of course but also advance the argument that the luminous matters, that light holds the key to greater illumination. Psychopomp is named for the word for a spiritual ambassador to the afterlife or a mediator between conscious and unconscious realms and its nacreous paint reflects with the aventurescent shimmer of a geode’s interior. An alternative title or a subtitle to Luminous Matters could be Light and Color (Woodruff’s Theory), after J.M.W. Turner’s 1843 supernatural vortex Light and Color (Goethe’s Theory), his depiction of the morning light after the Flood. Luminosity is revelation, deliverance out of darkness.
– Anthony Miller
Luminiferous, 48 x 60 inches 2012
Buddha’s Dust With a title taken from a saying about there being no mistakes but only Buddha’s dust, these extravagant panels reflect on impermanence, transience, and redefining if not eradicating ideas about “accidents” in her art. As Woodruff changed her process to accommodate her largest works and a new worktable so did her thinking about allowing for inadvertent occurrences to enter into her paintings. In paintings like Buddha’s Dust, a crystalline stalk of glittering colors, and the vaporous and roiling Sutra String, Woodruff shows us so much in these handfuls of dust.
– Anthony Miller
Buddhaâ€™s Dust, 60 x 48 inches 2011
Water Dreams, 70 x 48 inches 2007
Water Lilies, 48 x 90 inches 2007
What Water Dreams After monochromatic monsoons, a deluge of color. These deep and opulent terrains explore submerged secret worlds, the one far below the waves and the dream-state of the sea itself. In Water Dreams, nimbuses of blues and whites swirl and swell through and out of Stygian blackness like a kind of subaquatic summons. At once oceanic and oneiric images, these deliquescent portraits plunge the viewer in their vast and enveloping atmosphere and haunting nocturnal communications.
â€“ Anthony Miller
Monsoons, 30 x 40 inches 2002
Monsoons These stark black and white paintings, the first series created with the artist’s moving paint process, emerged as if Burning Woman’s ashes were still hanging in the air and Woodruff’s mind. The white surface of Monsoons seems to be on fire or to have been rescued from one. Painted in a burst after an artistic residency in India and the death of her mother, these portraits form a landscape of living smoke beset by storms of every kind. Weighing ideas about acceptance and transformation, Woodruff captures that anticipation during desert monsoons when rain plummets to earth in revivifying and theatrical ways. – Anthony Miller
Afterburn, 40 x 52 inches 2013
Burning Woman Performance, 1999
Tantra, 60 x 90 inches 2005
Burning Woman Incorporating sculpture, performance, and video, the Burning Woman examines stories about femininity, sacrifice, and rebirth. Here, Woodruff began to harness elemental forces in her art. The first part of the work is the Woman herself, fashioned from a body cast of the artist, wreathed with barbed wire. Figurines of the Woman like ancient Egyptian shabti were scattered, burnt, and documented in various sites worldwide. As spectators watched the artistâ€™s effigy consigned to the flames in a controlled ritual burn, the dance of tongues of fire and plumes of smoke becomes its own work of art. â€“ Anthony Miller
LA Weekly Art Pick of the Week 2003 by Peter Frank Suzan Woodruff paints as if with watercolors, the pigments seeping and blooming to fill the space allotted, but the intensity of the colors betrays their painterly origin. The series of small paintings are a quantum leap past Woodruff’s earlier large canvasses. It’s not the downsizing that does it, it’s the controlled compositional formula, one that at once confines and empowers Woodruff’s mind and hand, that focuses it into a set of variations, spacious (despite the size) and contemplative. Indeed, the roiling, aqueous shapes and sharply delineated horizon line give these works the air of seascapes - even though blue is one of the colors Woodruff uses least.
LA Weekly Art Pick of the Week 2006 by Peter Frank The thinned acrylic pigments Suzan Woodruff has sent coursing across her surfaces with ever more voluptuous abandon have clearly followed their own natural course. They form rills, deltas, waves and eddies, as would any fluid leaving residue. But, however much we see and recognize this, our eyes insist on reading these effluxes as landscapes, cloudscapes, seascapes, dunescapes and all sorts of natural spaces - even bodyscapes, when Woodruff turns up the sensual temperature. Woodruff is working ever larger, well aware of how these flows and blooms surge to embrace the full range of our vision. But the small pieces have a power all their own because they have a kind of space all their own.
Suzan Woodruff: The Forms of Storms When Suzan Woodruff paints on a small scale, she seems to be portraying the gist of water – not merely the formal results of pigments awash in medium, but meditations on the soul of the very substance that sustains all earth’s life. When Woodruff paints larger, however, she seems to be taking the temperature of climate itself, portraying the macro-dynamics of the earth’s troposphere as it pushes around water and air, topography and biosphere. Her painting method, hyper-responsive to the volatile physics of liquid in motion, maps nature’s profile by emulating its processes – or, perhaps, by allowing nature’s processes to be emulated. Woodruff speaks of her paintings as reflecting the fractal principles that define everything in nature from clouds to coastlines. We cannot calculate her claim, but we can see it manifest in her cloudlike, coastlike contours and in the surging, boiling masses those contours contain. Sometimes they conjure
tempests, but as a rule Woodruff’s storms lack eyes. Sometimes, conversely, the eyes lack storms, and the looming expanses look back at us with a calm, godlike self-possession. Woodruff’s paintings, to restate, do not pictorialize nature, they sample nature. They are born of the same turbulence that envelops us and surges beneath our feet. Indeed, they echo not only the world’s urges, but those of the universe. Still, however much Woodruff’s canvases recapitulate the conditions of cosmic and geologic metamorphosis, they do not imitate so much as depict those conditions, regarding them from a certain analytical, certainly formalized distance. These are, first and foremost, paintings as paintings, extant independent of reference. They can “show” nature precisely because they don’t present nature but work like nature. The stormy weather happens directly on the canvas; the process of painting results in a declaration not that this is how nature works, but that this is how paint – or, if you will, painting – can work. Woodruff’s paintings extend the form and spirit of earlier artists who experimented with the physical properties of paint (or some sort of pigmenting agent) on receptive surfaces. Helen Frankenthaler, Paul Jenkins, Sam Francis, and Jules Olitski come readily to mind, as do painters as diverse as Dan Christensen, Dorothea Rockburne, and Michelle Stuart – to name only painters associated (however loosely) with the mid-century New York School, Woodruff’s most direct and obvious historical precedent. The Bay Area’s own painterly abstractionists –Jack Jefferson, for instance, Julius Hatofsky, or Sam Tchakalian – similarly anticipated Woodruff’s burgeoning lines, volcanic textures, and dark but luminous colors. But in commanding the full expanse of the canvas as the pictorial arena for the results of her explosive yet fluid approach, Woodruff minimizes the imagistic self-consciousness that defined so many earlier painters (whether they whipped paint into a froth or stained and bled into the support) and deflects the emphasis so many others put on process itself. Woodruff’s paintings do constitute imagery, but incidentally, not reflexively; they exploit process, but procedurally, not ideologically. Invariably, she seeks to have her efforts result not in the record of an experiment, but in something concrete – not just a documentation of what she did, what steps she took, but what she caused, through her interplay of accident and design, to come about. Suzan Woodruff is a maker not of miniaturized natural states, but of paintings. The paintings don’t simply suggest but resemble, everything from pond effluvium to hurricanes, and they clearly capitalize on the same physical circumstances that bring such recurrent natural moments about. In the end, however, their media and the human decisions invested in them define them as paintings. If Woodruff places her work in any deliberate context, it is that of the artistic activity that prefigures them. Everything else is a lucky accident – carefully monitored and manipulated to open up the heavens (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) even as they answer to history.
– Peter Frank, 2013
I am grateful for the support and contributions of Shana Nys Dambrot, Peter Frank, George Melrod and Anthony Miller. I would like to thank the NEA, 18th Street Arts Complex, the Sanskriti Center for the Arts and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
Photo Credits: Alan Shaffer - Echo Maker series Mary Milelczik- The Burning Woman Photo Eric Minh Swenson- Studio Photo Book Layout and Design by Abe Kinney. Thanks to the Katherine Cone Gallery. All paintings copyright by Suzan Woodruff.
About the Artist Suzan Woodruff was born in Phoenix, AZ. From an early age, she began exploring the desert, immersing herself in endless spaces and spectacular natural vistas that would later become essential to her art. She was raised by her gold-prospector grandparents who taught her how to "read" rocks and by her mother, who lived a distinctly Arizona-bohemian lifestyle. She remains an avid hiker, biker, boogie boarder and readaer of rocks as well as books. Woodruff received an art scholarship to attend Arizona State University. She soon began exhibiting her work and left Arizona for Los Angeles and New York. Currently, she resides in Los Angeles with her husband Bruce Bauman and their two dogs.