MICHELE SUDDUTH: PAINTING IN A SOCIAL SPACE By Glen Helfand Pinned to the wall in a corner of Michele Sudduth’s
dissonance—and allusions to the figure, along with
spacious Bernal Heights studio is a conglomeration of
a sophisticated psychological charge. Against solid
sources, inspirations, and digital sketches for works to
backgrounds, she paints layers of forms derived from
come. This isn’t a surprising thing to see in an artist’s
puzzle pieces, a motif that began in a previous body
workspace, but here the collection of materials forms
of work. What were then more recognizable as jigsaw
a particularly direct parallel to the fully realized
forms have been refined, truncated, and cloned. They are
paintings leaning against the walls nearby. Arranged in
part human and part architecture, a sculptural hybrid in a
a grid that may not be measured but appears precise
flattened universe where a sense of dimensionality comes
is, among other things, a postcard of Ellsworth Kelly’s
from contrast and an ensuing vibration.
Study for “Cité”: Brushstrokes Cut into Twenty Squares and Arranged by Chance, a trio of Matisse Blue Nudes,
The placement of elements within the composition
and a photograph of the studio window: an urban view
suggests figures in interaction: some face each other,
divided into frames and doubled by reflection in the
others overlap. The central forms in a painting called
sheen of a tabletop. This collection of images reveals a
LONDON BUS face off within the proximity of a kiss.
specific aesthetic that combines elements of figuration,
The background is painted the solid red associated with
abstraction, an adventurous sense of color, and a trust
the piece’s title, a color that subsumes figures painted
in chance strategies. It also expresses a reverence for
a similar shade but camouflaged depending on their
modernism, particularly in its most colorful forms, and a
vibrancy. Some stand out like beacons when the colors
contemporary pluralism that encompasses the totality of
contrast, as is the case with various shades of pale
blue and lavender. The use of color is unexpected and exuberant, full of energy and complex interaction.
All this is evident in Sudduth’s large new paintings, which are bold abstractions full of adventurous color
A larger work titled MISSION BOOGIE expands on the
combinations—some energetically flirting with chromatic
composition, placing the forms on a white background
MISSION BOOGIE Detail
that changes the tonal relationships. The palette of the
ArtInfo.com, and many other periodicals and exhibition
figures is saturated Necco Wafer, candy-like, intense,
catalogs. He’s a Senior Adjunct professor at California
earnest. The forms are flipped and repeated, as if
College of the Arts. He also teaches in the graduate
seen in a horizontal mirror, except that slight details
and undergraduate art programs at Mills College,
are altered; it’s not a true reflection but one with the
and at the San Francisco Art Institute. He has curated
capacity to morph and evolve. Just like life.
exhibitions for the De Young Museum, San Francisco; the San Jose Museum of Art; the Pasadena Museum of
Sudduth’s painting fields can be viewed as social spaces
California Art, Pasadena; Rena Bransten Gallery, San
where semiabstract figures congregate; the groupings are
Francisco; Dust Gallery, Las Vegas; the Mills College
interactions of color and form. Sometimes the colors seem
Art Museum, Oakland; the San Francisco Art Institute;
convivial, at other times more sober. The picture plane
and the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco.
could be the site of a party or perhaps a support group. It’s the swath of humanity on that London double-decker, folks in their own reveries or emotionally catching the eye of another. The interactions are open to interpretation, as if the painting were a cubist Rorschach test. We’re all part of this picture. Glen Helfand May 2014 Glen Helfand is an independent writer, critic, curator and educator. His writing has appeared in Artforum and at Artforum.com, the San Francisco Bay Guardian,
MISSION BOOGIE | 2014 | 54 x 90 in.
ROCK IT | 2013 | 70 x 42 in.
MICHELE SUDDUTH: ABSTRACTING THE PUZZLE By Mark Dean Johnson Michele Sudduth has steadily pursued her painting
of work being showcased at the SFMOMA Artists Gallery,
practice in San Francisco’s Mission District for more
Sudduth has accentuated the human-head-like appearance
than twenty years. I greatly admire her work for several
of one of the puzzle piece’s bulging protuberances. This
reasons. These include the rich, formal sophistication
expands the work’s potential to provoke narrative readings.
of her ambitious abstractions and the multiple ways in
Viewers might find crowd scenes in these images, and
which her work dialogs with modernist art history.
conversations or confrontations between groups of figures that are derived from repeating and overlaying the puzzle
In his thirty-five ”Sentences on Conceptual Art,” artist Sol
shapes and forms.
LeWitt wrote: “There are many elements involved in a work of art. The most important are the most obvious.”
However, the humanoid heads look more robotic than
Sudduth’s most obvious and thus important element is a
human, a little like C-3PO from Star Wars, and less like
formal vocabulary of idiosyncratic hard-edge abstraction
any inherently asymmetrically unique person. This places
that employs repeated and often mirrored curvilinear
Sudduth’s work in different art historical contexts, including
forms. This compositional language harkens back to the
the highly specific contemporary Bay Area corporate
1960s painters associated with Op art, such as Richard
landscape of film and gaming technology. But earlier
Anuszkiewicz and especially Bridget Riley, but it also
epochs of modernism are also evoked, especially the 1920s
operates in visual conversation with contemporary Bay
geometric figures and faces created by artists such as Oskar
Area artists such as Amy Ellingson—who is in fact a good
Schlemmer and Alexej von Jawlensky—and even filmmaker
friend and former studio neighbor of Sudduth’s.
Fritz Lang—who similarly envisioned a composite of man
and machine as emblematic of our futuristic moment in time.
For the last decade, Sudduth has based her compositions on a specific found form: a single piece from a jigsaw puzzle.
I further appreciate Sudduth’s work in relation to the great
This reference conveys a hint of narrative content, as if the
serialist composer from the same early modern period,
artist were using this familiar image to probe meaning and
Arnold Schoenberg. In the 1920s, Schoenberg developed
find her place in the larger puzzle of life. In the new body
a twelve-tone compositional system, where a musical score 7
of melodic lines and harmonies was largely constructed by
angles manages to imbue them with movement and speed.
manipulating motifs through the inversion, mirroring, and
To my eye, these paintings are effective more because of
mirrored inversion of a specific sequence of notes. This
Sudduth’s dynamic use of color and form than for their
structuralist approach to music, which invents unexpected
poetic probing of puzzles and human forms.
symmetries through reversal and mirrored reflection, seems closely related to Sudduth’s approach to composing
Reviews of the 2014 Whitney Biennial have noted
repeated forms in her own visual imagery.
the exhibition’s important inclusion of several female contemporary abstract painters, including Marin County’s
Yet just as Schoenberg used a more personalized
Etel Adnan. This current exhibition of new paintings by
approach to rhythm to harness his atonal counterpoint and
San Franciscan Michele Sudduth reminds us that Northern
elicit psychological responses from his audience, so too
California has a rich and historically significant tradition
does Sudduth employ chromatic harmonies and contrasts
of abstract painting by artists such as Jay DeFeo, Sylvia
to spark emotional responses to her work. Sometimes the
Lark, Mary Lovelace O’Neal, and Irène Pijoan—and that
emotional responses that are triggered have an electric
one distinctive hallmark of their achievement has been
charge. Examples of this include her 2010 painting
a constructed tension between nonobjectivity and an
EXPLOSION FIXE, which explodes with shattered orange
inspiration drawn from unexpected shapes found in the
light, and her 2014 LONDON BUS, a centerpiece of the
visual culture of our contemporary world.
current exhibition. The latter work’s high-octane reds push forward into the space of the viewer like Matisse’s
Mark Dean Johnson
Red Studio, giving this work an immediacy of the now. In
Professor of art and gallery director,
other works from this series of frieze-like compositions, the
San Francisco State University
colors are softened with blended whites or complementary
hues, and these mixed colors produce a tertiary space of tints and shades. This gives those works a quieter impact, although Sudduth’s masterful and subtle use of diagonal
MODERN BLUES | 2013 | 23 x 23 in.
DUO | 2014 | 44 x 36 in.
DUO TWO | 2014 | 44 x 36 in.
TRIO | 2014 | 36 1/2 x 36 1/2 in.
ABUZZZ | 2014 | 24 x 63 in.
LONDON BUS | 2014 | 50 x 74 in.
SUNRISE | 2013 | 24 x 24 in.
SEE SEA | 2013 | 24 x 24 in.
NEVERLAND | 2014 | Each panel 30 x 22 1/2 in.
STARRY EYED BLACK & GRAY | 2013 | Each 24 x 24 in.
The title of my painting, EXPLOSION FIXE, is derived from a musical composition by Pierre Boulez called “. . . explosante – fixe. . .” which means something like an explosion fixed in the act of exploding. It embodies the dialogue between rule and imagination. I find this dialogue relevant to the balance I sought in my painting between a fractured image, almost flying apart, and the containment of the simple puzzle image. - MS
EXPLOSION FIXE | 2010 | 56 x 82 in.
VELOCITY | 2010 | 56 x 82 in.
In CELLOPHANE, I overlaid a somewhat symmetrical puzzle image onto an asymmetrical puzzle. The challenge then became how to get them to work together. Mostly I think this had to do with the curves. Curves seem to possess their own logic that grows out of the straight line long before the curve itself becomes evident. Something far back in a curveâ€™s development determines where it is going to end up. Itâ€™s the balance between working with the will of the existing curves and bending them to my own will. - MS
CELLOPHANE | 2010 | 56 x 82 in.
REMEMBERING BLUE | 2007 | 54 x 76 in.
STRING ALONG | 2008 | 56 x 82 in.
SUMMERTIME | 2007-2011 | 24 x 24 in.
BLUE SHIFT | 2003 | 54 x 54 in.
BOLDER | 2008 | 66 x 66 in.
FIRECRACKER | 2008-2011 | 65 x 42 in.
JELLY BEING | 2009 | 54 x 54 in.
These two paintings, CUATRO and IMAGINE THIS, share similar puzzle elements and yet they are quite different. Each is complete within itself but I like seeing them together, pushed up against each other, learning to live with their differences.
CUATRO | 2013 | 54 x 54 in.
IMAGINE THIS | 2013 | 54 x 54 in.
MISSION BOOGIE In these paintings I use the image of a puzzle
the sketch onto canvas and begin fleshing out the final
piece to explore what I think of as a kaleidoscopic
painting; it’s a process largely driven by color. Brigit
perspective—a way of seeing that is continually moving
Riley once said that color is the most irrational aspect
and also capable of accommodating ambiguity.
of painting. What I think she meant is that color is often volatile and unpredictable and that’s what I love
When I first began incorporating the puzzle image
about it. I actively seek color situations in which I’ll be
into my paintings I thought of it as somewhere
surprised and required to see anew, differently. Often
between metaphor and the more formal qualities of
this unpredictability is what drives the emotional charge
its composition, but I was also intrigued by the latent
of the painting and ultimately defines its personality.
figurative aspect of the puzzle form. Now, beginning with the ROCK IT painting, the figurative element has
emerged quite dominantly. It seems to me both human
and architectural, inseparable from its surroundings, individualistic yet identical. The compelling narrative for me is the speed at which we’re moving—evolving too fast for a singular, static narrative. Like a kaleidoscope our individual perceptions shape and reshape what we see, as our focus shifts from one set of relationships to another. I begin a new painting with a digital sketch created by arranging, distorting, and morphing my own images and colors, relying somewhat on chance encounters to generate a structure for a new painting. I then project
CHRONOLOGY SOLO EXHIBITIONS 2014
SFMOMA Artists Gallery, San Francisco, California
Viewpoint, New Puzzle Paintings and Conversation with Mark Johnson, Director Fine Arts Galleries
San Francisco State University, Leese Street Studio, San Francisco, California
Painting Circles, Artist Studio, deYoung Museum, San Francisco, California
Michele Sudduth Paintings, Shaklee Building, San Francisco, California
House Painter, Space 743, San Francisco, California
Peace Tables, in cooperation with Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco, California
Large Drawing, P.A.C. Gallery, Pasadena, California
The Trailer, in situ Claremont, California
White Room, One Womanspace, The Woman’s Building, Los Angeles, California
Green Room, R. Mutt Gallery, Van Nuys, California
The Bag Show, Libra Gallery, Claremont, California
Tubes Performance, Libra Gallery, Claremont, California
Play Structure, Stebler Gallery, Riverside Art Museum, Riverside, California
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS 2013
artMRKT Art Fair, SFMOMA Artists Gallery booth, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, California
SFMOMA Artists Gallery, San Francisco, California
Foundations, Olive Hyde Art Gallery, Fremont, California
9 X 2D, Hollis Street Project, Emeryville, California
How Shall We Travel in the Future, San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery,
San Francisco, California
“Empty Room with a View” installation, Collage and Assemblage in Southern
California, Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, California
Fleishhacker Foundation Eureka Fellowship nominee, San Francisco, California
IN /SITE Art Award nominee, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California
SECA Art Award nominee, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California
Panelist, What is Art For? Oakland Museum of California, Oakland, California
SECA Art Award nominee, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, California
Artist grant, The Peace Project, The Damien Foundation, San Francisco, California
Lecturer, Space & Place, University of California at Los Angeles, California
Young Talent Award nominee, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California
BIBLIOGRAPHY Kyne, Barbara, “Home Sweet Home.” Artweek 30, no. 9, Sep 1999. “Michele (Sudduth) Betts.” The Print Collectors Newsletter, Jan 1979. McConnell, Miriam, “Michele (Sudduth) Betts—Alteration of Space.” Artweek, Jan 1974.
EDUCATION M.F.A. Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, CA B.A. California State University at Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA
CREDITS This catalogue includes paintings from the exhibit: MICHELE SUDDUTH RECENT PAINTINGS SFMOMA Artists Gallery, San Francisco June 7 - July 3, 2014 All paintings are acrylic on canvas, except: Pages 18 - 19, NEVERLAND, Acrylic on Panel. Photography by John Janca, ArtBot Photography, except: Pages 28 and 40 - Michele Sudduth This page - Carla Trefethen Saunders Catalogue design: Maria Figliola Design © Michele Sudduth 2014 michelesudduth.com
Catalogue of paintings, including exhibition at SFMOMA Artists Gallery June 2014