Susan Kirby became an artist not by any decision but by a realization, an epiphany. She was 19, in Paris for a two-year study program, practicing a self-taught style she felt insecure about. A young artist-to-be needs validation and Kirby realized hers in a grand manner in Paris. Nothing less than on the Rue de Beaux Arts at the Gallery Benezit, Kirby received an epiphany, declaring “Oh my! That is mine! That is me!” What Kirby was responding to in the gallery is the universal style of naïveism, a place where Kirby found herself as an artist and discovered her aesthetic possibilities. Rushing back to her apartment she hastily produced two watercolors in a manner and presentation unique among naïveism, one that remains consistent to the present day.
This month Kirby will be the featured artist at William’s Fine Art, in its new home at 132 E Street —in the F. Weixler Co Gallery, which sells furniture, rugs, and pottery, and now Williams’s personal collection of fine art and works by represented artists. The exhibition will feature 11 major paintings, 10 of which are new, of the utmost iconographic complexity and associated significance on a grand scale of very large and dazzlingly naif style hyper-charged with color and form as well as implicit meaningful significance.
“Family Portrait,” the single older painting in the exhibit, is one Kirby materialized at the age of twenty-one, and what solidified Kirby’s desires to become a practicing artist. It might have been painted last week, though, since her aesthetic methodology as an artist has been so true from the beginning and remained so consistent. The painting is the very embodiment of eccentricity, but considering it was painted at twenty-one, this is reflective of a youth that eccentricity—and talent—only begin to describe.
Read compositionally, the painting has centrally a “rani,” an Indian princess, Kirby’s mother. She is dressed in a mint-green sheath exotically draping beyond full length with strands of pearls, a plumed mint green turban sitting monarchical on her royal blue Eero Saarinen “womb chair.” To her right sits a lady of luxury, Kirby’s younger sister, wearing a shift of leopard skin on a grand wicker chair with a Siamese cat at her side. A younger lady lounges inconspicuously to her right, Kirby’s youngest sister, with a decorative red and blue full-length shift with hair simplified to shape rather than to style. Beneath this trio is a magnificent oriental rug of the utmost quality dominated by violet and accentuated with stunning, colorful, stylized, graphic flora. Opposite is a young woman, Kirby herself. Her hair again a mere shape, she has the golden eye shadow of the sixties and wears a maxi of red with yellow stars. In her lap sits a white “magic” rabbit. Two other cats, a tabby and a black cat, are to her rear. To her rear left and towards the “rani” stands a prosperous looking aging gentleman, Kirby’s father, in his dressing robe. Garnishing the scene is a Tiffany & Co lampshade suspended above the “rani,” large decorative pots with tall palms and ferns filling all spaces, and from bottom left to bottom right arches a massive rainbow that touches the top centrally, ensconcing this most curious of compositions.
Every particular in this composition exists only as it relates to the other, from a dressing robe to the plumed turban, a “magic” rabbit in a lap to a grand Tiffany & Co lamp, a rainbow to a grandiose oriental rug, an almost imperceptible young girl in shift happy in her anonymity to the yellow eye-shadowed face, cats, cats, and more cats to ubiquitous palms and ferns. These relationships suggests an ironic humor that is a light spirited approach to life, an absurdity that is recognized and not only accepted but appreciated for its level of eccentricity, the complexity that are the dynamics of the personalities in the Kirby family, and essential beauty, which is an aim in all things especially art, a natural curiosity of this unique family, and finally wonderment, the very stuff of exoticism, eclecticism, and eccentricity.
The painting is a vibrant reflection of Kirby’s upbringing, which was anything but conventional. Her mother was intensively creative and her dad a writer. She traveled very much when young, crossing the country in a VW van, eventually settling in the home where she still lives today. The walls of what I term the “Crystalline Palace” — for its sheer magnificence and exoticism, its difference from everyday reality of Utah county, there being no home interior like it, anywhere — are now lined with Kirby’s paintings, where once they had been lined with Lee Deffebach’s and Don Olson’s and other. Kirby’s parents were not only great patrons and collectors of the art community but great friends of the great artists and the “Crystalline Palace” was the gathering place for the major artists of the time. Olson and Ralph Scholfield sat at the bar drinking with Kirby Sr., while Kirby Jr. strung beads with Deffebach. It was during one of these many bohemian gatherings, two-years from when Kirby painted “Family Portrait” that Olson said to her, “You know what you’re doing.”
Four decades later she continues to do it, producing one marvelously intricate and vibrant work after another. Her “Cat and Amaryllis” combines a realist twist of inventiveness, making the iconography expansive. What we first understand compositionally as a solid structure of iconographic form, in actuality features Kirby’s cat, set upon the tabletop that is directly in front of an older monumental composition as a backdrop. This realism that abstracts the reality of the composition can be related to a comparable trompe l’oeil effect, here presenting the three-dimensional and alive camouflaged against the two-dimensional very present being of art. The connectivity can be understood as affinity, as art for its own sake, as complement, and as dimension. The affinity is created when we view the presence of the cat after realizing what is being looked at, and are reconciled with its seamless presence, with the backdrop composition. For its own sake, Kirby is creating an inventive combination of painterly presentations that complement and resonate between each other making the work a far more sophisticated naïveism than the vast majority. This sophistication is only compounded by the reality of the living cat and the real art presence of the canvas and the dimension that is articulated between the two creates a conceptual symmetry that reflect and play one against the other.
“Artist Exposed,” one of her newer works, is perhaps less iconographically loaded than most of Kirby’s work, but as such, this iconography resonates boldly. The focus is on Kirby herself, at the bottom left, very exposed, standing stripped to the flesh and completely nude in an open field of grass. To the left is a full stubby tree loaded with blossoms with a snake coiled round it. Behind is the massive structure of the Salt Lake City Temple. In the distance an azure sky full of sinewy clouds looks over Ensign Peak, while in front the famous Lion House is depicted with every detail, and on the grass, closer to Kirby, is an ancestor of hers, a once wife of Brigham Young and a would-be suffragette.
Consider the nude and the field of grass, the sign reading “VOTES FOR WOMEN” and Kirby herself, and finally the Lion House and the ancestor. The nude and the field is a relationship of “otherness,” “VOTES FOR WOMEN” and Kirby is a relationship of “optimism,” the Lion House and the ancestor is a relationship of “tradition.” Thus we find that an artist such as Kirby who will forever be true and will never sell out will perpetually find herself in a state of otherness, this being something self-perceived, or an actuality that is certifiable, but there is optimism in the 20th to 21st century progression of the strength and position of women in this world where expression of this kind is not merely tolerated but greatly appreciated and admired for acute sensitivity and sensibility. And the tradition established prior to Kirby, not only that of Utah, but from Utah’s connection back to Classical Greece, it is a noble one where artists are given total freedom to express whatever is their artistic voice, the art world today being one of the strongest platforms for women to voice their inner being.
Another definitive and exciting piece, distinctively similar to “Family Portrait,” is ”Artist’s Last Supper.” Among the 20 icons represented, the major focus is on Coco Chanel, Michael Jackson with Bubbles, Andy Warhol, a Damian Hirst formaldehyde sculpture with shark, and Susan Kirby herself wearing a leopard shift. It is naïveism at its most obscure yet again… supercharged and ready to be explored for content. Coco Chanel and Bubbles is a relationship of quantifiable difference, the shark in formaldehyde and Warhol, post-Modernity, and Michael Jackson to Kirby, a relationship of complete and utter ironic detachment. Thus, one might read the significance in this painting as the timelessness of style meets the most archaic of being, the personification of naïve painting. Post-Modernity makes naïveism an allowable art form, to progress and advance, and the ironic detachment is part of the reality of Susan Kirby who, through the usage of the plurality via subjectivity manifested in the post-Modern paradigm, is able to express her thoughts, her dreams, her visions, her ideas, her loves, her passions, her sorrows, her pain, her inspirations, her every creative impulse, as well as her irritations.
That early Parisian epiphany continues to bear fruit in the works on exhibit this month at Williams Fine Art. Susan Kirby’s work has too much to express, too much to reveal about her for her art to be glanced over. With some careful attention to just what the subject might mean and consideration of the iconography that constitutes the parts to the whole, each masterful composition offers a wealth of meaning, a universe of understanding, and a sensitive and spirited vantage point on life as seen through the inner vision of Susan Kirby, unlike anybody else.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. He is now a professional writer living in Salt Lake City.