Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Suzanne Bybee’s Lively, Layered Abstracts Go to the Next Level

Suzanne Bybee, “Quadriptych: Desires for Complications: The Top of Stillness, Part IV,” acrylic, marker and grease pencil on paper

Many art exhibitions now include a video as part of the display, often showing the work in progress. Picasso was probably the first artist with the confidence to paint in front of a camera, brushing an image on his side of a pane of glass while the camera filmed him from the other side. Those movies are still worth watching, as is the satirical film Jackson Pollack helped make, in which he paints his drip panels and then, at the end, casually tosses the ones his dealer rejects into the harbor. Suzanne Bybee includes a video as part of her exhibition, Surface Pushing Toward Immensity, at Bountiful Davis Art Center this month, which viewers may be inclined to overlook. Doing so would be a mistake, because the video doesn’t just record her in the act of painting: it actually is the act by which her most recent paintings are made. It’s an example of a transition taking place in art, to which Bybee appears to be making a real contribution. 

BDAC likes to introduce its artists with samples placed near the entrance. This first work of Bybee’s has the immediacy of the studio, its paper support having been torn from a larger piece and pinned to the wall. Like most of her works, it demonstrates bravura use of acrylic, marker, and grease pencil on paper. Her titles are often long and full of coded references or suggestions of what a willing viewer might find in them, but this one is brief: “Mother Ginger (Spatchcock).” It may mean nothing to a viewer, or it could explain everything. Mother Ginger is a Disney movie, a spinoff from the Nutcracker Ballet, while a spatchcock is a game hen splayed open by the cook in prep for an elaborate dish. Either folklore or the kitchen reference might reveal something about what turns out to be a characteristically very action-oriented, indeed lively, abstract work of art. 

Suzanne Bybee, “Mother Ginger (Spatchcock),” acrylic, marker and grease pencil on paper

Only the layer of paint on the surface of the object is real, of course, but examination here by eyes eager to see more immediately discovers one illusionistic layer after another, some visible through transparent marks, some seen only through the gaps between opaque bits. What appears to be happening is part of a determined and competent effort to fill up the illusionistic area within the picture — the discovery of which goes back at least to the Renaissance — with an immense body of implied, colorful, space-consuming objects and activities. What we see, then, is (the painted) surface pushing towards (the palpable experience of) immensity. 

Bybee’s universe is evocative, geometric, gestural, but made of endlessly interactive, eager marks of every scale with which, seemingly without effort, she fills large sections of wall. Given her focus on traditional “easel” art instead of, say, murals, her only limit appears to be practical: the size of the paper. Her solution for now includes triptychs, side-to-side or top-to-bottom, and quadriptychs that may form squares or follow each other down the wall. The sheer extravagance of details crowded together in colorful formations recommends seeing these in person.                                  

Suzanne Bybee, “See It All Before Aggregate,” acrylic, marker and grease pencil on paper


Suzanne Bybee, “The Shiv,” digital drawings output on Phototex

Her apparently latest step, the one that really took the brakes off, is revealed, nuts and bolts, in the video, where she’s able to place one layer, one gesture, over another without even having to wait for the paint to dry. Presumably mistakes, if she should ever feel she’s made one, can be erased and replaced just as easily. Most importantly, this gives her complete control of transparency, so the problematic moment when the first layer disappears completely under what follows can be extended towards infinity. Textures and related qualities become choices, just like colors of tubed paint. 

It’s not impossible to guess where Bybee will go next, though it’s presumptuous for one who never imagined in the first place what she’s doing now. Perhaps all the eyes that have never encountered the Bybee-sphere should be allowed to take it out for a spin before she needs to consider her next step. That old charlatan Sigmund Freud proposed a series of developmental stages of consciousness, each named after a body orifice that he thought provided raw sensory data. He never got to the eyes, and looking at all the pareidolic and phantasmagoric objects that pop up in Suzanne Bybee’s visions suggests that so far as progress in consciousness is concerned, given enough time she may enable viewers to reimagine everything they ever saw, or even glimpsed, and so many things they never did. 

Suzanne Bybee, “Much to Be Said, One Foot Dancing (Entropy),” digital drawings output on Phototex


Surface Pushing Towards Immensity: Suzanne Bybee, Bountiful Davis Art Center, Bountiful, through Nov. 4

All images courtesy the author

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