Some art is as concrete as the arranged objects it depicts or as prosaic as the theories it attempts to illustrate. But there is another type of art; one that revels in exploration of meaning and metaphor, its abstracted motifs and iconography lacking clear subjects or narrative purpose. This art is poetic, and is best approached as one might approach poetry. With the exhibit opening this month at Finch Lane Gallery, a poetic sensibility is not only helpful but requisite to appreciate the fluency of meaning that is hidden within a visual labyrinth. Susan Beck, Bonnie Sucec and Ryan K. Peterson all approach their subjects abstractly with a sense of narrative that is open and ready to be explored without rational limitation, as one might approach the subject of a poem.
“Another hardened expanse, once marked with occasional cairns
Spreads out ahead–mountainless.
The minutia of divots and pimples’
Of furrows and flakes, lead the way.”
These are the words Susan Beck uses to describe her work in this exhibition, words which provide imagery rather than explanation, much like her paintings. Her works, in ink and watercolor, acrylic, mezzotint, and pencil, are distorted, abstracted descriptions of the literal: amorphous, faceless and mutated bodies engage in incomprehensible purposes. These images explore themes that support weightier ideas: anxiety, fear, contradiction and meaningless existence. Her visual realms draw the mind and the eye from one direction to the next searching for reason as one might do tied in a straitjacket. But there is none. The eye might think it “gets it,” but the mind realizes it doesn’t and gives in to the works irrationality. Pieces like “Distance Looks Our Way”, a hand-painted relief print featuring two shadow-like representations approaching a great gulf, can sustain any number of interpretations. It might be said to be painted as Dante wrote his great poem, with an air of gravity and sublimity that can be greater appreciated as one finds significance in its obscure regions. In its expressive ambiance one might feel the universal awe of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” yet this is sublimated by the anxiety of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” In another work, the emotive pen and ink drawing “Let Go, Damn It,” Beck reflects on universal ideas concerning the struggle of existence. The viewer is met with a Goya-like darkness, swirling debris and a stretched figure holding on to a rope. There is a grappling for reason, a lack of logic which finds the subject locked in an inexorably anxious state; the title of the drawing itself cannot be ignored. Is this an injunction to free oneself from burdens, or to resign oneself to the abyss?
The visual playfulness of Bonnie Sucec’s aesthetic stands in contrast to Beck’s somber work, but like Beck, Sucec is employing a poetic visual language that uses more rhyme than reason. Her work, she says, “develops on its own — starting with a fragment — the painting unwinds with twists and turns and seldom a solution.” These gouache prints and oil pastels are, again, open narratives that may be enjoyed despite their iconography, which is itself, absurd. Her art is lush and alive and absorbs the viewer in its pastiche of style and motif and its joie de vivre temperament. Her canvases have something in common with Marc Chagall, whose color cacophonies and whimsical iconography evoke a sense of mystery and wonder. Sucec’s gouache, “The Sun and the Moon,” is as lyrical as a sonnet, and compels a reading that looks beyond any literal sense of its subjects towards a liberated sensibility of color and motif. The Surrealists of the early 20th century made ample use of the irrational and its sense of displacement to transcend limits of consciousness. In like manner Sucec’s “Venus in a Half Shell” entices the imagination to meander through inviting imagery whose “narrative” lacks a beginning, has no middle and will reach no end. These works encourage meaning by avoiding rational interpretation and submitting to depths of consciousness. The sensual experience of this visual poetry is its own raison de être.
Ryan K. Peterson’s sculptural works may be the most disturbing of the exhibition. “I believe in a collective consciousness,” the artist says, “so I would like to think others might relate to seeing childhood monsters, stalking predators, metaphorical giants and the curious, not-so-subjective reality behind our eyes.” Many of Peterson’s pieces might be described as “grotesque,” but as Baudelaire taught us, even the ugly and horrific can be poetic. Peterson’s visual poetry invites thoughts of horror in the face of the uncanny as what we see might seem uncomfortably tied to the psyche.
His photograph “It’s Looking for Me,” a blurred image with a mysterious room, is a visual poem that might resonate with the subject of memory and temporality, but nervously so — when explored memories are often not fond ones. Ultimately we cannot escape our own reality, Peterson seems to be saying. His “Brothers Bighead” series featured in this exhibition consists of sculptures with internal dioramas that incorporate painting, LED lights and photographs. He says they “are dreams, phobias and personal imagery manifested in sculpture.” “White Big Head” is a sculpted abstraction, with its oversize head and muscular though truncated torso, that is ironic and ugly and makes no sense outside of a poetic engagement. In it Peterson is reconciling reality as he experiences it and believes others do as well. “The world can be a troubling place for me. I see the suffering of various life forms around me and I resent those who inflict it. I even tend to resent life itself for allowing it,” Peterson says. Like the work of sculptor Louise Bourgeois, in this absurdity can be found reality, traces of the real confronting us and our own reality with a crafty gaze in this manifestation of Peterson’s psychology.
The intensive aesthetic engagement found in the careful observation of the work of Susan Beck, Bonnie Sucec and Ryan K. Peterson offers a meaningful experience that will be frustrating to the literal-minded but rewarding to those who can approach the exhibition with the associative, sensual sensibility necessary for poetry. Beck’s visionary works transcend being, Sucec’s canvases explore imagination and consciousness while Peterson’s works challenge reality, all in ways that transcend, explore, and challenge standardized notions of aesthetics.
Ehren Clark studied art history at both the University of Utah and the University of Reading in the UK. For a decade he lived in Salt Lake City and worked as a professional writer until his untimely death in 2017.