Painting the space between... Susanna Coffey at Alpha Gallery

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There hasn't been a Susanna Coffey show in Boston in a long time. It's been long overdue.  She continues to be one of my favorite artists since she changed my life in a studio visit in graduate school.  Her last solo show at Alpha Gallery was in 2004.  Her work has really changed in the intervening years.  It's really incredible to see an artist of this caliber and consistency move into new territory with such verve.  These are paintings that challenge and evoke instead of represent.

For most of the time I've known her work, Coffey has set up a contest, a meeting, an encounter in the studio.  The artist and the mirror were the consistent elements in the work.  The work that came out of that confrontation was a record of time and explored the elasticity of the flesh, the fluidity of identity and the impossibility of freezing the likeness.  The paintings were a sum total of observations, they were the history of looking expressed on the surface of the support.  This is the thing that so many people do not understand about paintings and especially those paintings that contain something recognizable: that the painting contains the history of time and touch.  Every painting is a performance of the artist in the crucible of experience and in Coffey's case, that crucible is the encounter with the self.  In the midst of that encounter she was able to find a painterly equivalent to what she experienced in the mirror.  Her mastery of color, tonal intervals, and manipulation of all of the properties of paint made her work a series of fascinations to experience. She is truly a painter's painter.

The notion of the self portrait expands in her work.  The work is less about recording what is seen.  It takes on the placement of the subject in act of a human experience, especially in later works when she began to change the orientation of the support to mimic the proportions of the computer screen.  This deeply chilling series of paintings, with the artist placing herself in front of images of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had less to do with Cindy Sherman's "I'm-everyone-and-no-one" ranging across personae and more to do with the particular political moment of an artist trying to come to terms with what was being done in her name.

The show at Alpha is called Apophenia, which is the tendency to see something where there is nothing.  It is related to seeing faces in random arrangements of rock formations or animals in the clouds.  The paintings in the show mark a return to the traditional proportion of the portrait format, which communicates the notion that you are looking for a head or a body.  The show is split into sections which expand and explore this idea in various ways.  In the first section, you see what feels like a deep engagement in certain modes of abstract impressionism related to Milton Resnick but, and this is the thing that sets Coffey far beyond most painters, you are deeply aware of a physical presence in each picture.  The paintings seems to vibrate at differing frequencies that reveal and conceal themselves to you.  Takenaga's Division, a nod to the artist's friend the brilliant Barbara Takenaga seems to quote impressionist landscape painting before it becomes an active churning mass that keeps pulsing between figuration, landscape, and non-objective painting.  It contains in painted matter and placement the feeling of the "war paintings" without the obviousness of the subject matter.  The artist is no longer separate from reality.

This is an exciting time in this body of work.  Coffey took on space in the previous work in a radical and exciting way.  She could make the mirror invisible in her paintings; there was the sense that the paintings began at her nose and kept going behind her into these completely realized organizations of painterly space.  These spaces carried light, energy, history, landscape, whatever the artist needed or "saw" in the mirror.

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The difference now is that Coffey is painting a new kind of space, the rich psychological space between her in the mirror.  She is painting the interference, the attitudes, the obfuscations between the understanding of the self.  This new work makes manifest the difficulty in realizing the self and instead of a hackneyed angst about the unknown, Coffey is able to express some delight in the difficulty of realizing the self.  There is a painterly exuberance and deeper material record in the work, the history of the mark making is clearer and more raw.  Enormous changes are made in these paintings and they are left bare.  And still, every picture bristles with a human surge of energy, despite the metaphoric collapse of the possibility of representation.

To complicate the exhibition, there are some paintings of masks (Yammy is a personal favorite) that should be objects, but actually start to feel more than human. These paintings and paintings of a Buddha statue owned by the late, great Carl Plansky round out the exhibition.  We look for humanity in objects, in representations, Coffey is saying. The clarity of approach with the paintings of objects just makes their poetic implications clearer, especially when seen with paintings of the artist merging and emerging from the dense activity of the painted surfaces.  The ability to look outward is contrasted with the courage to look inward.

I have to say, I saw some of this work in Coffey's studio before the show went up and I can attest to the radical changes that some of the paintings went through.  Headstand in particular is a painting that is very different that the version I saw in the studio, demonstrating her willingness to eradicate any simple reading of the work. It is really thrilling to see an artist have everything up for grabs in the work, to really engage in the process of painting and in that process discover a new realization of space.  It is an affirmation that painting is not magic, it is a deep engagement in performative labor on an object that holds every decision.  Because Coffey demonstrates the courage to follow those decisions where they lead she has created a show of paintings that truly feel like apparitions.