Nov 19, 2015

Becky Suss’s Haunts

Max Cavitch

These are some of the rooms of Becky Suss’s childhood. In her paintings, they appear stark, angular, shadowless, with minimal depth. What were these rooms once like, what voices filled them, what dramas were enacted in them, and what sort of transformation have they undergone in the artist’s work?

It’s hard to know what to make of Suss’s antiseptic interiors. There’s a museum-like quality to the rooms depicted: spare, too well-ordered, even suggesting in certain details—for example, the blank spines of the books in 1919 Chestnut (Three Cities, The Mother, Kiddush Hashem, Salvation, The Apostle, Mary, Nazarene), 2015,—a kind of mock-up of a room, such as you might find at a furniture store. The crud and clutter of life is absent, leaving only, in just a couple of canvases, the faintest trace of human presence. Indeed, the closest we get to a suggestion of human habitation is in Living Room (Yogi 2), 2015, in which a snowy sleeping terrier sinks to near-invisibility in the white shag carpet next to a coffee table where two mugs sit as if recently abandoned. Another such mugs its next to an open magazine on a dining table decorated with fresh lilies in Dining Room (Verve magazine, vol. 1, nos. 1 and 2), 2015. These are the only objects in any of the paintings that seem to have been recently in use. Otherwise, the sense of vacancy is palpable—places so flattened by idealization and memory’s distance that even the ghosts seem to have been banished.
Becky Suss Installation 8

Becky Suss, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media.

If Suss herself may be said yet to haunt these bygone places—these rooms in former family homes—she is the least obtrusive of spirits, a tidying specter. If hers is a memorial art, one nevertheless feels none of the weight of the sentimental pressure of longing or remorse—not even in connection with the items of more personalized memorabilia, such as the framed collection of air-force medals depicted in Bedroom, 2015. Indeed, the depersonalization, the sanitizing of these domestic spaces feels aggressive, as if a world of unseen details, textures, and their attendant associations had to be wiped out, and the rest wiped down with ammonia and lemon oil. What griefs, what traumas, what homely tyrannies have been nullified or repressed? What violations of order does the ostentatious orderliness of these canvases suppress? Everywhere one looks, there is a refusal to be read: books without titles, portraits without names. Even the dog is unconscious, mimicking death. Is this the sole lost creature to be admitted to a gallery of unavowed, ungrievable disappearances?
Becky Suss Installation 4

Becky Suss, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media.

In these unearthed tombs, so immaculately preserved, if partly looted, ancestral objects suggest ancestors diffidently objectified. Along with the large canvases are displayed various ceramic objects and a few much smaller paintings. Among the latter are two paintings of book covers: Sholem Asch’s 1934 novel Salvation and The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Why are these two books singled out—exiled from their domestic settings, yet annexed to them? Is this odd pairing, along with the various paintings, the objets d’art, and the copies of Verve magazine depicted in the larger canvases, meant to flatter the family’s broad cultural interests? Is Asch’s tale of a nineteenth-century Polish shtetl, along with the image of Jack Levine’s painting Board Room, 1965, in Living Room (six paintings, four plates), 2015, meant to highlight the family’s Jewish heritage? If so, does the agnostic and even mocking spirit of the Rubáiyát (which also obliquely appears in the canvas Bedroom (Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám) signal an antagonism with that heritage? Two other small paintings seem to reproduce a souvenir collage of an older couples’ trip to Santorini. In one version, the man is in the foreground; in the other version, the woman is in front of the man. What does this flipping of positions suggest? Equality? Competition? Confusion of roles? What to make of these apparently benign images of touristic dalliance in what is, as it happens, the most active volcanic zone of the Aegean? What domestic eruptions might be muffled here?
Becky Suss Installation 1

Becky Suss, 2015, installation view, Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania. Photo: Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media.

These are dark questions to bring to such bright paintings. Yet it’s their very brightness that seems obscurantist, a hiding in plain sight, which is where we, often unconsciously, put so many of our secrets and our sorrows. Light, spacious, speckless, meticulously arranged—whose haunts are really like these, and would we, after all, want them to be?

Max Cavitch is Associate Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of the book American Elegy: The Poetry of Mourning from the Puritans to Whitmanand of numerous articles on literature, cinema, psychoanalysis, and animal studies.

Funding for NOTES has been provided by the Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Foundation.

Max Cavitch