Philadelphia artist Becky Suss reimagines her relatives’ mid-century homes through meditative paintings and ceramics. Her canvases memorialize their collected art and objects, opening familial narrative to questions of class, politics, and religion in Cold War America.
As Suss made the final preparations for her first museum solo exhibition, she spoke with Becky Huff Hunter on her practice. Becky Suss, organized by Associate Curator Kate Kraczon, opens on Wednesday, September 16.
ICA: Your current work is a sort of archaeology of family history and narrative through objects. I love the description of your work as “filtered through the gray zone of memory,” from your Reprefantasion (2013) exhibition at Fleisher/Ollman. How do you approach this gray zone as a painter?
Becky Suss: Several years ago I learned about memory reconsolidation, a relatively new theory that describes the process of what happens when we revisit a memory. It suggests that each time we remember something, the memory is significantly altered, and the changed version takes the place of the original. There are no pristine accounts deep in our brains, only reconsolidated memories containing the traces of all of the other times these memories were recalled.
I find this mechanism similar to the process of painting itself—if I think of the distortions and inaccuracies of both my memories and the paintings themselves through the lens of this theory, I can understand the final product as its own legitimate and accurate depiction of itself, not a skewed or distorted version of something else. I am free to pull items from here and there, to flatten and merge objects, to change color and scale, all in service of the painting—rather than being chained to the original source, narrative, object, or place.
ICA: Can you select and talk about one specific object of the many depicted in one of your recent paintings, for example in Living Room (six paintings, four plates)(2015). What does it mean to you? Or do these works of art and furniture in your late grandparents’ house make most sense in constellations?
BS: This painting is a pretty straightforward recreation of a wall that actually existed in my grandparents home. The top painting depicted third from the right is by the artist Jack Levine. Levine, like my grandparents was the son of eastern European Jewish immigrants. He made paintings that were highly critical of the powerful and corrupt in both business and government, and in the 1950s was targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. My grandparents were leftist activists at Brooklyn College in the 1940s and my grandmother was even called to testify before the Rapp-Coudert Committee (a New York State Legislature group whose project was to measure the depth of communist influence in New York’s public schools). This Jack Levine painting recalls that history for me, and reminds me of the conflict that my grandparents felt later in life. Although they maintained their progressive left leaning ideologies throughout their lives, they did very well financially. While they certainly valued the stability that monetary success offered them, they did not make lavish purchases with the exception of their house and a handful of art objects, including this painting by Jack Levine.
ICA: Was ICA a part of your life when you were growing up in Philadelphia? Are there any exhibitions that stand out to you as important to your creative development?
BS: Oddly, as a kid it was not. We always had a membership to the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), which is just blocks away from my mother’s best friend’s house, so we went to the PMA all of the time.
I do remember seeing the ICA exhibition Wall Power (Indelible Market) in 2000, and then again, by surprise, a year later at the Venice Biennale. While in terms of content I don’t think that show was terribly influential for my work, it was really important for me to see artists that were young and familiar—Barry McGee, Stephen Powers, Todd James, they were all friends of friends—have this big show here in Philadelphia. It was even more exciting to then see it so far away and at such an amazing venue. This was a moment in which I felt like it might actually be possible for me to become a professional artist.
ICA: You’re a former member of celebrated Philadelphia art collectives Space 1026 and Vox Populi—where you’ve has several solo shows. How do you feel long-established creative communities like these contribute to Philadelphia’s culture and to your practice?
BS: 1026 and Vox provide young artists a non-school community of peers, and as much as the gallery shows and First Fridays are important, I think the support and encouragement that these communities offer to young artists are most significant.
Twenty-two years old and fresh out of school, I shared a studio with Ben Woodward (and eventually others) at 1026, where from these peers I literally learned how to sit down and paint every day while holding a job, what to buy at Pearl Paint, how to frame gallery walls and refinish floors, and how to hang and mount a gallery exhibition.This type of peer-to-peer teaching within artist-run spaces nurtures independent working artists that continue to make art and eventually become teachers within these communities—and most importantly, stay here in Philadelphia.
I think it’s hard to quantify these contributions, but when you visit a building like 319 N. 11 Street on First Friday, home to Vox and at least 4 newer artist run spaces, it is totally packed and you can see how crucial these spaces are to Philadelphia’s culture.
ICA: Can we expect to see new work in your ICA solo exhibition?
BS: Yes! More than half of the show will be new work, including four new large-scale paintings along with new small paintings and ceramics. The ceramics are a relatively new medium for me—the artist Paul Swenbeck (ICA’s Chief Preparator) has been a huge help by giving me tips on constructing and glazing, and by letting me use his amazing ceramic studio this summer. As a result, I’ve been able to make many new pieces for this exhibition. In the past, much of my ceramic work had been on a miniature scale, but with the size of the gallery at ICA, I wanted to make all of the objects life-sized. I’m excited to see everything installed together!