In Dialogue with Sue Havens
The mid-career survey exhibition, Sue Havens: Cull, at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art includes the Florida based artist’s paintings and ceramic work since 2016. Curator Jason Lazarus describes the recent “pandemic paintings” as “a compressor, kettle, and prism” of the artist’s work from the past twenty years. Havens outlines her goal most simply as a question: “What is it to search for form?”
Cull is the first solo museum exhibition of your work. What is the premise of this exhibition?
To CULL is to choose, sort, pick the best of, in a sense. I have always made paintings gleaning disparate things around me from Hi to Low –
a supermarket packaging, a pattern from a thrifted dress, a piece of bark, signage, mini-golf architecture, a well-worn kiddie slide.
The original idea of this exhibition was to make a large wall painting in the museum, after a massive wall-work I’d done at the Knockdown Center in New York. When the pandemic hit, everything came to a halt as I could not travel. I toiled around in my garage for 10 months, and ended up making 20+ paintings on paper. At that point, the entire idea of the exhibition changed – the pandemic paintings would make more sense as that was what was happening, and a dialogue started to happen with sculptures I’d made for the previous five years. The pre-quarantine dimensional works had a real parallel with the way in which we lived more dimensional lives. Suddenly everything flattened, became limited, studio space and campus shut down, and I too was making flat works on paper.
Any exhibition involves an editing process, especially with extensive bodies of work over years. What would you like to share about the way this exhibition came about as a mid-career survey?
This exhibition represents a survey of works from my recent years in Florida, when I left New York for a teaching position at USF. The shift in exhibiting the pandemic paintings made sense in terms of showing work that was made of and from this moment in time. The idea of showing them in relation to works from the previous five years was a way to contextualize the forms emerging in the paintings. There was a dialogue beginning to happen between dimensional and flat works.
Your work includes both paintings and ceramics. Can you elaborate on your process of making in each medium and about the relationship between them in your work?
Making ceramic sculpture is physical. It’s newer to me as of around 2016, so I am not as slick with the whole process. I work in rolled out flat slabs that become potential building blocks for sculpture. There is a kind of fast paced rush with time to accomplish something. The stakes in clay are different. You can lose flexibility in the clay if things dry out a bit too much. Glazing is less immediate in terms of knowing what you’ll get; things are a bit less immediate than in painting. The element of surprise with raku can be thrilling, as things might explode or completely transform in the fast and intense heat and flame. Clay sets up and can dry, I have to get home to my son, and I am in a race for time, working fast and furiously, going after this thing.
The paintings on paper were made in my garage when Wesley was at home e-learning. They are very physical too – less with bare hands and using brushes, but equally as satisfying and challenging. The pandemic was a tough situation. I’d make dashes out to the garage to put down a layer, get back to Wesley, teach, dinner, or whatever other task needed to be done, but I could always dip out into the garage and do something. This absolutely saved me during quarantine. Something around the corner, some little hope of a discovery happening out there, or some way the paint would dry. I’d layer and use wet paint media-let dry, and make lots of these works on paper. It felt very freeing. A form could be made and destroyed, carved out, painted over endlessly until I arrive at a form worth saving. I had some real breakthroughs during this time in painting. I got looser, experimented more with mark making and layering, found more moves, and went deep into finding not only the forms but their contents. This was new.
In both paintings and ceramics, I was pretty much winging it as I went along, for the most part, going after form, exploring rounded square forms and uneven scalloped edges, both involving flatness, silhouette, dimensionality. In the paintings, I was after a kind of interiority through layers and history that is left in the mark making. In both there is a sense of history – in the sculpture there might be scraped painted layers, then fixed through firing, while in the paintings, layers are built through lots of transparent layers, and form is also carved. Both paintings and ceramics use inventories of pattern and textures that I have been building over the past two decades.
What would a visitor encounter as they enter the space? How does the exhibition unfold?
As a visitor enters the space, they see an uninterrupted linear sequence of 22 x 30-inch paintings on paper, each depicting a central form. The line of works leads the viewer to a 16-foot, low plinth, where there are over a dozen scattered ceramic sculptures. One sculpture appears on the far end of the room, the only that is made of cardboard. Some are displayed on the pedestal and some are on wooden found and made, painted benches. The world of forms then leads the eye to the rest of the paintings on paper, which continue around the rest of the L shaped room. The unfolding of the two dimensional then the forms, color, and surface treatment of the three-dimensional works and back to the flat works reveals the dynamic visual play between the sculpture and paintings.
Let’s focus on one ceramic and one painting. What is their genesis, process of making, and rationale behind their placement in the show?
Chimney was made from looking at a bit of a larger painting from earlier, one that had this particular passage that reminded me of elements of Florida (Tampa) architecture but also could be found in parts of housing that I saw when I visited my husband’s family in Turkey. It was the first time I worked with carving actual texture into the plane of the clay, rather than imitating texture or surface through painted treatments. In the end, it resembled a chimney facade found on the outside of a house that I love seeing in Tampa. That piece is one of many works placed in the front of a low plinth. It’s kind of an oddball piece in the exhibition, that mixes things up a bit.
Untitled is one of many 22” x 30” works on 150 lb. cold press paper. As the shutdown happened suddenly, I was in a kind of paralyzed state for several days, as I grappled with understanding what was going on. In one moment and out of a kind of desperation, I started painting wildly in a way I hadn’t before. On the garage floor, messy, layers, throwing paint, letting it happen. Untitled is one of several dozen, and emblematic of the process I was going through throughout the quarantine as I searched for something. In this work you can see how the form was “carved” by blocking out what was painted before.
This process went on and on and no doubt there are earlier iterations of the form buried in there. It feels somewhat like a classical vessel form, yet also ends up resembling a kind of head or mask. All these paintings were placed not in chronological order, but spaced out to allow for different color iterations and value differentiations to breathe. Many of the paintings have notes jotted on the back, like the month and day, or 8,000 referring to the number of people dead at the time from Covid-19, to President in hospital, or Mommy, when Wesley would be calling me from my garage hideout. Jason Lazarus, the curator of this exhibition, described them as “journalistic”.
All photos courtesy of the artist, unless otherwise indicated
The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, The University of Las Vegas Sue Havens: Cull, through July 9th, 2021.
Etty Yaniv works on her art, art writing and curatorial projects in Brooklyn. She founded Art Spiel as a platform for highlighting the work of contemporary artists, including art reviews, studio visits, interviews with artists, curators, and gallerists. For more details contact by Email: email@example.com