Sue McNally: Learning how to Find

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Jockey for Postition

Sue McNally lives and works in Rhode Island and when life permits, as she puts it, in rural southeast Utah. Her landscape paintings and her self portraits encompass everything in between — the views of nature she has encountered, and her shifting states of being. Sue McNally reflects on her art making and shares ideas on her new body of work.

You have lived mostly in New England, now splitting between Rhode Island and rural southeast Utah. Tell me about yourself and what brought you to art making.

All of my life I have been a maker. As a young kid I made objects out of anything I could get my hands on, newspaper, twigs, flowers, wood; I pounded nails into chestnuts to make weird little sculptures, I made figures, pots and plant hangers from clay, treehouses, prints and in my teens, I took sewing classes for many years making clothes I wore out. So, I wasn’t really brought to art making, it’s what I have always done.

I grew up in southeast New England with woods and the bay to explore, living most of my adult life in Rhode Island. I have also traveled extensively for extended periods of time around the United States. My husband and I have a rural piece of land with a yurt in southeast Utah and we spend as much time as possible there each year. It is very special place for me to paint, to work on ideas and live indoor/outdoor, my favorite.


I was first introduced to your work through your self-portraits. I am looking again at your series Self Portrait As, including your drawing Mask from 2010. This drawing struck me as uncanny in context of our Covid days. Throughout this whole series you depict isolated figures, looking straight at us as they are looking at themselves in a mirror – lucid, satirical, uncompromised gaze that is both deeply sad and funny in specific ways. What prompted this body of work? Can you pick a few of these and tell me the story behind them?

I forgot all about Mask, that is interesting considering Covid! This series started as I was traveling. For years I would lug pretty big canvases around, making oil paintings on location. Living in the car made this pretty hard. My husband rigged some excellent ways for me to store paintings while keeping room for us to sleep in the vehicle when necessary but sleeping with wet oil paintings is not the smartest thing to do. So, I started making small drawings on paper as we were traveling. I had ink, gesso, charcoal, all my favorite drawing materials. I would carry 11 x 15-inch pieces of watercolor paper and after a day of exploring I would make self-portraits using a mirror that we traveled with, in the tent, around the fire or in the car.

Once we bought our land, I could draw inside the yurt. I have a table and chair, it feels plush. I have always thought of this work like my early years of painting, doing quick figure sketches back in high school, reactive. I look in the mirror, crank the image out and then set it aside. One after another. The gaze is because I am looking directly at myself, they make other people sad, but I think they are pretty funny, and they make my oldest friends, and my sisters crack up; they know my humor. The likeness is not what I am going for, it’s about the making, the reaction, the material. Once I have a good stack, I hang them all on the wall and look to see if any need something and more importantly, what they look like to me. That is where they get their title, just as impulsively. I look at it, see what it is and name it. As I age, I am delving deeper into the changes I see. It’s interesting to watch, at times overwhelming, but the satirical side softens that and ultimately cracks me up. Like Neck + Band Aid. My neck is now wrinkly, and I had something taken by the dermatologist, hence the band aid. It’s the wonders of aging, you have to laugh or its really going to suck. Dad, because I look just like my Dad in general and that drawing Is all him. Mitten is just funny.

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Neck + Band Aid

In Figure, a few years later you depict duos, your media appears to be a bit more mixed than in your previous portrait series, and it seems like the scale grew bigger as well. How do you see the relationship between these two portraits series?

These portrait series are directly related. I started to ebb out of the Self Portrait As…, it had kind of run its course, making larger drawings with just one figure which involved more of the body and hand gestures. As I was making the larger figures, I became more interested in a narrative, creating something that had meaning beyond just a quick image. This is when I started to use two figures, still using the mirror, making two drawings of myself and then connecting them with hands, gazes, bodies and ultimately the title. Jockey for Position is a good example. The larger figure came first, the head gear looked like a jockey’s helmet, so I included the smaller figure that seems to be crowding the larger one. The smaller one is jockeying for its position. The title is a double idea; for me it has a reference to the process of drawing and the humor that I love to include.

I am making larger drawings now, about 6 feet square with many figures. I am really focused on the narrative. I use myself in the mirror, but I have also been redrawing heads from Self Portrait As… combining the redrawn heads and the direct observation heads. I am also cutting figures from unsuccessful drawings and gluing them on the large drawings. I make a lot of tiny collages from old painting scraps, so this is finding its way in. My most successful example of this is Conversation with Myself. This drawing has full size figures, interactions, hands, gestures, collaged heads and a lot of add and remove history on the surface. I am very physical with my drawings and paintings. I am interested in that history showing in the surface of my work. It’s something I look for when I look at other artists work. I love to figure out how things are made.

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Conversations and Considerations with Myself

Land is also a body of work on paper but as indicated from its title, it is a landscape series – ranging from complete abstractions to trees and bushes. At first glance it seems to be separate from your linear figures, though the longer I look at them, the more similarities I find in some of them. How do you see the relationship between these two seemingly different bodies of work?

The relationship is the trajectory of my process. I have been painting and drawing the landscape for over 30 years now. I have painted outdoors on site, in my studio using photographs, combinations of these and now, mostly from memory with a focus on the process of making a painting or drawing. I also think a lot about representational form and abstracted form and how those things relate or are in conflict. Land has work that I would consider drawing. Although I use brushes to make my drawings, the marks feel very different to me than when I am working on a canvas. I am glad to know that you can see a connection between land and the self-portraits. These landscape drawings, both representational and abstracted, are very much connected to that quick, reactive style of drawing that I use with figures.

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Carrizozo Sunset

In your paintings on canvas, you also seem to focus on landscapes. How do you see the relationship between your landscapes on paper and on canvas and what is your overall approach to depicting landscapes of specific sites, as your painting series States indicates?

Painting the landscape on canvas (sometimes wood surfaces) is what would probably be labeled as my primary work. For years I painted on site, then I moved to partially on site and partially in my studio per painting, then, to painting in my studio using photographs after exploring a specific location. This is when I began making the States series. This series is a representation of many years of exploring the American landscape, camping and hiking in rural and remote landscapes. I have traveled the US at length and had always wanted to make paintings in each state. When I was younger and tried to step into this project, it became clear very quickly that I was not skilled enough. The visual stimulus of all the landscape I was exploring what overwhelming.

So many years of travel, combined with many years of painting had to happen before I could make these paintings. Once I started, I decided to make large canvases. After visiting each location, spending extended time in that landscape, I returned to my studio using photographs to paint a location, a specific place that felt like my connection to that particular state. Some I am more familiar with, choosing my favorite spot, or a historic connection. I have 8 states remaining in this project. I have put it down for a while as I ride out a change in my work. There is a shift in progress that I feel I have to gain some sort of control over before I can finish. For the last few years, I have been making small, abstracted landscape forms, small paintings, on wood. This has led me into an exploration that is progressing but not yet entirely understood or defined.

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Monument Valley, AZ

You seem to explore in some paintings bold abstractions — color, composition, shape, light at their basic elements. Your paintings seem to oscillate between bold abstractions and more figurative depictions of landscape and figures. It can be quite easily argued that each figurative painting is made of abstract elements and that abstraction and figuration, other than in art historical “isms”, have been always intertwined. What draws you to create a painting like Yellow is Gold (2018)? And how do you see its relationship to your other landscapes?

Yellow is Gold is a great example of my efforts from the past few years. Although I love representational form, making a painting of a place, a specific scene, has become less exciting for me in recent years. I feel like it’s something I can do easily, but the difficulty of painting is what keeps me motivated and excited, so I have to pivot. Once something becomes “easy” I have to fight that impulse and move in the other direction. This brought me to making small, abstracted forms, still landscape elements, but abstracted forms non-the-less. Because I spent so much time making paintings that were my vision of reality, I was a little bored and felt like I needed to expand my visual language. I have been making abstract forms ever since, I still make representational paintings, but the abstraction has seeped in and I think/hope they are becoming more complex. I learned that my way into the abstracted image has to be through a landscape form, and my effort now is to push those two things together.

Because I no longer use photos or paint on site, I am relying entirely on memory of place, all the visual information I have in my head. By doing this, I find that the process is the predominant force and the most exciting part of my painting at the moment. I have to search for my compositions, search for the painting through the making and that is difficult, exciting, freeing. For a long time, I have worked to control my materials, and now I am letting them control me.

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Yellow is Gold

What are you currently working on in your studio?

Right now, I have a few projects going on. With drawing, I am working through the large self-portrait drawings. These are super interesting for me because although the physical part of making them is still quick and reactive, there is a ton of time just looking them. Sometimes I add an element, take it away. The narrative is in charge, so the balance and the relationship of the figures is more complex. In Painting I am learning a new medium. All my years painting on canvas I have used oil. I am now learning to use acrylic paint. I was never much interested in acrylic because I often don’t love the surface.

Since I started, I have found a better-quality paint that comes in a matt finish and comes as binder and pigment, so I get to manage the see-through or opaque. It’s been hard at times, but really exciting to feel like I have no clue what I am doing. I used this material for a while on my small, abstracted paintings, but recently I stared making large paintings with this acrylic; the material has opened up my physical relationship to the painting. It’s amazing to do something bold and fast and then just wait a little and then keep motoring. With oil there is so much step away time. With the acrylic material it’s fast and interactive like my drawing. Also, with painting, I am relying on memory alone. Learning how to find a painting instead of just following a path. I feel invigorated and although I hate the feeling of looking at my work and not knowing if it has any merit or growth, my work feels challenging and exciting.

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River Day with Doug

All photos courtesy of the artist.

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: