Studio visit: Susanna Heller’s endless strength

Paintings in Susanna Heller’s Williamsburg studio

Contributed by Medrie MacPhee / Before Susanna Heller’s paintings were wrapped and shipped to Toronto for her upcoming solo show at Olga Korper, I brought Sharon Butler by her studio, which straddles the line between Greenpoint and Williamsburg. Susanna and I moved from Haliifax to the East Village after we graduated from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the 1970s, and, as young artists living on little, our essential nourishment, other than cigarettes, was our intense dialogues about painting. Sharon had been following Susanna’s work since the late 1980s, but they had never met. She turned the tape recorder on as Susanna was telling us about a Tino Segal performance she had seen several years earlier. Here is an edited transcript of what turned out to be a lively conversation.

Susanna Heller and Medrie MacPhee, painting pals since they met at as undergrads in Halifax.

Susanna Heller:  We went into a room at Mary Goodman where a group of people was talking. As we entered some of the group went silent, turned to the wall, and collectively began to make a sound. Sort of an mmmmmmm. Then the performers turned back around and started engaging different members of the audience with magical and provocative questions. You could sit and watch, not knowing if the performers would address you. You could decide whether or not to answer back and decide to leave if you felt uncomfortable. When new people entered the room the performers went back into the cycle of turning to the wall, humming and then eventually turning back to ask questions and start a whole new conversation. Although there was no time limit on how long you could stay (a minute or indefinite) I ended up staying for three hours. I was so taken that I was mesmerized by the whole thing…

Sharon Butler: What a wonderful way to welcome new people into the conversation. Stop everything and start again. 

SH: It was transformative — like a 1960’s “happening”! In that kind of environment, every word you say becomes poetry.

SB: Poetry and experimental writing informs so much painting today. Do you write? 

SH: I don’t. And I’m a bad reader of it. But the poetry I do read I adore. It’s funny you’re asking me that because I feel this particular group of paintings are sort of harder to name than others. This is happening and that’s happening and they’re kind of more like poems. It’s really about how the paintings feel to me.

Media MacPhee: Do you think that’s partly because the motherload of the work you’ve done, at least most of the work I’ve seen since we moved to New York, has involved walking all over the city, and, because of your recent illness, you haven’t been able to spend so much time walking?

SH: No, I still am walking. And the drive to make the paintings continues to come directly from my on-site drawings.  

MM: But even with these paintings?

SH: Even these. 

SB: These are drawings of walking around the city? 

SH: I walk around the city and I have my own wacky way of observing. To me, these drawings are hyperreal, even though I know they aren’t. 

MM: You mean the sketches?

SH: The sketches that are everywhere. They’re behind all these paintings and they’re piled up everywhere. I draw the 360 degrees of the space I’m observing which includes both the inside and the outside because that’s really how you see. You don’t look at one thing like a fixed camera. You look around, you’re here, you smell, you’re thinking. We hear conversation, there’s a piece of rust on the ground, there’s like seven million people over there, there’s a bird flying over, you know that’s all part of how you see. And as a painter of static lumps, what better challenge than to do the opposite of what it is? 

Sketches from Heller’s daily walks seem to cover every inch of wallspace.

SB: Right. It’s so easy to be in a bubble, but the minute you stop and look, you feel the wonder.

SH: It’s a performance. In the old days I would walk over the [Brooklyn] bridge. It’s amazing to just be up on the bridge and feel the whole city and the strange intimacy of it with the sky overhead at the same time. And then the clouds over that. And things like wakes from boats that are there for a while and sort of connect, or the way buildings connect, those are lines that we see but don’t realize and I draw them in. That’s what all these lines are. They are just eyeway paths. 

SB: You have a huge amount of work here. Are all the paintings finished? Or in progress…?

SH: They are just about done. With this painting on the back wall I’m adding some pine trees and teeth, but only I will know that they’re there. Those are some of the greens I want to use [she points to a palette] but I have to wait for it to dry before I cut them out. I’m kind of in the middle of it. All this thinking about the painting happened at the hospital. I still want the oval to be a little more prominent but not take over because to me this painting really reminds me of April as the cruelest month — even though it’s not an April painting. Let’s say January 2020 is the cruelest moment in American history, how do you paint about that? Rather than someone dancing in the streets, you know as an artist, how do we empower? Maybe we empower by feeling endlessly strong, like we can just take over the world. We empower through feeling. I’m doing that for me too, because what a catastrophe. 

More drawings and some small paintings

SH: One catastrophe after another. I’ve done it before when Bill [her husband the academic Bill DeFasio] got sick, I almost died and also my husband. I drew my way out of it. And then I developed a twisted colon and had two surgeries. I was in excruciating pain, they gave me four doses of morphine just to get me to stop screaming! Then a setback and more pain.  

SB: And you have a show coming up. And the work has to go out–

SH: Yeah. It’s being wrapped on Saturday. Everything is going. Including those which we’ll move out from behind the chair. So you can see them.

SB: When you tell the story of the colon, and then I look at the paintings, the shape that runs throughout all the work reminds me of an unwound colon. 

SH: Yes! Guess what, at the end of last April I had a stroke too, I know it sounds like a joke. 

MM: And she also broke her back. 

SH: My back is broken as we speak. A compression fracture. They fit me for a special brace, but I have to wait until the colon situation is over. It’s really lucky the paintings are done. They’re all post-stroke, which is a relief. Apparently my brain is working and it passed the test so I’m okay. It’s crazy what one can go through. But Medrie and I have known each other since we were seventeen and I’m a stubborn bitch. 

MM pulled paintings out so we could have a look at them.

MM: Something I was going to ask you, slightly changing direction, is you were saying for the first time you’re going to put up text in your show. And this goes back to what you were saying about poetry. And I was wondering if that is what you’re considering? 

SH: Somehow the ideas, the physiology, the non-representational aspect —

MM: But is this something you’re writing yourself or is it other people?

SH: Sometimes I’m writing and sometimes there’s gem quotes. Little favorite quotes. There is one about how my job as a painter is to make you forget naming what you’re looking at. There’s almost always a horizon you can escape to or travel to — they’re travel paintings. But I don’t ever want you to forget that this is just static lumps on the surface. Because to me the magic in the painting is a way it can be both at once. It kills me, I can’t get over it. All my life and I still get a kick out of it. 

MM: This one is interesting. It feels like an aerial perspective.  

SH: Well they all are. They tend to be. 

MM: But this one in particular, you’re flying overhead and the plastic glove presents —

Susanna Heller
Heller’s paints and tools

SH: Well that’s a sweet little city at the bottom. All looking purple and happy. And that black rose is on the right. Just to give you a sense of hope or something. It’s all oil on canvas, except for that yellow plastic glove, but it’s often oil on other shit I stick on. I use the paint and YES glue.I’ve been using it for years and it seems not to be a problem. Those are drawings [she points to the floor] that are not done that I’m hoping to finish by Wednesday. 

Used paper palettes are cut up and used as collage material on Heller’s paintings.

MM: I didn’t realize! That’s what I thought was scrap material. 

SH: It is. These are all of my materials as well as my paintings. I keep all of my paper. That’s why I love paper palettes, because think about it Sharon, sometimes you need a gestural mark but sometimes you need a kind of static lump that just sits there. It’s like you’re an orchestrator and you need all of the different kinds of sounds together. To me painting is all about the physicality. The presence of you as a viewer and the presence of the thing and the joy of imagination, which, you know I might be speaking Latin here but I don’t really care. 

SB: It’s true. I like that, the joy of imagination. Medrie, you’re working on paintings that are very physical, too. 

MM: Well, yes! I find it liberating because most of my life as an artist I’ve been bound up with images and I’ve found a way to break from that.

SH: But I think I am too. I’m the only one who thinks that but to me they are absolutely hyperreal. 

MM: Well you know, I think that even that as an argument “is it representation or abstraction?” has been put to rest, other than as a short hand for “can this be read?” as an image of something or not. But yeah, Sharon is right. I’ve always been interested in the physicality of paint but I had to find a way of producing it in my own way. 

SH: Do you think the clothing you employ as an understructurefor the painting liberated you in a way?

MM: Oh, absolutely. No question about it. 

SH: [to Medrie] And I think that letting go of representation was fantastic for you. 

SH: [referring to her work] Because you could call these two paintings Dracula Vampira.  Do you know what those are? Black orchids. Do you love that name? 

SB: I do and I love those paintings. They look like they’re right at home right there.  Are those going to the show? 

Eyeballs looking at each other.


SH: Yeah, they’re going to go. It’s going to be weird not having them and the painting to the right is the edge of the world. Just imagine. That’s a painting of an orchid no and yes. Do you know what I’m saying? 

MM: I’m curious about this [pointing to the crackulature on a painting], whether that is just a happy accident or did you use some sort of crackle paste?

SH: Is it cracking there?

MM: Well it’s separating but it looks intentional.

SH: Yeah, I let those things happen, and I’m thrilled when they do. 

MM: What about this one? It’s like a Goldilocks story with its trail of breadcrumbs.

SH: It’s two sort of circles. A big black one and a little there/not there one. And they’re all trying to circle the horizon. And the one to the right really is traveling on the horizon. This one, that little one became something else and it kind of went in its own direction which I couldn’t predict, and you know how much fun that is. The one below, the horizon one, is just called Eyes in Space, which is what it is. And that ones called Witches Night, that one’s for us ladies.

MM: Another thing that I was curious about with your work … I’m going to be giving a talk in Baltimore at MICA, and I don’t do this all that often. It’s not a show but the graduate students invited me to talk and give crits. In thinking about what I’m going to say, it occurred to me how much the pantheon of mentors I look to has changed over the past 5 years with this new body of work. Now I’m thinking about Conrad Marca Relli, Giorgio Ascani, Sally Ross, Rei Kawakubo. Turning it over to you, I’m wondering who you are connecting to?

SH: You know who really speaks to me lately although I was kind of disappointed with her new show is Rachel Harrison. I don’t like her paintings and drawings but I love those sculptures that made her famous. I was knocked out by “Making Knowing,” the craft exhibition upstairs at the Whitney. How fantastic! 

MM: I would have said a show like that, ten years ago, not that I wouldn’t have liked it, but it wouldn’t have been so meaningful to me.

SH: Like that room at the new MOMA by Amy Sillman. I thought that room was fantastic. 

SB: I agree. It was like a walk down memory lane for everyone of a certain generation in New York. She included all the painters who have been important to us.

SH: I was a guard at the Met and back then I liked certain painters but all of that went out the window. Whereas people like Cezanne whom I respected, but cared less about, became so brilliant. I could get lost and paint at night and get slapped around in the morning by him as he taught me how to paint. Have you guys ever noticed that one of the  middle fingers of one of his portrait subjects is just a stripe of Cobalt blue. It makes zero fucking sense and it’s brilliant. And look at when he did that. Everything is alive. You never know. 

I also love June Leaf. But certain artists just stay. I hate to be so completely boring and tacky but Rembrandt. He was like it’s all or nothing and jumping out of the airplane. Even Van Gogh, you look close at a Van Gogh, you are him. You can hear him go, well if I just take this white and drag it here and stop there it’s gonna tell you a bit about that. There is a painting at the Metropolitan called Madame Roulin and Her Baby. It’s such an ugly beautiful painting. 

When I was a kid, before we moved to Montreal, my parents used to take me to the Modern, park me in front of Guernica on the bench. They would go around the museum, and I sat there and learned to see painting and the world through that painting. I was five. I even knew that the mother’snipple was hard because she was so sad and terrified. And then they took me to see Gold Rush [the Charlie Chaplin movie] and I mixed Gold Rush up with Guernica, so to me it was all the same which is not a bad thing for a little kid. 

MM: On our first class trip —when we were students at NSCADin Halifax—to New York was in November of 1975, and it was so freezing cold in Halifax, that we came down here and people were wearing T-shirts. I remember thinking that it felt like we were in the deep South. I moved here from Halifax in 1976 and Susanna came the following year. We had apartments in the East Village two blocks away from each other.

SH: Medrie was on 3rd Street next to the Hells Angels. And I was on 5th. And we both worked at Binibon – the place where Jack Abbott, the convict championed by Norman Mailer, murdered one of the waiters.

Editor’s Note: The former convict had written In the Belly of the Beast and Norman Mailer helped get him out of prison. Six weeks after his release, Abbott killed the waiter outside our restaurant, furious for being told that customers were not allowed to use the bathroom. It turns out, it was because of insurance issues. The bathroom was down a deep staircase in the basement. 

MM: We used to visit each other’s studios which were just a room and a table in our apartments. Sat up talking about painting and smoking our brains out. 

SB: In preparation for a panel discussion Jason Stopa asked what I think might be the stakes for painting now, and I gave it some thought, but I don’t even know what that means. 

SH: I mean there are stakes. Because stakes are like, are we going to stay committed to the body or not …. the physicality of making paintings, or the time and commitment it takes to be engaged in something else that is not physically there. Because virtual is so neat and so easy and so correct and so quick. How many shows  do you see on the internet and then you see them in real life and it’s like Emperor’snew clothes. 

Thomas Edison had a famous phrase about his head, with something to the effect of, we’ll do anything to avoid sitting and thinking through a problem. It’s the hardest thing to look like you’re not doing anything when it’s really hard. When you get in trouble and have to make your way out. 

MM: But just to play the devil’s advocate. So then, you don’t like any work that doesn’t manifest the struggle. 

SH: When you put it that way, I disagree with myself, but I would say that something like Al Held — He’s clearly carrying out a design but what happens to the material along the way is him and the material and he reacts to that and you can kind of see that. 

MM: Well in the early Al Held the paint is meaty and thick but that really changes to the late work. Those architecturally-derived paintings are very worked out before hand and the paint is completely flat 

SH: Even when it’s not as meaty it’s still painting.

SH: Now Mondrian, he’s clearly carrying something out but a lot happens along the way. 

SB: I think Mondrian would be my patron saint of painting. 

SH: I would have no problem with this. 

SB: If you see those paintings they’re physical you know, the brush strokes. They’re so beautiful and I love the process he went through to arrive there. The trees, the landscapes, and all the experimentation that led up to the pure abstraction. 

MM: It’s funny considering what you do now and your most recent work, somehow it seems interesting in thinking about Mondrian.

SB: Because the line, the quality of the line. How you paint a line, all of these things have meaning. Masking versus the best you can do with a free hand.

SH: And viewers realize that all those intricate details you’re having to decide on, they just take it and they know they’re enjoying it but they don’t know why. There’s a pencil mark and that’s a brush mark and this is a stroke. You don’t realize why it’s pleasurable but they know it is. The thing about the gallery in Toronto, owned by Olga Korper, soon to be taken over by her grandaughter, is that they actually love to talk about painting…They understand that I’m not a landscape painter. I paint the state of the world, using metaphors from the things I see. And I’m more interested in urban environments. Because I like people and I like to be around crowds. I would hate to move to the suburbs or the country. That’s why I’m here. 

SB: One of the things I love about your paintings is that they are so full. They reward closer looking. 

SH: I hope so. I just want to be able to play in them and not feel obligated to figure it out. And just get lost in one little part and enjoy it and then be able to turn around and walk away. 

Susanna Heller: 2020 New Work,” Olga Korper, 17 Morrow Avenue, Toronto, Canada. February 15 – March 21, 2020

About the author: Medrie MacPhee is represented by Tibor de Nagy in New York, Nicholas Metivier in Toronto, and she is the Sherri Burt Hennessey Artist-In-Residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. In 2019 MacPhee was inducted into the the National Academy of Design.

Related posts:
Medrie MacPhee: Flat-out at Tibor de Nagy
Report from Toronto
Vancouver Report: Lyse Lemieux at Republic Gallery
Jeremy Hof: The elephant In the room

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