Catalogue Essay, Museum Exhibitions

Sue Havens: Encoding history

Sue Havens, 2021 installation of “Cull,” her solo show at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

I contributed this essay to the exhibition catalogue for “Cull,” Sue Havens’ solo show at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art in Las Vegas. Please join us on Monday, May 28, at 11:30 am, when Two Coats of Paint will host a Clubhouse conversation about the show, with artist Sue Havens, curator Jason Lazarus, and museum director Alisha Kerlin. Sharon Butler

Sue Havens – the youngest of four siblings, two girls and two boys – grew up in Rochester, a grey, medium-sized city on Lake Ontario in upstate New York. Her mother, Anne Havens, is an artist and her father Jim was a machinist who ran his own tool and die shop. Like her parents, Havens has always been drawn to making things – crafts, clothes, and especially drawings. She organizes memories by what she made during different periods of her girlhood, the way a good PowerPoint lecture would array different epochs of art history.

Before she was born, her oldest brother died of a rare autoimmunity disorder, XLP, which had been passed genetically from her mother. Later, when she was a teenager absorbed with making comic books, playing the accordian, and sewing outlandish outfits , her other brother died of the same disorder. Encircled by family trauma, Havens won several art awards for high school students, applied to art schools, and was accepted at Cooper Union, the prestigious New York City art college known for its excellent faculty and free tuition. For the next 25 years, she lived in and around the city, where she continued to make art.

Sue Havens, untitled pandemic painting on paper, 22 x 30 inches

Life in America for artists was then as it remains: a grueling, contingent experience. Havens’ situation was particularly hand-to-mouth. She worked making painted prototypes at the Danbury Mint, painted figures in a wax museum, assisted other artists in their studios, and worked as an adjunct professor. One year, when jobs in the city were scarce, she traveled back and forth to Boston each week to teach a course called “Form Study” at the Massachusetts College of Art.  While she was in graduate school at Bard, she worked with several inspiring artists. Stephen Westfall was fond of telling her to “STRETCH THOSE CANVASES!” and “SCALE  IT UP!” But she has always been pragmatic, adapting her practice to suit her circumstances.

Sue Havens, Parent II, 2020, ceramic object.

Eventually she married a Turkish man, who was in the pedicab business, named Ibrahim. Despite her fear of passing her mother’s deadly genetic quirk to a biological child, she became pregnant and delivered Wesley, a healthy baby boy. When she and Ibrahim took Wesley to Turkey to meet his father’s family, she became enamored of their colorfully decorated home and traditional Turkish crafts. Patterns she saw on the trip began appearing in her paintings. Havens decided to apply for stable teaching jobs, and she was hired for a tenure-track position at the University of South Florida.

Now living with her family in Tampa, Havens revels in Florida’s expansive landscape after years spent in cramped, gritty New York apartments that continue to haunt her in unsettling dreams. She has a studio on campus, although during the pandemic she began working in the garage attached to their house. Before lockdown, she overheard some students talking about a group called “Little Muddies.” Intrigued, she found her way to ceramic studio, and into something new. For several years, she had worked modularly on small pieces of paper, using vernacular motifs accumulated from her everyday experience with thrift-shop dresses, mini-golf landscapes, stucco architecture, and other patterns found in nature. Havens’ experiments with clay now unlocked an interest in three-dimensional form. Since that discovery, rolling out slabs and building objects out of clay has become a happy preoccupation that has informed the direction of her paintings.

The artist’s son working in Havens’ garage studio during the Covid lockdown.

At first, Havens saw the clay pieces that emerged from the kiln as new, sometimes eccentric, surfaces for paintings. Although formed by combining geometric forms, in retrospect they seem figurative, each with a distinct personality. She experimented with firing processes, particularly raku, in which extremely hot temperatures create unexpected results, such as burning and cracking the glaze. The metaphorical implications of a process whereby the ultimate outcome was essentially unpredictable were galvanizing.

She displayed her sculptures on stools and end tables that were inspired by the furniture in her family’s Rochester home. Soon her interest in painted surfaces and pattern gave way to a fascination with the physicality of building and structure. She began, as Westfall might have said, to scale the objects up, and to work modularly as she had in previous work with patterns on paper, expanding their physical presence. In Block Stack (2020) trapezoidal forms painted with geometric shapes and patterns can be stacked and grouped in variable-sized arrangements.

In a series of paintings on sheets of 22 x 30-inch 150-pound paper that she started when the ceramics studio closed during the pandemic, Havens incorporated comparable layering, accident, and tactility. As she worked, imagery emerged, forms were carved out, many of them erased and then built up again. Although she wasn’t exactly sure what she was looking for, Havens used her compulsion to search, however blindly, and developed an inventive process. Each day, she added color, scraped, and then added more. The paintings became muddier and thicker, more morose and complex. Singular forms reminiscent of the clay objects began to appear. Fully frontal and without gradations or modeling to create the illusion of three-dimensional form, the singular images look like vessels, containers, heads, or perhaps creatures carved into a totem pole.

In Untitled Havens uses a painted brown outline to corral roughly painted and fragmented patterns, she creates “windows” that function like archeological sites, enabling us to see previous iterations of the piece. In Force Field, she uses a wide brush to scale up the patterns within their containers, and they begin to take on the weight of geometric shape, often with figural allusions. Once a humble polka dot, the circle now becomes a worried eye, a rectangle becomes a grimacing mouth. Havens understands that how a geometric shape is placed and scaled, and how it is situated among other elements, can make all the difference.

Sue Havens, installation view

In previous installations, for instance, in Brick and Mortar from 2017, Havens positioned playful sculptures in front of large paintings that she made by painting lines and patterns on small pieces of paper and then collaging them together. At the time, the clay objects, painted similarly to the work on the wall behind them, seemed to blend in with the paintings. Making this new body of work in 2020, Havens has discovered distinct and varied forms that distill a unifying monumentality. She has moved away from repetition and modularity in the work on paper and towards singular, near-symmetrical shapes centered on the page. Havens’ history – her searching and sometimes painful life experiences and her adventurousness in the studio – are distinctly encoded, like a unique double helix of molecular structure, in the complex work she has produced this past year.

When she was in Turkey, meeting her in-laws for the first time, Havens was drawn to one of their beautiful woven rugs. It was a traditional but inexpensive kind of carpet known as a kilim or a rag rug. Committed recyclers often out of necessity, the Turkish people make such rugs from old bits of used clothing and other fabrics. Ibrahim’s family had had this one made from worn-out sweaters contributed by family members. Havens certainly admired the mix of colors, patterns, and textures, which resembled those in her work. But when they explained how the rug was made, she came to value the historical content and the inherent symbolism of the materials, and the process of making the object, even more. It was in her DNA.

Sue Havens: Cull,” curated by Jason Lazarus. Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. Throgh July 9, 2021.

Excerpt from curator Jason Lazarus’ essay:

“There is so much here to read, so much literal and metaphoric depth of field, in this small garage that Sue employs as a home studio. Only recently did she get a space heater for it.Wesley, pictured above, is in Sue’s work, surrounded by it, and perhaps even contributing to it.He is uninhibited and present in his mind and energy-coiled body. Sue’s work is not about him, but it is him, too. I don’t want to romanticize everything about Wesley, art-making, and motherhood. There is tension and fury in her work that photos like this will always salve.

“Truly, when I look at this photo, I see a history painting.When googling ‘history painting’ I see a definition that reads ‘…a genre in painting defined by its subject matter rather than artistic style.’ I see The Death of Socrates, The Interview Between Napoleon I and Francis II after the Battle of Austerlitz, The Assassination of the Bishop of Liege, The Death of Marat, Judas Returning Thirty SilverPieces, and Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time…its crolls on and on…” Read more.

Related posts:
Stanley Rosen: Slabs and coils, scallops and disks
Immediate, physical, emotional: Studio visit with Elise Siegel
Residency in Tuscany: Scarlett Bowman talks with Jon Lutz

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