March 9 – April 14, 2018
SUSANNA BLUHM – Red Country: Mississippi + Arizona
Artist Talk + Reception: Saturday, March 17th, 3-5pm
Artist Statement: Susanna Bluhm – Mississippi & Arizona
The paintings in this show are based on trips I took to Mississippi and Arizona. They’re a part of a four (or possibly eight) year project I’m doing called Red Country.
After the election of Donald Trump by the electoral votes of red states, I resolved to challenge my feelings of incredulity and animosity towards those states by visiting as many of them as I can while Trump is in office, and making paintings about my experiences there. From January 2017 through January 2021 (or 2025, if he is re-elected), I am taking short trips to a few red states each year. While there, I do research, take pictures, and make notes and drawings in my sketchbook. Then I come back to my studio in Seattle and make a group of paintings based on my trip to each state.
In each state I visit, I am asking people who live there where they think I should go in their state. I ask them to choose a place that they think is important in some way – which I have left open to their interpretation and has varied widely! Some have told me to go to popular tourist destination landscapes, like the Grand Canyon, while some have told me to go to places that have been significant to them personally, like a woman’s backyard in rural Arizona. Some have told me stories about important people in their state. In Natchez, Mississippi, the director of the Natchez Museum of African-American History and Culture told me the true story of Miss Nellie Jackson, who ran the longest-standing African American business in Natchez: a brothel. She was a loved, trusted member of the community and bailed freedom fighters out of jail. One night in the 1990’s she denied entry to a drunk white man. That night he burned her house down and she died a few days later. Some of my Mississippi paintings feature Miss Nellie with a large “N” and with the red and white awnings of her house.
I am reading Moby-Dick while I do this project. Part of the title of each painting (the part in parentheses) is a chapter title in Moby-Dick. I am on a journey of intimacy with our country. I must be stalwart as I pursue my whale so as not to be slain in the process.
With this project, I am not attempting to summarize each state. I’m not trying to have the quintessential experience of each state. I’m not observing from a distance. I am having an experience in each state, as myself: a white, female, queer, mother, artist from Seattle.
The resulting paintings are semi-abstract and landscape-based (“landscape” being very broadly defined) with a personal narrative running underneath. Semi-abstract “characters” show up in the paintings and suggest meanings with their repetition and associations with each other. For example, a chunk of green and white stripes has its origins in the green and white striped pajama bottoms from Suzanne Valadon’s The Blue Room, 1923. To me, this “character” feels like a queer, feminist reclaiming of the history of painting.
I see this work as a three-pronged effort: I am looking at my agency in the landscape; I am trying to spend more time in the place by painting it; I am using paint to make physical contact again. In this intimate way, the paintings explore the concept of landscape as a lover and loved one, enmeshed with the paint, and without the safe distance usually afforded by the Sublime in traditional Western landscape painting.