Video interview with Susanna Coffey

February 09, 2014

Gorky’s Granddaughter | Jan 26, 2014 | click here to view online

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Hyperallergic Review

The Power of Three Small Paintings

Hyperallergic | Feb 3, 2014 | by Peter Malone

Susanna Coffey’s paintings at Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects make such leaps in appearance from one to the other that the installation at first sight resembles a group show. Known for her self-portraits, Coffey has apparently been subjecting her signature stare to a variety of technical and formal innovations. “Sharon’s Potion’s Breath” (2011) stands out.

Its image appears as a cluster of overlapping arcs ranging from iridescent yellows to blues and violets that together outline a skull-like visage in the upper half of the panel. The warm light it creates then sinks into the cooler spectrum below, suggesting along the way a pair of shoulders supporting the head. I was able to spy a secondary face in the lower section — only with the kind assistance of the gallery director — defined by a bluish light emanating irrationally from the warm glow above, the two occupying a strangely contradictory place, like a “hallucination,” as Jennifer Samet puts it in the accompanying catalog essay.

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The Brooklyn Rail Review

Susanna Coffey Elemental

The Brooklyn Rail | Feb 5, 2014 | by Hearne Pardee

The sort of self-examination Susanna Coffey has practiced over the past three decades is far from the passive self-absorption often criticized in contemporary media. Her long practice of self-portraiture, which she expands significantly in this new group of small paintings, is an active investigation of cultural forms related to the self.

Susanna Coffey, “Oh Day, Verge and Bow,” 2013. Acrylic on panel, 13 × 12 ̋.

Coffey’s art is one of empirical observation, constantly varied based on the subject she contemplates. Like a teller of tales, she’s assumed varied guises over the past three decades, sometimes under dramatic lighting or extreme points of view, sometimes in flamboyant costumes or exaggerated make-up; she finds constant sources of invention in her own person and in the roles our society asks us to play. Yet as a true painter who works from observation, she finds ongoing inspiration in whatever light a new day brings to familiar features. Nuanced yet dispassionate, her paintings are grounded in the materials at hand.

Coffey’s understated style can best be appreciated in the delicately rendered “James’s Woman’s Skull” (2011), which serves as a sort of anchor for this wide-ranging exhibition. She brings a tactile immediacy to her treatment of the skull’s lustrous surface, but without any showy display of technique; it’s centered, frontal—no compositional theatrics. In “Yammy” (2012), she treats with equal respect a mask from New Guinea, used to adorn five to six foot long yam tubers to indicate their participation in the life of the tribe.  Painterly touch is central to these small-scale works, about the size of hand-held mirrors; it animates their subjects and their enveloping space, which begins to assume a material presence.

This basis in specifics serves Coffey well in the more ambitious psychological exploration she undertakes with the works in Elemental. In the past, she has often used the background as a way to add psychological inflections to her portraits, most dramatically during the Iraq War, when she depicted her head with eyes closed in front of televised images of the bombing of Baghdad. Here, the backgrounds increasingly encroach on the heads. In “Green” (2013), as though submerged in a forest floor, Coffey’s face is partly covered by fronds of evergreen, which delicately touch her lips, while the deeply shadowed head in “Rest Stop” (2013) evokes her recent series of night paintings, in which the overall darkness supplies a matrix for emerging forms.

The obscured self-images, along with Coffey’s invocation of elemental forces, take the works in an increasingly abstract and Jungian direction. “Takenage’s Division” (2011) alludes to Monet and the familiar trope of reflection in water. Shifting from the mirror to the natural world, the self-image is lost in dark depths; we seek shadowy traces of eyes and lips in the ripples around the familiar axis of symmetry. Water is the locus of Narcissus’s self-loss, and the spreading hair and blue background of “Headstand, Earle’s and Locke’s” (2012) suggest Ophelia adrift, another archetype of self-abandonment.

“Oh Day, Verge and Bow”(2013), apparently an allusion to fire, takes us into very subjective territory indeed. We peer through cloudy layers of sprayed orange paint into darker spaces where luminous touches of pigment suggest features, suspended between surface and depth. In recent works, Coffey used “Apophenia” as a title, a tendency to see patterns in random data, linked to psychological disassociation. Yet there’s a constructive process at work in this dissolution, coming from Coffey’s use of forms abstracted from the head—the waving tendrils of hair that supply the framework for “Sharon’s Potion’s Breath” (2011), like a pattern of facial tattoos, or the isolated shapes stenciled with spray paint applied in layers to “Merciful he/she” (2013). Coffey takes inspiration from the codified elements of African sculpture, and here she resorts to a process founded in this external construction of identity, as though to counter the dissolution of the self in Western naturalism. Can Coffey remain grounded as works like “New Friends with Old” (2013), distanced from direct touch, get larger?

But Coffey doesn’t reach for grandiose conclusions—while there’s a strong romantic element to her self-exploration, there’s also a matter-of-factness to her deployment of visual elements and strength in their compression. She doesn’t appeal to universal truths or deep structures, but settles for what can be grasped and rendered. If bringing life to materials through painting from observation is a sort of conjuring, then she indeed extends the tradition of magic that intrigues her in African art. But she entertains multiple cultural possibilities, and her small paintings take the viewer on a wide-ranging ride through visual and psychosocial space. On their modest scale, they aspire to the encyclopedic “anthropology of images” proposed by last year’s Venice Biennale.

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“Elemental” opening at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects

December 23, 2013

Press Release:

Susanna Coffey, Elemental

January 8 – February 9, 2014

Opening: January 8, 6–8 pm

shfap | steven harvey fine art projects | 208 Forsyth Street New York, NY 10002 | Weds – Sun 12 – 6pm

Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects presents Elemental an exhibition of recent paintings by Susanna Coffey. This is her second solo show at the gallery—her Nocturnes were exhibited at SHFAP in 2012.

In this exhibition, Coffey reexamines a subject that has concerned her for decades: the parameters of the self-portrait. What does the ‘self’ look like, what are its boundaries, and where can it be seen? Paintings from the last three years employ differing approaches to producing an image of self.  We see faces encoded in landscape and ultimately dissolving within the facture of painted surfaces.

Apophenia describes the phenomenon of seeing faces in clouds or hearing words in the wind. Upon first encountering these works, it is not immediately apparent that they contain faces at all—the subject is camouflaged in patterns of color or lost in watery and verdant landscapes. Coffey’s portraits seem to grow roots; they are entangled, literally inseparable, from their grounds. As Coffey explores the rich psychological space between self and mirror, meaning becomes located in the tension between what is made visible and what is obscured.

Coffey’s gestural lines and evocative tonalities vibrate with human energy and complexity. Her vibrant textured surfaces display a painterly exuberance – she seems to delight in the difficulty of this project. Coffey’s ability to evoke a range of political and spiritual states calls to mind one of her influences, the rich symbolic language of West African figurative sculpture.

Coffey’s self-portraits stand in for individual or collective states of being. In these paintings, one begins to sense one’s own reflection. They reveal an artist coming to terms with what is being done in her name; they ask what are the boundaries between self and society? In the artist’s own words: “I think about the interconnections between people. Like how Aspen trees have a common root system. They look like they are different trees but they are all the same, really. Differences are maybe not as fascinating as similarities. Similarities are never exact, but they are beautiful.” Steve Locke wrote that, “Coffey is painting a new kind of space… She is painting the interference, the attitudes, the obfuscations between the understanding of the self. “

Coffey’s paintings were surveyed at the New York Studio School in 2008. Her work is included in the collections of The Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and The Art Institute of Chicago, The Indianapolis Museum of Art, The Akron Museum of Art, The Weatherspoon Art Museum, The Honolulu Academy of Art, The Minneapolis Museum of Art, and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Seville, Spain.

The exhibition is accompanied by a full color catalog.

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Riffing Off Symmetry: A Conversation with Susanna Coffey

July 14, 2013

Click Here to read and interview with Susanna Coffey by Jennifer Samet at Hyperallergic

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Susanna Coffey Speaks at the MET June 21st 6:30-7:30pm

June 12, 2013

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Artists on Artworks     Susanna Coffey

Friday, June 21, 6:30–7:30 p.m.

Free with Museum admission, though tickets are required

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Susanna Coffey on Huffingtonpost Image Blog

April 13, 2013

Click here to see website

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January 30, 2013

National Academy Museum / January 31 – May 5

1083 5th Ave at 89th Street New York, NY 10128

Susanna Coffey will be exhibiting at The Annual: 2013, a tradition at the Academy since its founding in 1826, the exhibition includes work by recently elected Academy members and highlights their important contribution to American culture.

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NYSS Benefit Auction and Dinner

October 09, 2011

Susanna Coffey has donated a piece for the New York Studio School Benefit Auction and Dinner

November 1, 2011
 / 6:00 PM Cocktail Reception and Silent Auction
 / 8:30 PM Dinner

For further details please click here

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New Bedford Museum – February 9 through May 22, 2011

February 11, 2011

When Joan Backes, the Curator of Vault Series at The New Bedford Museum contacted me about exhibiting my paintings there, I was very interested in doing so. Your city has long held an important place in my imagination. New Bedford in the 1840′s was home to two of America’s most influential artists, the writer Herman Melville and the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. Both are known for works that reveal a human consciousness that is inextricably merged with the “natural” world. According to this Transcendentalist vision each of us is bound in ongoing and dynamic interchange with the surrounding earth, water and air. I am one of many artists whose work is deeply influenced by this way of seeing, by these two sons of New Bedford. As a painter, Ryder has been an early and consistent source of inspiration. The powerful abstractness of his figurative paintings shows me that a “realistic” image is not enough.

One must see how an image is placed on the rectangle of the canvas and how the paint itself appears in order to fully access an authentic iteration of that image. Melville, the writer challenged me to look closely and hard at the world and it’s creatures. His ability to impart his perceptions in a clear and accessible language challenged me to do the same. More than anything, reading Melville has helped me throughout those many “dark drizzly Novembers in my soul” that are familiar to any mature artist. I am so pleased to be a part of this exhibition series.

A few words about the paintings in this exhibition: While the portraits are focused on individual faces, the landscape elements that surround the figure provide essential clues about her or his interiority. Without clouds or foliage, without a specific proportion of figure to ground, without a sense of light or dark, there could be no feeling to these figures. The night paintings also seek to evoke not only the appearance of a place but also the way it can feel to see in the dark, to be alone in it looking at the colors of night. The flower paintings are detailed and intimate arrangements of a single species. These careful arrangements of wild plants are meant to suggest a “letter from the world”, a moment of formalized nature. Although the blossoms are cut and becoming dry, these paintings preserve something of their last vivid coloration and patterning.

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