Susan Bee at A.I.R - New York, New York

Art in America,  Oct, 1998  by Jonathan Goodman

Susan Bee's feminist assemblage paintings make use of all manner of materials: paper dolls, 1940s advertisements for trashy detective novels, plastic replicas of garter snakes and conch shells. She incorporates these found elements to propose a world in which childhood memories, assertion of self and a political sensibility are equally important in determining ideas of gender today. Bee also includes a wide variety of marks and signs--from slightly stylized versions of horizontal brush strokes to Abstract-Expressionist drips to flowers--which argue, by implication, for an intellectually varied understanding of women's concerns. The 14 works in the exhibition demonstrated how Bee collages ideas and methods to encompass the miscellaneous origins of American culture and their effects on us.

Aloha (1997), a large mixed-medium work on linen, illustrates Bee's technique. It depicts a synthetic paradise, with a pink rose at top right, a sunflower at bottom left, and four plastic shells, forming a composition which is enlivened by short lengthwise brushstrokes in black, green and bright pink. Two paper dolls--a dancing Hawaiian girl and an upside-down, red-haired German girl in a short dirndl skirt--symbolize Bee's themes of erotic enjoyment and child-like innocence. A lot is going on in Aloha. Bee's knowing juxtapositions include a snake close by the hula dancer. Still, the artist clearly means to have a good time in her artificial paradise, where pleasure is sought out rather than shunned.

The Bell Cracked, a large 1997 oil-and-collage work, offers a bit of American history: a cracked Liberty Bell and a paper doll of the Revolutionary War heroine Molly Pitcher firing a cannon. The goofy surrealism of the painting, complete with branches emanating from the clock face of Big Ben, a pair of maharajahs on an elephant, and a quaintly erotic black-and-white photograph of a kneeling nude, suggests that America's history is itself a collage, in which incongruous elements make sense, on political and thematic levels, because the person categorizing them sees a connection. This work, like most of Bee's, is a comic and lyric interpretation of memory and meaning.