The Paintings of Susan Bee


Susan Bee's painting (like her collages and her color xerox and photographic books) is generated out of “the end” of painting. In the place (edge, puncture) where the history of modern painting ends, her painterly interventions begin.


Bee's altered photo books from the 1970s (Photogram, 1978) and early 1980s (The Occurrence of Tune, 1981) close down and deconstruct the power of representation that photography took over from painting. Photograms take away the power of representation from photographs, returning to the concreteness of the surface (relations of black and white, plane and form on the surface). Photograms take away the power of producing the meaning by means of representation, leaving to the gaze the realized surface of possible associations. Possible associations are not symbolic but are based on the sig­nifier's ability to anticipate potential meanings.

There is a photo in The Occurrence of Tune that shows the artist with camera. Her face is framed by a square, drawn with photo-chemicals. The painterly motif of the artist's self-portrait becomes the photo-document (icon­ic sign) that is, by means of the painterly intervention upon the surface of the photo, brought to the edge of gestural painting. This edge tells about the end of painting, signifying borders of face, figure, and form on the plane.

The end of painting, which in different ways happened in photography, film, video, performance, and conceptual art, had the nature of a performa­tive act. That is to say, the end of painting gained its meaning and sense by abandoning painting, and not by creating representation or by producing artifacts. The act of ending painting obtained its sense and its meaning by its own realization. The material power of representation in painting trans­formed itself into the concept of representation and into the logic of repre­ senting. Deconstruction of representation is based upon the transformation of the sign of painting (that which it shows: picture, text, scene) into the sig­nifier (that which precedes representation). The signifier was the ideal zero degree of painting. Bee's photograms tended towards the zero degree of pho­tographic surface as the zero place of painting.


Bee's paintings, beginning in the 1980s and the early 90s, raise ques­tions about the nature of painting by transforming modernist and high mod­ ernist signifiers and signs of painting, as well as the visual codes of mass cul­ture, into new signs and texts for painting after the end of painting. She shows how one signifier from the history of painting or from advertising designs of the fifties becomes the new sign or structure of sign (text of paint­ing). Her paintings are the other in relation to the history of modernism, although they are made out of signifiers of modernistic representations. Her paintings posit for us the exact material scene for the representation of the signifier's transformation into sign and sign's transformation into the text of painting.

Bee's paintings are the other in relation to the history and scene of modernistic painting. Where can we find the nature of this otherness of her paint­ings? This otherness is to be found in the asymmetry that is established at the visual and semantic planes: (1) between the sign structures of modernism that her painting takes over as signifiers and (2) their transformation into new painterly signs and structures. This asymmetry is analogous to the asymmetry that exists between language and the subject. The asymmetry between language and the subject who speaks or writes creates the relation of otherness. Language is always unfamiliar to the subject and language always drops out the subject. Asymmetry creates a discrepancy between the subject of language and the existential (biological) being. Similarly, Bee's paintings, by fragmenting the modernist visual structures of painting's and advertising's signs, build an asymmetry between: (1) herself as the subject of the act of painting, (2) painting as the ordering of signifiers that transforms itself into the new painting, and (3) the Other that could also be the strong subject of modernism as well as the weak subject of postmodernism (which could be painting's laws, political dogma, models of sexual intercourse, styles of social consumption, the gaze that interprets the painting, feminist critical discourse, fatal strategies of seduction). Her paintings are about the asymme­try of the subjectivity of representation and about the relation among signifi­er—> subject—> sign—> Other. Equally by her figures and by her charac­teristic signs of painterly procedures (her use of Jackson Pollock dripping or advertising and cartoon iconographies of fifties), Bee introduces sexual and political connotations into the play of painting. She shows that the function of the painting: (1) is not anymore the ritual transcendence of the plane of the canvas into the sacred (European tradition), (2) is not the aesthetic transfor­mation of this plane into immanent subjective experience (European figura­ tive expressionism, American abstract expressionism, modernist autonomy of the aesthetic into which the artistic work is transformed), (3) is not the destructive, analytical, and deconstructive act of performative transformation of this plane into the existence (performance) or into the cognition of art (con­ceptual art). She shows that the function of painting is based upon the other practice: it has its foundation in the sexual-political net of production of asymmetry between painting and the Other as the theme of painting. The Other of her painting is not the transcendental Other, but the Other of the sexual-political net of pictoral images.

How can this sexual-political net of production of asymmetry between painting and the Other be recognized? Let us look at the painting Otranto (1984). At the plane's surface there is the “floating” or “lying” statue of a man's head as if gazing at the nude female figure below. The painterly procedure and compositional solution are close to the Italian transavantgardia: (1) clas­sicist compositional relation between figure's head and figure of the body (pseudoclassical pose), (2) the modernist relation of the head and the figure on the plane, (3) the postfuturist and postcubist modernist solution of a reduced figure of the body and head (the body and head are transformed into iconic signs). The way the scene is represented by the painting produces a range of narrative relations that could be recognized as a “sexual-political net”:

(a) She, as he would wish her.
(b) He, as she should wish him.
(c) She, as he would like her to be seen.
(d) He, as he would like her to see him.
(e) She, as he would like her to see herself.
(f) He, as he for her would like to be seen by her.

This chain between Her and Him is a chain of failure in the sense of sexual relation and brings asymmetry to the representation of gender-political relations. In the painting, he looks at her, and she doesn't look at him. He sees her, and she imagines him (or she doesn't see him). The difference between perception as an act of fulfilment of (man's) wish and imagination as the pro­ducing of (woman's) wish is a political-sexual difference that the painting pro­duces for us by representing it. The represented failure and the asymmetry of her and his gazes (it is possible for him to see her and by seeing her to dominate over her and her ability to imagine being looked at) could be deter­mined as what is sexual and political in every human act. Every failing act — here we think of gazes that don't meet one another — has some connection with sexual motivation and with political consequences. The sexual motiva­tion is represented by the relation of the two figures and their objectification. This objectification of the gaze (the relation between subject and object) is universal in Western tradition of representation. The political consequences are inscribed in the relationship between subject and Other — a relationship that is represented in this painting as the relationship between outer and inner. Outer is represented by the male as symbol of transcendence (there is no body, just the master's gaze), of law (he floats above her), and of ethos (he is the one that looks at and who gives criteria for the gaze). Inner is repre­sented by the naked female figure (which is the object of wish, fetish, the place of wish, the invitation to be looked at, the invitation for the imagining Other who looks at her). His transcendence is universal and grasps the power of symbolic law (in Levinas's words, transcendence is not negative). Her transcendence is only personal and grasps the power of imaginative experience (it is always negative because it does not grasp the universal sym­bolic order).

The sexual-political net of the represented figures' relations is always the expression of nonwholeness. Theoretical psychoanalysis shows that the con­stitution of subject, culture and society is nonwhole and that the system of human relations always shows some lack (defect, failure, asymmetry of gaze and wish out of which power comes into existence). The idea of nonwholeness arises out of the “fact” that nature (woman) and culture (man) are not two circles that could in any way come together in one circle (“There is no intercourse!”). Bee's painting shows that there is no intercourse, that there are only differences in desire and the ability to wish with open eyes (symbolic order) or with closed eyes (imaginary order). Teaching about nonwholeness subverts the last two hundred years of the Western ideology of complemen­tarity (of male and female, of wish, gaze, political power, sexual division of values, of matter and spirit) of wholeness and consistency. The idea of non­wholeness shows that speaking (writing, painting, looking, thinking) is gender determined. The representation of nonwholeness through the asymme­try of the figures reveals what is important: the knowledge about taking over of one's own gender in speaking (looking, writing, painting, living).


Bee's painting — made out of diverse, appropriated signifiers — produces an asymmetric pictoral order of signs and shows that it possesses neither itself nor the neutral metalanguage by which its meaning and pictoral rela­tions could be codified. It immediately invites analysis. But where should the analysis start, where are the points of support, when in front of us there is the order of: (1) asymmetric figures, (2) open noncoherent compositional solutions, and (3) fragmented narrative mechanisms?

Asymmetry of figures

A figure is always a trace, and a trace is always a trace of absence, a trace of Other. A figure (of a woman, a child, a doll) is not a sign of the pres­ence of a woman's, child's or doll's being on the painting but rather is a trace that points out that there is no being. A figure speaks (shows, represents) what is not on the painting and what could not be in the painting. An image in the mirror is always symmetric to the body in front of it. A figure in paint­ing is always asymmetric to all persons and bodies of the world revealing itself as being the trace of representation of what is already represented. Bee works with the clichés of figure; for example, some figures from her paintings are paper dolls cut out from girls' magazines from the 1950s or decals. Her figures seem to want to tell us: “Yes, we are imaginary asymmetric figures: we are not figures of the persons made of flesh and blood!” Her paintings always point to a context of appropriating out of “one possible world” and removing into “the other possible world.”

How to become the figure of the painting? A figure becomes the figure of the painting when the already existing figure is removed and becomes the element (trace) for a new context of transformation of signifier into the sign and of sign into the visual pictoral text. The figure removed from one possi­ble world (of advertisement, of toys) into the pictoral world of painting, is inscribed in literal, material manner. Inscribing the figure in painting is both material and bodily. Figures from advertisements or from girls' magazines are impersonal representations (metaphors) of possible persons; that is, they are actually metaphors for a girl or a woman. When that figure is inscribed in the painting, it becomes a material body in a material pictoral painting's world.

Open noncoherent compositional solutions

When a figure is inscribed into the painting, it is brought into it: it is inserted into a new material relationship with the painting elements that determine, or at least make possible, the potential meaning of the figure. In these paintings, a figure is never given in a simple way, for instance: (1) a fig­ ure is inserted in an artificial collage-montage manner, so that it is non­coherent with its plane and all other solutions (Gray Matter, 1993); (2) the figure floats, in other words, it is not determined by conventions of spatial representations of the body in the picture plane (Swiss Miss, 1993); (3) the figure is covered by layers of color, lines, stains (Little Girl Lost, 1993 or Greetings, 1993); (4) several figures are mutually connected by organic shapes (The Gaze). The fact that the figure is not given in a simplistic “natural / con­ventional way” emphasizes the act of pictoral inscription through acts of taking-over, insertion, and classification. The figure is always brought into the broader pictoral product.

It is possible to differentiate three levels in the painting Little Girl Lost: (1) the colorful plane, (2) the figure on the plane, and (3) the Pollock-like dripping grid that covers the figure. The situation of the painting Greetings is more complex: two figures (which represent two girls in a hug) are situated in pictoral scene that is covered by a grid of Pollock-like dripping and little vignettes with texts. In relation to other compositional elements, the figures do not appear as the human center (the represented human being around which the composition is built and which gives sense to the composition). The figure is a signifier for the painting, but a signifier that is in relation with other signifiers (the picture plane, the dripping grid, the other figures, the vignettes with texts, or with three-dimensional objects that are introduced into the painting). The figure also presents the painting's subject. This fig­ure will be the figure that causes all other figures to represent the subject. But the subject that is built into the painting at the same time is the figure that is in relation to the figures (signifiers) of painting as art. This chain-like branching out of the relation of figure and representations of subject is poten­tially endless — it is never finished or stable.

Bee's painting surfaces are material scenes that subvert the idea of a transcendental signifier. Every single painting's signifier is changed in rela­ tion to the other pictoral signifiers without establishing a coherent meaning order. Her paintings subvert the idea of transcendental signifier because they prevent finding the first signifier (first signifier = transcendental signifi­er) with which painting is started and that builds a continuum between the painting and the world or between painting and spirit. The serial character of these paintings is a consequence of this subversion of the “first” or tran­ scendent signifier.

Many of Bee's paintings are made in series; for instance, several paintings point to different moments of one narrative (semantic level) or pro­cedural (formal painterly level) flow. Some of Bee's paintings are made in layers so that over time the layers are changed, covering precursory traces or representations into planes. Let us consider, for example, a series of paint­ings and collages that represent two women fighting with one another while floating on the painting's surface. The same figural relation of two women (taken from a 19th-century wood engraving) is given three treatments: (1) with stains around the figures, (2) with stains around the figures out of which a square spiral that frames the figures is drawn, and (3) with dripping lines that cover the figures. In the first case, figures and stains have the same pic­toral signifier's function of floating in pictoral space (creating a floating illu­sion on the surface). There is no defined space. In the second case, the square spiral establishes spatial relations between figures, with the stains and sur­face building a defined pictoral spatial world. In the third case, the figures are situated in a dripping whirlpool that covers them by suggesting the depth in which they are situated. In all three cases, empty signifiers introduced into the painting's space (on the painting's surface) anticipate different meanings that may not necessarily be clarified and clearly defined. This series, just through the anticipations of different meanings it creates, points to the inseparable relation of the figural and linguistic, because language not only estab­lishes codes, but also opens endless potentials of meaning.

These works, as well as most of Bee's paintings, contain an atmosphere of humor (of possible laughter), although we never exactly know what it is that produces humor. Maybe it is the multitude of asymmetries that show that among the painter's different viewpoints and different stylistic solutions (iconographies, compositional possibilities of one and the same painting and of narrative fragmented citations) there is no correspondence in meaning, but a multitude of often opposite indexes that point to fear, pleasure, or unsafe­ ness, i.e., to the forms of visualization of skillfulness, spontanaeity, chance, ironization, self-reflectiveness, transfer, countertransfer, tenderness, crafti­ness, seduction, innocence, language games, and children's games. The hid­den laughter that hums behind the paintings is the laughter of a puzzle.

Fragmented narrative mechanisms

All of Bee's paintings made between 1991 and 1994 contain narrative fragments. Fragments of narration are connected with the relations of the figures. They are elements of a story that is out of the picture. By introducing the figure into the painting, narration is announced, promised, or quoted. Nevertheless, fragments of narration never start or finish the story. The story as a continuity of pictoral narration and representation is unapproach­able. The narration is always out of the painting. It is the object of the wish that represents the Other. But the story of the Other cannot be told or repre­sented by the painting. The story remains an announcement and pictoral promise. The Other is, for painting as well as for language, always that which cannot be described by metaphor, allegory, or by speculative transcendences.

Let us consider the painting Swiss Miss (1991). The gesturally painted, richly-colored surface is in the tradition of abstract expressionism. Two female figures (paper dolls) are introduced into the painting by collage. Their floating relation on the plane is arbitrary in the spatial sense. In the stylistic sense it corresponds, for example, to the use of “floating figures” in the work of Marc Chagall. The banner (the cloud in which the text is placed, for exam­ple in a cartoon) is the hole that yawns in the plane making the illusion of the space behind the plane. In the banner there is a horse's head. The banner with its peak, which is usually put near the figure's mouth that speaks in a cartoon, is placed towards the female figure's genitals. None of the described figural relations has a specific meaning, or a fixed narrative motive.

What are the narrative promises of Bee's paintings, what are the figural relations based on? First, there is the absence of one fixed narrator; for example, the author-painter who by the use of pictoral tools speaks and shows a possible event. As a painter, Bee doesn't have defined stylistic, iconographic, gender, and metalinguistic position in relation to the figures, composition, and narrative promises. She changes her moods in the frame of one and the same painting by changing the stylistic, iconographic, gender, and metalinguistic positions of her gestures, colors, and forms. She promises, but doesn't declare, pictoral truth.

Second, there is the absence of imaginary and symbolic identification with a coherent narrative flow and with the subject that is identified with a narra­tive structure and that builds a pictoral voice of narration. Imaginary identi­ fication, for example the Lacanian stadium of the mirror, is subverted. There is no identification with represented characters. Represented characters are figures that are in fact traces of the figures of mass media production. Bee does not identify her painfulness with the painfulness of the painted scene. That is why her expressionism is para-expressionism (she represents the expressionist atmosphere of painting but she doesn't represent inner soul moods by expressionist modes). Neither at the iconic level (of the identifica­tion of her character with the figure) nor at the symbolic level (of the identifi­cation of her gesture with inner moods) does she define the subject. Her iden­tifications lead towards a representation of the represented, and her emotions are in relation to the emotions of perception and to the usage of the already represented. They are not stable, but are changeable to the extent permitted by every shift from the original context of the figure (advertisements, magazines, paper dolls) to the new context of placing figures in the painting's plane.

Third, Bee's recent paintings work by shifting the viewpoint at the level of narrative promises as well as at the level of formal pictoral solutions. With her pictoral iconic signs, the painter tells neither a fairytale, nor a folk­lore anecdote, maiden's dream, woman's wish, nor obscene game. All these she promises, pointing to the fact that the drama of the painting is not be found in the obscenity of a psychoanalytical myth about the relation of the body to the language, but in the drama of the gesture of the painter who opposes figure to language. Yet it is as if Bee evades language also: (1) by gestures that take away the sense from the figure (gestures that refute estab­lished, recognizable, and valid “grammatical” figures) and (2) by inserting the figure into a field of gestures, an insertion that takes away from the gesture the pure senselessness of painting, promising a language that is not there in the picture.

This essay originally appeared in ProFemina ( Yugoslavia , 1995). It was translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Dubravka Djuric. It was first publish in M/E/A/N/I/N/G 18 (1995) and collected in M/E/A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists' Writing, Theory, and Criticism (Duke University Press, 2000)


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