Susanna Coffey, who was born in New London, Connecticut, studied at Yale, teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago, and lives and works in New York, is best known for her self-portraits. These frontal heads set against backdrops of world locales and events are rigorous, unrelenting penetrations of the meeting-point of humanity and violence.
Over the last year, I got to know her, and another part of her painting practice. She works outdoors at night, making pulsating, loose landscapes and cityscapes on tiny canvases and boards. The differences between her practices are a reminder of how compelling the range of one’s humanness can be.
The sternness that her self-portraits suggest is undone by her personality, the way she connects with people, her love of dance and her spirituality. The focus on symmetry in Coffey’s work is not, in the end, about evenness, but rather a reminder of balance.
Coffey’s work was surveyed at the New York Studio School in 2008; her Nocturnes were shown at Steven Harvey Fine Art Projects in March 2012, and recent paintings exhibited at Alpha Gallery in September 2012. Her paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others.
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Jennifer Samet: Your self-portraits seem to be about different identities, different faces, the roles we play out or try on for the public. Would you agree? It is also interesting seeing your studio set-up, with your palette installed in front of the mirror, almost like a make-up table.
Susanna Coffey: I think that the overall society is interested in creating identity as brand. The idea that there is a constant identity is unrealistic. We are affected by time and place, so identity is always morphing. The figurative work is based on the frustration of that. I didn’t plan it; I just got involved in it. I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t concerned with this issue. Looking at the world and the gender identities that people try to subsume—in the 1950s, it was the hyper-masculine man and the homemaker—they seemed fictional and weird, not sustainable. I didn’t put it in those terms as a child, but I saw people suffering because of it. There was a layer of performance. The term I use is a James Baldwin term. He calls Ralph Ellison’s man, “A Fantasy in the Mind of the Republic.” That says it all. I’ve always rebelled against whatever that fantasy is.
JS: How did your practice of painting the self-portraits develop?
SC: When I was in undergraduate school (I was a little bit older when I went there), it was 1975-76. No one was painting then, but I really wanted to paint. I loved painting, right away. Those were the days of Artforum, and I thought that “post-studio” work required so much explanation in order for access to be had. It was class-consciousness. I thought, I’m going to paint, because everyone knows what a painting looks like. If I make a shitty painting, everybody will know, and if I make a good painting, it won’t be that good, because there’s enough good paintings around. And I really had a vocation to it, like a duck to water.
As time went on, I knew I wanted to work with figuration and gender identity. It took me a long time to find my own thing. I found it by accident, in a funny way. They didn’t teach painting when I was an undergraduate – how to put a palette together, or how to work from observation. I got a job in Chicago teaching figure painting, but I had never had a figure painting class. I went to graduate school at Yale, and William Bailey was teaching, but I couldn’t do his class, because I couldn’t do the naked female model, in a certain pose. When I got the job, I didn’t want to do what other people had done. So I started painting myself, in order to teach myself, and teach other people. In doing so, I realized that my original idea of figuration was inspired by West African figure sculpture, where the parts of the body are codified. And the way the parts of the body come together could signify for political states, spiritual states, anything. The form of it would be a vehicle for understood content. I continued to be moved by the classical tradition of that work. Once I was painting my own self-portrait, from observation, it merged with masking. That is when this work established itself.
JS: It is an interesting duality—the painting from observation, with these codified signifiers that set and established.
SC: Yes, they are set in society, but they riff off of the symmetry of the body. And they riff off body proportions. Even though they are codified, the vehicle for the code is the body, and everyone has a body. That was exciting to me. And even though the images are self-portraits, they are not really about me de facto. They are an “us” kind of thing.
JS: It is amazing to watch you work, and see your focus on symmetry – working the two sides of the painting, part by part, at the same time.
SC: Yes. I am totally nuts about symmetry. It’s not an idea; it’s in me. The feeling of establishing the symmetry and where I let it go off, and where it goes on— that establishes the feeling of the figure. So they are not perfect, not perfectly symmetrical. Where it goes off, turns out to be what looks like meaning.
JS: In addition to painting self-portraits, you are making the night paintings (cityscapes and landscapes), and the flower paintings. Do you see this way of working—making distinct bodies of work—as also taking on the issue of roles?
SC: It is a relationship between external ideas. I am just moving through the range of genres – still life, figuration, and landscape. Matisse, Hokusai, López García, and Goya all moved between the genres. It is more common that it’s not common, for artists to work in this range. But the range of work does not hit the public, until the person is dead. Most artists follow their work wherever it leads. They follow their muse or their duende. But the market or societal vision is relatively codified. It’s a cultural thought, and it’s not a particularly good thought.
JS: Yes, and it is true that your audience is seeing your self-portraits as a signature style or image. But I honestly hadn’t thought of it as just working across the genres.
SC: Yes. I’m like the most traditional person in the world, and I am really interested in the genres! I like that connection to the past that the traditional genres provide. People are moving away from tradition and the weight of history, and I’d rather bear that weight and feel it. Even though everything has been done, it hasn’t been done by me. And particularly for women artists, it is not a very long tradition. The culture in the United States is also not that old. So I don’t want to throw it off; I want to get engaged with history, and fight with it, and compete with it.
JS: As you work symmetrically, you are also doing a lot of measuring, as you make marks and add color. How did that process develop?
SC: That was through Andrew Forge. He curated a show in the 1980s of the British painters at the Yale Art Gallery: Auerbach, Freud, Uglow, Coldstream, Michael Andrews. It was a groundbreaking show. Later, those artists became well known. Forge was talking about Coldstream, and all of a sudden I understood Giacometti, and the measurers, like Euan Uglow. At first, I could apply this to drawing, but not to painting. It was when I began to understand color as relational, that I could apply those ideas to painting.
JS: I know you love to dance. How did you get interested in it?
SC: I started dancing when I was four. At that time I was living in a very small town, and these Russian émigrés, including Maximillian Frohman were there. They gave me a scholarship to their ballet school. I hated it. I love to dance, but I hated ballet. Later, I took a class at Connecticut College from the Ailey Company. Alvin Ailey, Merce Cunningham, all do their summer dance repertories there. To see Martha Graham, it was like being on Mount Olympus. They worked all the time. I thought, this is it, this is what I want; these are my people. And I discovered something that had to do with classical West African dance. I had a feeling for it, perhaps because I was a jazz baby. My father had an encyclopedic collection of jazz records. When I was very little, my parents used to take me into clubs with them. That music was just in me. Then, in my 40s, I came back to New York for the summer. It was that very hot summer, 1993. I remember walking down Broadway near Houston, and hearing drums. It was like the whole thing, which had been dormant, since my childhood, opened up. I started taking dance classes; I found this whole world, and I just love it. Because of the Diaspora, it is a miracle. You see the roots of a tradition that goes back thousands and thousands of years. It is handed down through bodies. Paintings you can study and look at, but dance is handed down through the people, the bodies.
JS: I think dance is a way to really be alive. One of my favorite parts of getting to know you has been watching the way you connect with other people. How does this aspect of your personality relate to your paintings?
SC: It is motivated by having experienced death at an early age. When you really know that death is irrevocable, people become very fascinating, and very beautiful, because their life-ness is in this—like a flower, this moment— and you’ll never have that again. It is about engagement. The paintings are watching life, and in some way, prolonging it, holding onto it, transforming it so it stays a little longer. 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. They are shining.