Suzanne Charleston Suzanne Charleston Suzanne Charleston


Catalog notes by Lisa Favero, doctoral canidate in contemporary art history, Harvard University.
Anchorage Museum of History and Art



Some moments are longer than others. They eclipse other events and change with time, continually assuming new countenances and meanings. In her artwork Suzanne Charleston explores the interdependence of all things that the lasting moment reveals. Most important is her paintings' ability to transform the momment into a tangible object. The artwork then can act as a mnemonic, a portal for return to a transcendental state. And once given such form, that heightened condition is all the better conserved for present and future use.

When Charleston's paintings function at this level they are comparable to early Christian icons. Icons are likenesses that had the power to embody divine essence and thereby enable believers to have immediate access to divinity in an otherwise profane world. Of this similarity in intent she is aware and the paintings themselves offer cues to help viewers make the association with icons. Splashes of gold in her compositions often delineate atmospheric space that surrounds representational elements just as the gold, albeit a solid field, suspends the sacred figures portrayed in an icon. The wood panels on which she works are an especially direct reference – traditional icons are painted on the very same material.

One of the pleasures of looking at a Charleston painting, beyond the spiritual implications to be discerned, is the "openness" of its construction. The process that brought about its completion is visible in the same manner as it would be in a collage. There are multiple layers of color and overlapping forms; the freshest paint engages with the driest portions of which may or may not be obscured by subsequent strokes. From this vantage point, when each painting reads as a history of its own production, her work becomes the actual means by which she distills her subject matter.

The canvas inserts are early additions. They emphasize the primary surface of the piece and, together, the wood and canvas form a subtext of sorts for the paint. The texture and elevation of the canvas contrasts with the smoothness and the resulting negative space of the wood, but the paint permits a role reversal between the two since it is capable of articulating the wood as positive space. The paint or rather color is responsible for a great number of other structures that are no less solid or unambiguous than the low relief created by the canvas inserts. They too oscillate between interior and exterior formations and as one changes into another, the viewer effortlessly moves from space to space.

The gestural qualities of her work and her treatment of composition as process places Charleston within the Abstract Expressionist tradition of American painting. But it might well be the case that Abstract Expressionism is deeply rooted in her instead of the reverse. It was the first example she was given of "real" art growing up in New York and from a young age on, taking lessons from artists who followed in the footsteps of the first generation Abstract Expressionism painters. The art she saw as a child was surely big, aggressive, and more often tonal than not. Abstract Expressionism in the present day has license to opt for something other than heroic: Charleston is a colorist and has chosen to make her paintings intimate, not so much by their detail and small scale as by her subtle and friendly choreography of the viewer's eye.

L isa Favero




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