Susan Adams

Susan Adams Catalogue

Listening In: The Art of Susan Adams

Essay by Lyndon Davies

You’d almost swear it was alive, but it can’t be. It’s made of wood, so it can’t be, but all the same… It emits the discomfiting physicality of a being which refuses to abide at a manageable distance. Whatever it is, creature, thing or spirit, it wants you up close and very personal.

Susan Adams’ more than life-sized automaton, Receiver, kneels waiting for you in a corner of the gallery. It has a marionette’s open-jointed limbs and its knees are supported on little plastic casters. When the motion-sensitive cell jerks the motor into action, its hand moves a ‘pencil’ across the floor through the arc of one of a series of heavily inscribed circles. Its hair is unkempt; it wears an animal skin tunic like some kind of hermit, prophet, or palaeolithic cave-dweller. Even before you approach it it’s a troubling presence.

Close up, it’s the face which gets you: this powerful, almost brutal but not quite caricatural portrait – something as vivid as this could only be a portrait – at once so stylised and so magnetically human. Its expression is one of yearning, of supplication, but it’s also the expression of someone listening very hard, the caves of its eyes, all pupil, seem to be listening, as do the nostrils, the slightly opened mouth and the wrinkles of the brow. The whole body seems tensed to this act of hearkening, its attention thrown out beyond you, or perhaps to somewhere equally deep inside you, otherwise why would it feel so intrusive, this listening which is also a ravenous, barely tolerable supplication. Suddenly the body shifts and the eyes light up, as if with some moony inner conflagration; unquestionably the attention has turned inward to some place where you are no longer relevant, if you ever had been. The pencil moves over the ground. The Receiver is receiving.

Many of the motifs of Susan Adams’ art seem to me to resonate around this one fiercely concentrating figure. Its hermit-like appearance brings to mind the panoply of invented saints from her earlier work, beings so cleanly shaped into their own natures they appear to bend reality, suck it into themselves. The fatedness of the hermit/saint in his or her irrevocably pointed and appareled nature: Saint of Things to Come, Saint of Magnolia Walls, 10 Car Pile-ups and the Disenfranchised.

You might think then of the figures in the drypoints made for the project called “they leak through me” which grew out of the artist’s conversations with people who hear voices, figures assailed by the pressure of the incoming or indwelling utterances, pierced, prodded, tied, wrapped (rapt), turned inside out, soothed, tempted, interior and exterior utterly confounded. Or St.Loge of the woodshed might come to mind, that winningly game hybrid of human-being and log, determinedly trying to make sense of the gnomic messages he finds written on pebbles scattered along the wayside.

Riddle, reality. For Susan Adams “reality” is important. It’s important that things look like things, that her carved and painted people resemble real people, that the ordinary resembles the ordinary, the matter of fact. Her brush, her pencils, her chisels, love the real, the look of it, the feel of it, the weirdly intimate particularity of it. But the real for Adams is very wide and unpredictable: it includes in its remit birds with human heads, amputated arms with wheat or aerials growing out of them; fracturings, dismemberings, ghosts, hovering stones, speaking marionettes. The fantastical, in other words, is every bit as at home here as it might have been for some medieval scribe or map-maker. In this art, the real is a riddle which makes absolutely no sense except the sense which it can’t help being, although, as riddle, it seems to point at or enclose some other dimension which we have absolutely no reason to believe in except that we must. Our nature as listening, looking and interpreting creatures implies it, though there may be nothing supernatural about this ‘beyond’. In the case of Susan Adams the beyond is everywhere, is family, quite matter-of-factly included in the artist’s formal equipment. By being so seductively crafted, modeled, graspable – Adams’ attentive real seems to point all the more relentlessly towards this zone apart, in relation to which the present world stands as a barrier but also as a kind of metaphysical invocation. Metaphysical as opposed, say, to surreal: I think there is little in Susan Adams’ art which is not very carefully thematically and aesthetically positioned.

In the series of paintings which accompany her most recent project – There Are Receivers in the Woods – Adams makes use of an imagery of modern broadcasting technology, satellite dishes, screens, aerials, pylons, to suggest a world in which everything is busily listening and transmitting: two ends of a communicative process which somehow don’t really ever quite satisfactorily link up. The telly screens are wobbly with interference, the picture just breaking up or just failing to come into focus. Strange figures, like hermits move through barren (undeveloped or damaged) landscapes, waiting, praying, tuning in; even the machinery, though, has this yearning anthropomorphic quality: a satellite dish has eyes or the ghosts of eyes, pylons look like spindly humanoid robots, a tree festooned with digital receiving devices seems possessed by some kind of stag-like woodland spirit. Everything is alive, and to be alive, in the context of Adams’ work is to be attentive, harking and watching out for the signs, for the messages beyond the signs, the explicatory arrival.

In some of these paintings the viewer becomes the hermit. We find ourselves inside a cave looking back. Little world-bubbles float towards us, images, perhaps, of the many kinds of reality available to us. Or away from us – different realms of possibility conjured up by our imaginations and sent out into the daylight? The interpretive routes are endless and yet the signs gesture so irresistibly towards the fantasy of resolution, no wonder the figures in Adams’ work seem so preoccupied, grasping their little portions of the general picture, their bits of flotsam and furniture, particles of world and self. No wonder, too, that they sometimes appear to stand so frighteningly and unreasonably close to the edge. They are portraits, of course. Symbolic portraits? Well possibly, although the symbolic in the art of Susan Adams has the same kind of ontological status as a beard or a stone. Part and parcel of the formal equipment, so to speak, like that beautiful, bottomless, ridiculous and indispensable question at the root of every riddle that there ever was, whether personal, historical, political, or any other kind – what am I? That’s to say – who am I, and what must I do? Who are we, then, since this art so generously puts the question, amongst all the others which richly animate it? Are we moving into or out of focus, towards or away from the waveband? As much as anything these are moral questions and it seems to me that Adams is a morally-engaged artist. This is more than ever apparent in the recent sculpture, Stilts, a work which points back thematically towards her earlier Bluebeard project, in which she created a series of prints to accompany a libretto for Bartok’s opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. In this elegant and witty work, a gorilla-suited man, dirty beast, lies flat on his back staring up at a woman precariously balanced on a pair of stilts. Her body is swathed in flesh-coloured bandages, wounded, as it were, by the protrusion of the breasts and the slit at the sexual and excremental organs on which the male protagonist’s eyes are obsessively tuning in.

At first glance this work inevitably brings to mind classic feminist notions about the objectification of woman by the male gaze. The woman is thrust away into abstract space, dandled there on his voracious stare like a ping-pong ball on a jet of water, her body controlled, cancelled out, mummified except for those functions relevant to male gratification. The more you look, though, the more you become aware that there is something much more ambiguous going on. You begin to wonder who has the power here, if anyone? Who is creating whose reality?

The man, it’s true, seems grounded, firmly based, but who’s to say he’s not simply flattened and defeated? He grips the stilts as if wielding a diviner’s rods, but he may be simply grasping for what might at any moment stride purposefully away from him on its own business. The woman is certainly in a precarious position, tottering there on her gigantically high heels, but it’s hard not to imagine her as potentially triumphant, surging up, marvelously balanced, gripped, yes, but free to jump or fly. She stares into the distance, as if listening to far-off music, or to some imperative deep inside herself. Zoned in, locked in, perhaps, to the sexual broadcast, the antagonistic mutuality of transmission and reception passing back and forth along the conduits of the stilts.

Here then, is the helplessly touching, deadly and daft human opera caught at its most irreducibly complex and yet telling moment. Compelling on a purely aesthetic level, this sculpture is also the site for an ever-widening meditation on the nature of human sexuality and much more. It’s the work not only of a dynamic artist, but one who is able to look into the light and the dark places equally, and retain her balance, her wit and her sympathetic breadth. That breadth, the inclusivity of this art, is as impressive finally as its energy and aesthetic force.


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