Objects without contours
On the painting of Susi Juvan
If you were a model engaged to sit for a portrait it would drive you crazy. The eternal doubts, the hesitation and misgivings, the altering and rejecting! This neither being able to continue nor able to stop! Even the clever Madame Juliette Récamier, who understood a lot about the circumstances and intricacies involved in producing art, would have become a little impatient in artist Susi Juvan’s studio and after a few weeks would have discreetly commented on the lack of progress in the painting. Back then, in the case of François Gérard, for whom the famous salon figure sat portrait in the early 19th century, everything was much quicker, more decisive, speedy. This time the man at the easel was an illustrious businessman, who understand how to depict the attractive woman as a noblewoman. They met two, three times, and was soon satisfied with the flattering elegance of the lines and the fine fall of the folds from which the artist modeled the body.
When Susi Juvan saw the famous portrait again in the Parisian Musée Carnavalet she did not know what she faced, could hardly imagine the circumstances and intricacies the lady from the long bygone Napoleonic era would cause. She never knows what it is that drives her the world of images from one painting to another. She never knows exactly what will happen when the paintings take charge. There is no evidence in this work of the deliberate acting, no strategy which might lead from the idea and the plan to execution. As such, you would not find a reason for the decision to choose the Récamier portrait as a motive for her own picture work. Indeed, does not the word »choose« already suggest too much action? Perhaps it was the classicist grace, which some time later, long after her encounter with the painting, triggered the painterly impulse. Perhaps it was only the yellow blanket, which the painter of the nobility had draped around his famous guest. Or another, hardly recalled, hardly conscious picture detail was the reason why the visit to the museum had such consequences and an illustrated book should lie open and within sight of the easel for months.
Susi Juvan cannot say a lot about her subjects. Just that her objective is not to create a replica, it is not about imitating, that the aim cannot be to try and match the museum painting, let alone compete with it. The impulses are hidden and they should remain so. There was never clarity of symbols in these paintings, and it is never possible to intuit some sort of messages from their subjects. The fact that Madame Récamier appears as if from afar does not mean there was reason to think once again about the person and her appearance. The intellectual and societal counterpart of the self-appointed emperor retains her museum tranquility, does not become a figure of conflict or celebration, admiration or criticism. Susi Juvan’s work does not revolve around themes – you cannot say as you might with other works – this is what she is interested in, what concerns her, what she wants to communicate. »I like the thought,« says the artist »of having my motif become visualized, returning it to where it was still varied, not yet conceptually defined and had open existential options. That is what I wish for my picture.«
You should not succumb too quickly to the seduction of the objects. The fact that they can seemingly be identified proves, when seen in the context of the whole, to be much less important than the manner in which the objects indeterminately appear and disappear. It is this unstable state, which the artist describes as »an open possibility of potential existence«. Only when nothing more is determined, marked, defined, when all the subject of the motif has been transformed into painterly material, is the painting at one with itself. Painting for this artist is not targeted, purposeful action, not execution in the way the architect realizes his design drawing. For Susi Juvan painting is self-reflecting painting work on the painting site where for a long time you only vaguely imagine what is going to evolve there. Moreover, these are bizarre processes via which the experience of becoming visual accumulates up to a point of intense density. The female inspired by the museum painting had to put up with a lot before the artist was finally satisfied with her or with herself or perhaps with the painting. Again and again she covered her over, painted over her, then revealed her again, deleted the colors only to refine them, covered up sections and then uncovered them, had fog emerge and pushed the clouds away again. If you were to edit the working photographs Susi Juvan produced of every picture state or stage to make a kind of documentary film it would be like a séance. And you would watch entranced how the artist and her medium come together.
Yet we do find rational aspects in the painting’s genesis, there is controlling distance, decisions motivated by sheer painterly reason. But there are also others, the submerging into the painting, the self-withdrawal in the sensual activity. And for Susi Juvan a painting is only complete, is only at one with itself once the hurdles have been taken, the resistance overcome, when the repelling energies have been networked, and the one painterly source of power merges with the other: »The representational model and the internalized sense of the painting are two opposite forces that come into play with one another, create tension and provide the resistance I need to engage in action. I want to throw myself off track in order to fall on new ground, so as to discover – using concealed paths – a picture that was completely unpredictable.«
Rooms, interiors, landscapes, ancient architectures, figure paintings; the Paris pictures; the »display cases« with the chinoiseries, whose ornamental patterns light up on the projection surfaces of the monumental canvases like star signs in the firmament; the studies on the »painting process of the portrait« (»Vor Augen«); the series based on the famous shots by South African photographer David Goldblatt: What is it that holds together this evidently inconsistent imagery in your innermost self? You cannot work through Susi Juvan’s paintings like you solve a Sudoku puzzle. It is more the case that you slip into them the way you get caught up in an affair. Unintentionally, you are in though you did very little, wander around in an inaccessible, labyrinth-like layout, and nowhere does a reliable sign point towards the objective of the painting, but the experience of the painting is emitted, remains virulent. In actual fact encountering these paintings is participating in a painterly metabolism of the ideas, impulses and impressions as experienced by the artist: as a repeatedly fascinating process of uncontrolled and controllable picture decisions.
And as you concern yourself more with these paintings it quickly becomes clear that it is not enough to use honed perceptual instruments in order to simply tear down the curtain in front of the stages. The figures there seem to evade our gaze. As if following a secret drift they move into the stage background, where what we see and how we see it is played out at a great distance. At such a distance that our gaze is denied the chance to seize hold of the objects as our pride in the subject demands. In other words, what actually defines these images is the epistemological elegance with which they undermine the violent act of seeing, their underlying doubt of the perceptual certainty, which only know truth in »that’s the way it is« sentences. Here it is more the »perhaps-that’s-the-way-it-is« sentences that flare. Perhaps our eyes will become accustomed providing they show a little patience towards the objects without contours, and learn from them that the sharp contours that
focused vision employs in an effort to make things concrete are nothing less than fictions, simply achievements of the mind excluding everything that the consciousness is not conscious of.
It might seem confusing when things do not reveal themselves clearly enough, when what remains hidden about Madame Récamier is precisely what constitutes the portrait – the possibility to look into the eyes, into the unrepeatable face. You rub your eyes, impute the lack of focus to your own failing, a clouding, a sheer inadequate provision of the senses. It is somehow acceptable for you not to understand something immediately, only arrive at the sense and meaning by way of long detours, that we are lacking in reason. But it must be somewhat disturbing when the difficulties begin as soon as we look at it. And yet: what confuses is simultaneously what fascinates. Fascinating like the blurring of the objects in the picture, their transubstantiation in painterly substance and painterly structure, which directs perception to itself.
As such, Susi Juvan’s paintings are about nothing other than seeing devoid of content. They do not polemize against the dominance of things and their visual claims. What these paintings do not contest at all is that things exist when they are there to be seen, that the concrete aspect about concrete things is what wants to be seen. What they are about can be said with due caution: How can you paint seeing, without seeing becoming concrete? How can you paint the wonder of seeing without painting having to work off the object – without it having to destroy it, deconstruct it, deny it in the violent or ecstatic gesture, be abstracted by it?
And when you consider the horizon of decades that extends across this work then the sum total is not composed of numerous seemingly individual items, but rather continues to exist much more clearly in the consistency of artistic things, in the partnership of the absorbed and probing gaze, in the immediacy of the painterly action, a lucid dream, daydreaming action. You would never be able to say who is in charge of executing the painting, the artist, who gives herself over to the painting or the artist who watches herself give herself over to painting. And should a visual fiction succeed in asserting itself for a while, this has nothing to do with repetition. It is rather an attempt to explore how long this pas de deux of intuition and control can endure before it becomes ossified in idiomatic use. At that point Susi Juvan breaks off and gives herself over to another image, another approach to the image. And then the adventure begins afresh, the experience of becoming engrossed and controlling, feeling and thinking. And once the painting no longer looks thought through, says Susi Juvan, then it could be complete. »Everything you know you have to knock out of your hand in order to activate another dimension, which only seeks to be an image. However, that also means constantly working against fear.« And finally when Madame Récamier no longer looked thought through she was declared to be finished. And »finished« is nothing other than a very fine, highly transparent curtain, in which the battle between relishing painting and having doubts about it, this painterly motion against fear has inscribed itself like a signature.