Plants, nudes, & Suzannah Sinclair: A Q&A

Installation view, Susannah Sinclair: Tomorrow is Here, samsøn, Boston

Suzannah Sinclair probably has more copies of Playboy than your dad. (And there's a pretty good chance she's putting them to better use.)  Featured in edition #74 of New American Paintings, Sinclair has a thing for vintage nudes, and her ability to render them so subtly is matched only by her insistence on throwing the viewer into the interiors she reproduces. Her recent exhibitions have included objects from the spaces she paints, a practice she began with a solo show in Sweden and one that seeks to place the viewer within a furnished environment not unlike that of her subjects. I caught up this week with the Brooklyn-based artist to talk nudie magazines.  —Evan J. Garza

EJG: Do you work from photographs? It seems as if many of these girls might be from decades ago. There's a vintage quality to them. How do you procure your images and how do you work with them?
Yes I do, I paint from old men’s magazines from the '60s and '70s, mostly American but I am always on the lookout when I travel and have some great ones from Sweden. I’ve lost count of how many I have. A while a go my friend was cleaning out the house she grew up in and, between her father and her older brothers, there were a lot of Playboys. She gave them to me and it just kept going from there. During that era the bodies were real, pre airbrushing. I love the furniture and the textiles and even the print process that gives the photos an otherworldly saturation and hue.

Still Crazy, 2009 | Watercolor and pencil on birch panel, 16 x 22 inches. Courtesy samsøn, Boston.

EJG: Plants seem to be integral to your work, including some live potted plants installed in your recent solo show at samsøn. Why are you drawn to plants, both literally and compositionally, and why feature them alongside your work?
I grew up in a house that had a whole wall of houseplants in the living room, nothing too exotic, your standards like ficus, heart shaped philodendrons, Boston ferns, umbrella plants and spider plants. It’s very nostalgic for me. If I had to spend time somewhere, I would want it to be in a room with big windows, tons of plants, and if I am really making up a fantasy room, it would have a great rug, a fireplace and a dog or cat taking a nap. Sounds cozy, and when I’m looking through my stacks (more like boxes and boxes…) of old Playboys, I am always drawn to that kind of setting in the late '60s and early '70s.

And it’s definitely a category of that reoccurs often. I wanted to include live house plants along side my paintings to set a mood, bring color around the room, and to make a space that I would want to spend time in. And I want to make the viewer feel comfortable. Looking at a dozen or so nudes in a small public space can be jarring to some, especially with the gaze of the figure being strong.

Red Dawn, 2010 | Watercolor and pencil on birch panel, 18 x 26 inches

EJG: You also included some rugs and benches in your samsøn show. Is there a narrative about "interiors" here?
Rugs, benches, plants, lighting are all part of the mood I try to set. Rugs, to me, hush the room and ground the works, tethering them to the physical space of the gallery, and then I like to build up from there. I love when I can get my hands on a great bench so people can hang out with the paintings. And then there is the flip side, making the viewer walk through a “set” to view the paintings. In the samsøn show, for instance, I recreated a set I had seen in a Playboy photo shoot: a large flokati rug with a large mirror and a big potted plant on the rug, reflected in the mirror. So when the viewer walks around the exhibition, they find themselves in front of the mirror as a stand in for the model. And who can resist looking into a mirror?

Installation view, Susannah Sinclair: Tomorrow is Heresamsøn, Boston

EJG: When did you begin bringing three-dimensional objects into the installation of your work?
In Stockholm, Sweden at my solo show at LOYAL in 2008. I had gotten to a point with my daily act of painting that I had the mind space to think beyond the works themselves. The old LOYAL space (they have since moved to Malmo) was an old florist shop with huge windows, a great tiled floor, and ‘60s modern light fixtures. I wanted to work with what existed in the space and push it more. I kept it simple: rugs in two out of the three small rooms, a bench in the largest room on the rug, and a copy of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” left on the bench. The book tied into a sound recording that played softly in the gallery, a sound piece that was mixed by a friend of mine from nature recordings I had made the previous summer at the Rachel Carson Wildlife Refugee in Wells, Maine and Wells Beach.

Since that exhibition, I have continued to work with the interior design of the spaces, now the gallery would feel naked with out it. I want to work with sound again and different lighting, but it’s a delicate balance. I don’t want to distract from the works, I want to heighten what I am doing with watercolors on the wood.

Installation view, Susannah Sinclair: Tomorrow is Heresamsøn, Boston

EJG: There's an obvious romantic quality to your work, and images of the female figure are met with landscapes. Tell me about your attention (and interest) in each.
My work has that quality because I am a romantic, but I wouldn’t say that I see the world through rose-colored glasses. I do see beauty in everything, but [I] also see sadness in everything too. The word “solitude” sounds nice and positive but the word “loneliness” sounds sad and negative. I feel like most [people] would like to be the object of someone’s desire, but not objectified. These dueling feelings run into and throughout my work. The same way I talked about being drawn to photos of female figures in interior settings, I love painting the female figure in nature. The beauty found in nature and female form draws me (and hopefully the viewer) in, but then the expression on her face may suggest other conflicting feelings of loneliness, isolation, or just plain boredom. Thoughts of ‘oh, that looks nice’ might turn into ‘Is she alone? Wait what’s going on here?’ A beautiful colorful sunset eventually leaves us all in the dark of night.

There's a lot of good, 2010 | Watercolor and pencil on birch panel, 11 x 16 inches

EJG: Did you grow up around paintings of nudes or with an appreciation for the naked figure?
We didn’t have nude paintings around our house that I can remember, but there was an atmosphere of being comfortable with one’s own body. I wasn’t allowed to see PG-13 or R-rated movies until ages 13 and 17 respectively. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the nude, I say that jokingly. Growing up in Northern New Jersey and we came into the city a lot to go to Broadway shows and museums. I vividly remember going to MoMA and seeing some kind of shocking works and giving my sister a sideways glance, as if saying ‘Can you believe this!’ hook, line and sinker. I definitely realized there was a difference between what was acceptable as art and what was inappropriate on television and movies. I still have that line.

(ABOVE) Morning Dew, 2010 | Watercolor and pencil on birch panel, 20 x 16 inches (BELOW) On the Surface, 2010 | Watercolor and pencil on birch panel, 16 x 20 inches

EJG: Where does your work go from here? What's next?
Paint, paint, paint all the time. Trying to get back into doing works on paper while still working on panels, pushing what I can do on the wood. There is a richness of darks that’s hard to pull off that I am always chasing after. I’ve been into water, figures in or underwater and ocean waves and sunset. So many fantastic colors, and trying to let the watercolors do their thing and bleed into the wood grain while still having some control. I’m spending a lot more time in nature lately because I’m moving to the woods of Maine. Eek! So, trying to figure out how to incorporate what surrounds me in what it do.

Suzannah Sinclair was featured in edition #74 of New American Paintings. She will be featured in Born Free, a solo exhibition of her work, at Charro Negro Gallery, Guadalajara, Mexico, opening November 26th, and will also enjoy a solo show at Stene Projects in Stockholm, Sweden, opening spring 2011. She will also be included in the 2011 Portland Museum of Art Biennial, opening April 7th in Portland, ME.

Images courtesy the artist and samsøn, Boston.


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