Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Art Space Talk: Susan Maddux

Susan Maddux was born in Honolulu and now lives in Brooklyn. Susan is interested in the interaction between technology and nature. In her work she explores the relationships between man, man-made artifacts and the natural world. Her work is primarily focused on the Hawaiian Islands. Susan's art addresses questions such as: What is native? What is natural? What is beauty?

Brian Sherwin: Susan, you studied at the SF Art Institute. Did you have any influential instructors? Can you tell us about your academic years? What was the program like when you attended?

Susan Maddux: The painting program was super focused on self-expression, on finding your own voice and style, and seemingly against any kind of structured way of learning to paint. I questioned this approach a lot while I was there, because I came from a very structured academic background.

I took a lot of printmaking with Larry Thomas, who was a kind and patient teacher, and painting and drawing with Pat Klein, who was always encouraging of my work. It was an intense place, lots of distractions and trouble to get into, and self-discipline was challenging for me as a 19 year old. Choosing to be there meant not choosing a lot of other things. But it was a great place to be, and we had a lot of fun. And did a lot of painting.

BS: A main theme of your work is the interaction between technology and nature. You explore the relationship between man and man made artifacts and the natural world. In these works you primarily focus on the Hawaiian Islands. Can you tell us more about this theme?

SM: The themes I am interested in basically exist everywhere, but in Hawaii the natural and the unnatural are so close together that there’s a forced interaction, an interdependency even. The myth of Hawaii feeds the tourism industry that destroys everything it touches. But the myth by this point has become integral to the place, and within it there is some truth. The islands, isolated in the middle of the ocean, are an amazing microcosm. So, what is the natural world? In some cases it's more obvious than others, but I'm interested in the grey areas.

One of my favorite places is the beach at Waikiki. I love watching people who have just arrived from far away, somewhere cold and landlocked, confront the ocean. Despite it's artificial sheen, people are overwhelmed, and I think it’s because there is something very real under the artifice. I think it’s really unexpected. It poses a lot of questions.

BS: Susan, my understanding is that you were born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii... you now live in Brooklyn, NY. Has that transition—the geographic change --played a role in the development of your style and the focus on technology and nature that you adhere to?

SM: I really want to live in both places, though in reality I live in Brooklyn. I think making work about Hawaii is maybe a way to live there as well, a certainly a way to spend more time there, with a purpose. I’ve had a couple of shows there that have been really amazing experiences, and I feel more and more connected to what’s going on there. NYC has definitely influenced my aesthetic and my expectations. I have been exposed to so much design and art by being an artist and going to shows as well as through my job, which is in fashion.

As I was speaking of the myth of Hawaii earlier, I think in coming back to the place I can see it more clearly for what it is. Having grown up there, one takes for granted the “no trespassing” signs in the middle of the jungle, or the radar dishes on top of the mountains. It is emblematic to me of the reality of our inhabitance. Evidence. And I want to look at these things and see them for what they are.

BS: Is there a degree of symbolism to your work? Do certain objects have more than one meaning to you? Do certain colors suggest different emotions or thoughts? If so, could you select one of your works and discuss the symbolism involved with it?

SM: I don’t really think in terms of symbolism, but I do use iconic imagery, which often has symbolic meaning. I’ll talk a little about the painting “Crossing” (image above). When I use a palm tree, I really mean to talk about a palm tree. However, that palm tree has many connotations, some of which are contextual, some come from the visual information. For example, I think the black silhouette of the palm looks kind of ominous because of the quality of the painting. And when the palm tree is put face to face with an equally rendered telephone pole, then the meaning is informed by that relationship.

In between them an older lady crosses, and I always think of my own Japanese grandmother who died before I was born when I see these ladies, to me they are a reminder of my birth connection to life in Hawaii so this person is about connection to a place, about time. She crosses between the natural and the unnatural.

Between them flares a sort of rainbow-color explosion, which to me seems to represent an exuberance, like a sunrise, coming from the mountains. The figure seems oblivious to it all, lost in thought, perfectly at home. Although this was one of the first pieces I did in this series, the ideas in this painting still feel very relevant to me.

BS: Susan, your process involves the use of technology-- you utilize photographs and a computer in order to create designs --so I assume that in some ways you feel that the interaction between technology and nature is not always negative, correct?

SM: I like the way man made, technological and cultural elements frame the “natural” world. I’m interested in the way they give each other meaning, and in how we think about this interaction.

BS: Can you tell us more about your process and the philosophy behind your work?

SM: I think at heart I’m a narrative painter who loves collage. I’m very interested in the stories that come out of mixing up disparate imagery; I love the poetry of it, and the freedom. I always have. I collect imagery and collage it in the computer. What I do feels like constructing a language or an alphabet. I am building a vocabulary of iconic imagery: choosing, cutting out and cataloging photographs.

Much of my work is sorting through images and trying out combinations of imagery, looking for something that really resonates visually and conceptually. The execution of the painting gives the work complexity and subtly, hopefully. I feel that good composition and well thought out design allows for more freedom in the execution. I’m starting to relax more with my work, and to give the work a little more air and spontaneity.

BS: Susan, what are you working on at this time? Can you give us any insight in regards to the direction your work is going at this time?

SM: I’m starting to work with oil paints again, after doing watercolors for the last 3 years. I’ve started some larger canvasses in oil, collaged landscapes along the lines of the watercolor work I’ve been doing. I’m thinking about new ways to work with the themes and design process I’ve developed.

I took a lot of interesting pictures of people when I was in Hawaii last month. I got a new camera that allows me to take pictures from far away, so people don’t know I’m photographing them, and sometimes I don’t even know what the picture is really of until I blow it up. I basically spent a lot of my vacation hanging around the beach at Waikiki taking pictures of Japanese tourists and old people. I can’t wait to paint from some of these pictures.

BS: Will you be involved with any exhibits in 2008? Where can our readers view your work in person?

SM: I’m working toward a show with the Fleetwing Gallery in NJ in the fall. I am also one of the contributing artists to Faesthetic #7’s Doomsday issue that just came out,†I’m working on an animated music video, and I’m also doing designs for Volcom in LA and a Featured Artist project with them for 09.

BS: When everything is said and done... what do you hope viewers obtain from your work?

SM: When I make something I don’t necessarily think about what others are going to get out of it. I make stuff because I like to- I like the challenge and it’s more interesting and satisfying to me than almost anything else I do.

When I see something really beautiful and smart I get inspired. I hope my work is inspirational to others. I hope there is a resonance for the viewer, something true made visible. Something familiar made new.
You can learn more about Susan Maddux and her art by visiting her website-- Susan is also a member of the community. You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin


Anonymous said...

I feel both challenged and oddly comforted by Ms. Maddux's work. I look forward to viewing it in person.

Unknown said...

I think she is a great artist with fantastic ideas. I love her work.

Anonymous said...

Charlie said:
I find watercolorists covering mostly boring reworked topics but Susan's watercolors look full of content and juxtaposition of symbols and lastly a watercolor. That's exciting like Turner painting European landscape, seascape etc.

Anonymous said...

beautiful paintings with very interesting ideas flowing from them. I love it!