Monday, December 29, 2008

Art Space Talk: Susan Crile

Susan Crile was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1942. Earning her Bachelor of Arts Degree at Bennington College, Vermont, Crile also studied at New York University and Hunter College, NYC. Since then she has taught widely, at such institutions as, Princeton University, The School of Visual Arts, Barnard College, The University of Pennsylvania, Sarah Lawrence and Hunter College, where she has been on the faculty since 1982 and a full professor since 1996.
Her work is in the collections of The Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The Hirshhorn Museum, The Phillips Collection, The Albright Knox, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Denver Art Museum, The Carnegie Institute Museum of Art and The Library of Congress among others, as well as many corporate collections.

9-11 Fragmant by Susan Crile
Brian Sherwin: Susan, you studied at Bennington College. Can you recall your academic years? Did you have any influential instructors?

Susan Crile: Bennington was both wonderful and terrible; terrible in that one learned practically nothing technically, but wonderful in that it was exposure to real painters, real writers and their ideas. I studied with a number of artists, who were important to my formation.
Among the most important were Ralph Humphrey (his passion for drawing, Morandi, Matisse, Cezanne), Tony Smith who opened my eyes to the third dimension, Jules Olitski who showed how the fabric or art and literature interconnected and Vincent Longo, from whom I learned about color. But the most important artist/ teacher was not at Bennington, but at NYU where I studied with Esteban Vicente, the Abstract Expressionist, a passionate Spaniard, who taught me how to see and how to understand the importance of pictorial space.

BS: Susan, you have taught at Princeton, The School of Visual Arts, Barnard College, The University of Pennsylvania, and Sarah Lawrence College. You are currently a professor at Hunter College in New York City. I always ask instructors this questions... how did you find balance between your teaching profession and creating your personal art? Was there ever a conflict or did you simply adapt?

SC: For a very long time, teaching felt like a conflict- in part because, as with many young artists- I was teaching at two or even occasionally three different schools at the same time. After I began to teach at Hunter, it became easier. By then, I was a more experienced teacher and the simplification of being in one place was a great help. I've never been a particularly good multi-tasker, so it was necessary to work at finding the balance. Spending three months in the country every year, working in relative solitude, has created an important base line for my painting life that carries over into the academic year. That base line allows me to hold my artistic train of thought throughout the academic year.
Crouching in Terror by Susan Crile

BS: Do you have a specific philosophy as far as your instruction is concerned? What do you expect from students?

SC: First I expect students to learn a work ethic and to understand that growth in art comes through daily application, not through "cramming". I teach both undergraduates and MFA students, so the teaching is very different one to the other. With undergraduates I try to teach them about pictorial space, how to think about the issues of painting and to help them become at ease with the process of painting. It is terribly important, as well, to help them to believe that you need to fail in order to succeed. This may be the hardest lesson to learn.
With graduate students I see my job as one of a catalyst, someone who can help the student develop what he or she has to say and to try to help that student find the means to say it. Generally speaking, I am not concerned with technique as an end in itself, but as a means of expression.

BS: Allow me to ask some questions about your art. I understand that your travels have influenced you greatly. You have been to China, Ethiopia, India, Turkey, Morocco, Kuwait, Hungary, much of Europe and some of Eastern Europe. Are there any experiences that you would like to share with our readers? Any experiences that have had a direct impact on your art?

SC: Travel has always had a profound influence on my art, particularly the travel that took place when I was a teenager, before I even knew that I wanted to be an artist. When I was 17, my family went to the Middle East and Israel. I was stunned by the beauty of the Mosques in Damascus; vast spaces carpeted with patterned carpets and ceramic tiles of the most intricate patterns and colors. The light streamed in leaving secondary pattern across the walls and floors.
In Israel we went out into the desert to a Bedouin camp. We sat on calico cushions and Killim rugs and drank coffee poured from an ancient Samovar that sat proudly on a large hammered bronze tray. As I remember, they were the only hard objects in the tent. This was the beginning of my love affair with pattern, both its quotidian, lived in quality as in the Bedouin tent and its more lofty and spiritual side as in the Mosques.

Subsequently, architectural structures, walls and doorways, Light- both external and interior- landscapes and ritualistic spaces of different parts of the world, have all affected my work.

Daylight Darkness by Susan Crile

BS: In the early 90s you created a series titled 'Fires of War'. It seems that war and the outcome of war has had a major impact on you. Many people tend to romanticize war-- we tend to think of the heroes instead of the fallen... the victories instead of the fact that in the end there is, as my grandfather who served in WWII would say, no true victory. Is this a message your strive to convey in your work?

SC: Since I worked on 'the Fires" for almost 4 years, my ideas both deepened and broadened over that period of time. New meanings accrued to the central core as time wore on. My initial impetus came out of outrage. The US had been massively bombing Baghdad, and talking about 'smart bombs' that supposedly had no effect on the civilian population; but that just wasn't true. Furthermore, the mean age in Baghdad was 15 years old, due to the huge loss of military aged men during the ten year war between Iraq and Iran. So, basically, we were bombing children.
Yes, I would agree with your grandfather, "there is no true victory", but beyond that, often there is no good reason to cause the horrendous destruction of loss of life and infrastructure that is the inevitable outcome of war. The embargos were not given enough time- and if Iraq had been truly quarantined internationally, perhaps it would have worked out a compromise with Kuwait.
There were layers of meanings and issues. To begin with, I was showing the extremity of war, and its ecologically disastrous outcome. Scientists had believed that detonating the 700 plus oil wells could well start a nuclear winter; through good luck, due to providential wind patterns, it remained only a regional disaster. Then, the burning of vast amounts of precious oil was a major chess move in the power struggle for control of resources.

Spending time inside the conflagration gave me another viewpoint. I spent almost 2 weeks in the burning oil fields, traveling through them with the chemical engineer, who was the director of safety for the clean up project. It was like seeing the beginning and the end of the earth at the same time. There was an epic quality to it, that I would never have understood without having witnessed it first hand.

And finally, there was the surreal physicality of the scene; nothing looked like anything one had ever seen before. It was post apocalyptic; Mad Max meets Alice in Wonderland in Dante's Inferno.

A Flame by Susan Crile

BS: Some of your work has been politically charged in the sense that it tackles specific issues. For example, you created a series of images that explored the torture at Abu Ghraib. Some of the figures in these works are faceless-- in a sense they could be anyone. Would you mind discussing these works and the thoughts behind them?

SC: In response I would first like to quote from Jean Amery's AT THE MINDS LIMITS; Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities.

Whoever has succumbed to torture can no longer feel a home in the world. The shame of destruction cannot be erased. Trust in the world, which already collapsed in part at the first blow, but in the end, under torture, fully, will not be regained. That one's fellow man was experienced as the antiman remains in the tortured person as accumulated horror. It blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules.

When the body is subjected to torture, the protection of the skin dissolves and the self no longer has a safe container; it is afloat and defenseless. I used white chalk to designate the fragility of the victims, who are like the ash-covered figures fleeing the World Trade Center, the body shells from Pompeii or the chalk outlines that mark the place of dead bodies at crime scenes. While the prisoners appear ethereal and are often deprived of sight, the interrogators are massive and accompanied by the accoutrements of power (the gloved hand, the leash, the painful shackles, the attack dogs) which includes the interrogators' right to see and be seen- both their right to surveillance and the right to be photographed with their human trophies. Their physical massiveness (boots, vests, layers of clothes, gloves and excess flesh), in contrast to the prisoners' fragile nakedness, is a sign that they are the center of power, the source of intimidation and abuse.
Private England Dragging a Prisoner on a Leash by Susan Crile

This obscene scene of torture and humiliation that we saw in the Abu Ghraib photos, was treated by the White House and the military as if it were the shenanigans of a "few bad apples". It was chilling and appalling that on the one hand Bush abnegated responsibility for it and on the other suspended the Geneva Convention on torture. The Karl Rove tactic of lying until it is accepted as truth, has accompanied every move made to eviscerate the Constitution of the United States.

I felt it important to make the Abu Ghraib works for many reasons. Above all, this event of the United States engaging in torture, represented a terrible turning point in World opinion towards the United States. As a consequence, we had lost our position as a moral force and as a model of democracy that we prominently held for so long. (Let us hope that some or all of this can be reversed retrieve now that Obama will become President.)
As importantly, photos have become a big part of the fast expendable information age we live in. The sheer mass and volume of photographic images have made the eye the most overused sense. I wanted to leave a more enduring record of what happened at Abu Ghraib. The use of chalk, charcoal, and the texture of paper speak to our sense of touch. Touch slows down the hungry and impatient appetite of the eye and allows, the body-our body- to respond empathically.
Arranged: Naked Mound of Flesh by Susan Crile

BS: Would you say that this series of work, so to speak, serves as a warning of what the United States military and leaders are capable of-- not only to the people of Iraq, but to the citizens of the United States?

SC: Absolutely! It is impossible to act badly in one part of ones life and not have it eventually seep into the rest of ones life; and so with the Government. The Bush foreign policy of "preemptive" war has now seeped into internal domestic policy. We saw this, for example, in both the Democratic convention of 2004 and the Republican convention of 2008, where our own police departments turned against our own citizenry as a preemptive manner.

9-11 Exodus by Susan Crile

BS: You also created a series about 9-11. Would you like to discuss this series? Also, what other events have made an impact on you?

SC: Many events have had an impact on me: the Tsunami, New Orleans, the passing of the Patriots Act, The destruction of New Orleans both by nature and the government- and on and on. I decided after Gulf War 1, that I was not interested in being an ambulance chaser. If something hits me between the eyes, in a way in which I have no choice but to paint it, then I will take it on. Otherwise, I drift back to my love of pattern and beauty.

9-11, as with the rest of the nation, hit me between the eyes. It was a symbol of the vulnerability of the new global world we now live in- new rules, new structures, new insecurities. Most of the works I made show that vulnerability: the impact and explosion, the breaking apart, the falling, the crashing, the dust rising, the fleeing; all indeterminate states of between one thing and another.
Father Michael by Susan Crile

BS: What about politically charged work in general-- in your opinion, why is it important for artists to tackle issues such as the torture at Abu Ghraib? Do you feel that visual art can cause, or at least spur, change?

SC: I'm really not sure that art can spur change, at least in America. Art isn't mainstream enough in the whole country. It is largely the playground for the rich; it is still fundamentally elitist, despite the increase of museum attendance. Art programs in schools barely exist any longer; the NEA has a tiny budget and art institutions struggle for funding. I do believe that art is capable of touching and moving individuals and maybe that is the most we can hope for right now.

An artist is a part of his or her time and reflects it and is a witness to it. The problem is how to make art and not didactic tracts, not that tracts do not have their own power and place; but to have the power of Goya or Picasso, one has to transform the experience of war, or torture or political abuse into art, which is very difficult to do!

BS: Susan, you have had over 50 solo exhibitions and your work is in the collections of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Denver Art Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, and the Hirshhorn Museum, among others. What comes to your mind when you think back on your career?

SC: Not much comes to mind. I guess I'm more interested in figuring out where to go next. My work has always changed a good deal, which has not always been so good for my peace of mind. It seems that every 5 years, there is a real shift in my work and this is always an initially unpleasant time. I invariably feel that the well is dry and there is nowhere to go. But at least, by now, I know that this is my pattern and if I just sit tight with the muse (which usually means making a lot of bad art) that eventually the path will become clear again. A strange thing happens to me when I get to the end of a period of my work. Suddenly, I technically do not know how to make it any more. It's rather disconcerting to say the least.

Shackled in Red Panties by Susan Crile

BS: Aside from the locations mentioned, where can our readers view your work in person? Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

SC: First, images of my work can be seen on my web site:
Although I am in a number of Museum collections, I'm not sure what is currently on view at this time. Last year I had two Museum exhibitions of the Abu Ghraib works in Italy, at Museo di Roma in Trastevere and Museo di Palazzo Moncenigo in Venice. I plan to show my current work, small abstract paintings on wood panels, at Michael Steinberg Fine Art in New York in 2009.

I am/will be in some group shows this fall and winter, 2008/09:
War as a Way of Life, 18th St. Arts Center in Santa Monica, CA
September 27- December 19th)

To:Night: Times Square Gallery, 450 W. 41st St. NYC
September 25- November 23

Independent Vision:/ Feminist Perspectives: Sidney Mishkin Gallery,
Baruch College, NYC, November 20-Dec 17

Cryptoreal: Art And Myth: Francis Lewis Gallery at St. George's Church, Queens, NY, November 22- January 11, 2009

Trouble in Paradise: Examining Discord between Nature and Society.
Tuscon Museum of Art; February- July 2009

BS: Concerning politics, art, and protest... what is the importance of protesting political issues with art? In your opinion, why is a visual message more powerful than a verbal message as far as making a political or social statement is concerned? Is it more powerful?

SC: Both the visual and the written have the potential to be very powerful. Too often, they just aren't quite. I believe that protest is essential; it's what, so to speak, keeps the politicians in line. I'm not sure it matters how it's done, as long as it is done. Under Bush, the White house systematically closed down the avenues of protest. This was and is a very dangerous situation for democracy and makes it even more important for people in the arts to have the courage to do what they can. Unfortunately, it becomes harder for "political" artists and writers to gain access to the mainstream because so many institutions, whether publishers, galleries, museums, newspapers, begin to comply with the new restrictions.
Erotic Humilation by Susan Crile

BS: When you make a political stance with your work are you ever concerned about any form of backlash? For example, have you ever been threatened due to some of the visual statements you have made?

SC: I got one awful hate letter when I had the exhibition of Abu Ghraib drawings at Hunter College. It certainly had crossed my mind that one could find oneself on a 'no fly' list or such, but I thought it unlikely.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or any concerns that you have?

SC: It has taken me a long time to answer these questions and during the course of it, our story as a country has changed dramatically. I feel much more hopeful about the future of art and the country than I did six months ago. Despite the devastating economic crisis we are in, I believe there will be a psychic and moral correction in the country. If money can no longer be the 'be all' and 'end all' of everything, perhaps this will open up a vast space in our culture for other things to develop and flourish.
You can learn more about Susan Crile by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,
Brian Sherwin
Senior Editor


jesseedwards said...


nurdan karasu gökçe said...

These are great works..I like your technic. and the theme is knocking. really good work.