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(Special Feature) Review: Susan Carr's Spiritual Compass

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

Left: In his clothes, Oil on canvas, 12"x12", 2022

Right: For Paula, Oil on Wood, 12" x 12"

If one could go back in time to the time of the Salem witch trials in the late 17th century, what would one see and hear of the so-called "witches?" If their descendants could be found today, what would these strong and intelligent women say to us, about themselves and their experiences? Currently on view at the Pocket Utopia gallery in Lower East Side is Susan Carr's solo exhibition, titled, "Portal." The show is a portal to Carr's magical encounters with and revelations of various objects, phenomena, abstract feelings, and thoughts. Carr utilizes heavy cake frosting-like impasto in the form of flat 2-D painting and 3D-sculpture to further provide depth to her style and complete her visual language, which, without the impasto, would otherwise become flat planes of color. Her style is situated between a somewhat neo-expressionist quality of material roughness and imagery (similar to Philip Guston), the symbolic and pseudo-scientific spiritual imagery of Hilma af Klint, and folk illustration. Her unique voice and vision can be seen and heard over the mountains and valleys carved out by the great predecessors, like the great magician casting a powerful spell with an assertive stance. Her contribution is the baking of different styles and ingredients in a magical pot, giving birth to a new language that is recognizably Susan Carr.

Left: Goddess of the Sun and Moon, Oil on wood panel, 20" x 8" x 3", 2023

Center: Breathe, Oil on Canvas

Right: Fated, Oil on Canvas, 30" x 25"

Her art can be seen and understood in terms of two axes - figures versus objects on one axis, and symbolic abstraction and literal representation on another axis. The direction of the figures can be sub-divided into individual portraits and large, narrative-based compositions. For example, "Awakening" would be figures and symbolic abstraction; "Quatrefoil Cathedral" would (probably) be objects and symbolic abstraction; "Breathe" would be objects and literal representation; and so on.

What do I mean by symbolic abstraction, versus literal representation? A literal representation would be the direct depiction of an object or a figure without any manipulation in terms of visual style or symbolic application. This would be like putting an artistic filter of heavy texture and impasto onto a photograph of something, like a brush, a seashell, or a person's face. On the other hand, symbolic abstraction involves the active abstraction of the subject or object through use of symbols, icons, and other shapes that convey an idea. The precedent for this may be Pablo Picasso's "Nude Standing by the Sea" (1929).

Left: Punk Rock Rainbows, 9"x18"x3"

Center: Shell, Oil on Wood, 12" x 12"

Right: Rhapsody, Oil on Wood, 11"x18"x3"

Just as the so-called witches were bright and intelligent women who may have explored the natural world on their own and questioned the official Christian narratives that were dominant of their times (or simply wrongly accused by controlling men because they were women living in a highly patriarchal society), Carr is discovering, learning, and questioning. Her paintings and sculptures are her visual experiments, creating new meaning through the juxtaposition of various sketches of her ideas originally appearing on her sketchbook. In "Awakening," why is this amorphous cake frosting-like form holding a fiery meteorite-like flame ball made of rainbow colors, above which is a circularly radiating beams of light like a star, and above which is a symbolic shape that suggests a sea of fire and lava?

Her work is also about the convergence of various requirements of painting and sculpture, to maintain harmony and dynamic energy composition, to transform the subject into an artistic expression or with a novel meaning or interpretation, and to maintain the integrity of the artistic process by showing sincerity and vulnerability. Why is this circular form placed there behind the triangular slope of the backside of the lady (as seen in "Punk Rock Rainbows")? This would be equally as important as the subsequent question: what emotions is Carr expressing by showing herself holding a flower like daisy (as seen in "For Paula")? And what does the big eye mean, as seen in the "Fated?"

Left: Girl, Oil on Canvas, 12" x 12"

Right: Flowers, Oil on Canvas, 20" x 16"

Carr lost her son many years ago, and at his passing she saw that his eyes had flipped backwards, causing her to use the eye as a repeated symbol with multiple meanings in her paintings. The eye, when seen sideways, is also suggestive of the moon's crescent, which then could refer to the cycle for women that is based monthly like the lunar cycles. Philip Guston also painted heads with very large eyes that spoke with great honesty, vulnerability, and mortal nature (as seen in "Head and Bottle" (1975)), The way the head sits almost helplessly in a defeated manner, on top of a table with a fallen bottle and a wet paint brush, is very finite and human. Carr's eyes also relate to this mortal nature of humans, the meaning of which is further reinforced by the two big fingers from above representing fate (as seen in "Fated").

If we consider our own mortal existence and how a death is fated for each and every one of us, our time is precious. Our time here is limited very much. And everything is magical, even the bad, which may provide a learning lesson for our overall growth. And this is what the paint does for Carr - it repackages and re-presents what is already there into a more magical expression... of art. (If I am not mistaken, the Korean word for art is "mi-sul," which is based in Chinese characters and mean "beautiful magic" or "beautiful trick.")

Installation view of "Portal"

In concluding thought, I am reminded of the lines from Cloud Cult's song titled, "No Hell."

As kids we believed that the angels talked
Everything is magic, til you think it's not
It's easy to be thankful for the things you've got
It takes guts to give thanks for the things you've lost
We grew up believing good wins over bad

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