Explaining the evocative power of abstract art—one that he sees as transcending cultural and historical differences—the British philosopher of art Paul Crowther has argued for its basis in a “contextual space.” This is a foundation for what we directly see in what is peripherally noticed, unnoticed, unnoticeable, imagined, or tacitly understood. The basic idea is that abstraction acquires much of its significance by bringing such perceptual aspects to our direct attention.
Sorina Susnea, a recent transplant to Ithaca, understands this capacity. In her prolific and ever evolving body of work, she brings an experimental sensibility and a depth of perception and thought that are a welcome addition to local art.
This month (March 7 through 28), Susnea is showing an eclectic selection of recent work in the front lobby gallery of the Community School of Music and Arts. The title, “Discontinuities,” stems from her recent displacement. In a statement prepared for the exhibit, she writes that the show is “the culmination of multiple interruptions in my creative process arising from the physical disruptions of my art studio during multiple moves over the last three years.” While she has participated in a few group exhibits, this her first major show in the region.
Susnea originally trained as a painter in her native country of Romania, receiving a B.A. in 1998 and an M.A. in 2001, both from George Enescu University, where she received a classical artistic education.
She later moved to this country where she studied for an MFA at the University of South Florida in Tampa, a degree she earned in 2005. There she found an environment more conducive to her self-described “rebellious” nature, one that has provided a foundation for her current practice. “I had the gratifying experience of a true awakening through exposure to a whole new world of content and media,” she explains in an artist’s statement.
Susnea and her physician husband moved to Ithaca in 2012, at first renting an apartment, and then purchasing a house outside the city where she hopes to set up a permanent studio in the basement later this year.
Her major work of the past seven or so years has been her series of “Omniscient Continuums,” a group of paintings made with homemade acrylic solutions on paper and other supports. Typically monochromatic or restricted to a couple or so colors, they are dense with overall activity: twisting and coiling forms that suggest worms, snakes or insects—or imaginary cosmologies. Appearing in smooth gradations of tone, these creatures and spaces seem to pop-out of the surface as if they were sculptural. They also appear transparent, giving them a wonderful backlit quality.
The technique used to create these images is palpably mysterious, a quality the artist feels is important to their aesthetic. Susnea is weary of being asked to explain her unusual (though not unprecedented) methods. “People ask me what I’ve done,” she said, “and I find it a bit annoying because it’s just part of the process. I don’t consider it as fundamentally important as what I want to express.”
But she explained her method in general terms: “It’s just the manipulation of the color on the surface using unconventional tools, working in a very spontaneous way. I don’t use a brush except for mixing.” In order to get the right paint quality—fluid but controllable—she mixes her own paint with an aim towards precision. “I want a particular kind of fluidity, a particular kind of consistency, a particular kind of transparency,” she said.
The results suggest, in the artist’s own words, a strange kind of “action painting.” Although redolent with traces of gesture and echoes of human scale, these worlds-in-movement have a life of their own, parallel to our own world of activity yet alien. The paintings recall the Surrealist fascination with forms and imagery suggestive of the subconscious mind as well the technical experiments—stained color, new materials, moving beyond the brush—characteristic of some post Abstract-Expressionist painting. They also suggest a contemporary Baroque, with their heavy, irregular forms and dramatic chiaroscuro (light-and-dark).
Susnea’s evocative art seems poised between the figurative and the abstract as well as between the microscopic and the macroscopic. “That’s very important for me, the ambiguity.” she said. “It’s one of the most important things in the works. I try to allude to things but at the same time leave a lot of mystery. So if the things I create have too much likeness to things in the world, I don’t find it successful—I try to get away from that.”
Susnea is a practicing poet and an avid reader of literature and psychology: interests that feed into her dynamic and holistic artistic philosophy.
For her current show at the CSMA, Susnea is showing a generous selection of “Continuums” paintings from the last couple or so years along with four more recently initiated projects, including experiments with drawing and photography. All of the work is on unframed sheets of paper, hung directly on the wall with magnets. The paintings dominate the exhibit with their larger scale and muscular presence.
A row of five upright “Continuums” against the gallery’s back wall form a central focus. At several feet high, they are large enough to engulf the viewer; hung closely adjacent, they communicate with each other and command the wall. The colors—an overall black or darkened tinge—accent the strangeness of the formations.
Although one might not suspect it from such hectic work, Susnea is an admirer of the use of “empty” space as an active and activating force within East Asian painting and printmaking. Here she is showing a pair of tall black paintings in which her signature twists and coils are confined to a circle, silhouetted against the clean white of the paper. The use of a silhouetted tondo format brings a refreshing clarity and focus to her work and connects her Continuum to a new project begun in earnest last year.
Susnea said that many people have compared work from that series to microscopic imagery. So a couple of years ago, she acquired a device with the interest of extending her investigations into “the very large and the very small”—both literal and suggested ambiguities and contrasts of scale.
In the last few months, Susnea has been creating miniature “paintings” which she blows up (about forty to a hundred-fold) to create digital photographs. Four of these “AutoMicroGraphy” pieces fill an (unfortunately) obscure corner in the CSMA gallery. Enclosed in circles—green, blue or orange—silhouetted against black, these suggest abstract landscapes, little worlds of color and texture.
Susnea showed a few microscopic photos last March at the State of the Art Gallery, taking her own blood as her (literal) subject matter. Those benefited greatly from being printed on glossy paper and seeing these ones both as digital files and printed on matte paper, one misses the sense of luminosity in the gallery prints.
Susnea is also showing three more straightforward digital photographs: hazily lit views from her window.
Subtle but striking, her “Night Winds” series of charcoal drawings were inspired by a desire to capture an energy akin to that of the waterfalls without directly portraying what might be seen as a cliché of local art. She describes them as “haiku,” as a contrast to heaviness and laboriousness of her paintings.
Combining traces of raw black dust with streaking evocative of motion, these small pieces combine sparseness and dynamism. Mysterious cones of white evoke spotlights or birds in flight.
A grid of four of these pieces has a particularly strong sequential flavor with the individual small sheets seemingly speaking to each other.
A triptych of small “New Topographies” pieces make use of the traditional decorative arts technique of marbling paper, re-contextualizing it as abstract art. The three small pieces here, hung close together, evoke aerial views of lakes and deserts.
The artist is somewhat depreciative of “Discontinuities,” which she views as a sampling of work in progress. “That’s where I am now,” she said following a recent Gallery Night opening reception. “For me it’s a good opportunity to just meet the public here. I had a very good response. I learned a lot, I think. People came to stop by, [to] give their reactions.”
Given the informal, catchall intention behind the show, it would have been nice to see some more work, particularly more photographs and drawings—or the mixed media altered books that she has also been making. Still, this is an attractive and memorable portrait of an artist on the move.
Susnea is currently working on renovating the basement as a large, multi-room studio that will allow her spaces to focus on a variety of projects and mediums.
Recently, Susnea was part of a one-week residency on Cape Cod led by the leading installation artist Judy Pfaff. She sees installation as the new direction for her work and is looking forward to having the space to experiment with room-filling work. (Pfaff, incidentally, is currently showing at SUNY Cortland as part of a five-person show highlighting contemporary work in photogravure.)
Susnea’s diverse work and interests are a promising addition to art in Ithaca and merits, in particular, the attention of other artists interested in abstract and experimental approaches. •