Pristinely kept and replete with beautiful objects, the domestic spaces that Becky Suss paints are like photographs in interior design magazines that leave you coveting the lifestyles of strangers. But unlike those glossy spreads, the Philadelphia-based artist’s oil paintings feel familiar, even though you’ve never stepped inside these particular bedrooms, libraries, and hallways before.
Seven of these large-scale works are currently on view at Jack Shainman gallery for Suss’s solo show, Homemaker, where they boldly usher the quiet comforts of home into the sterile, white-walled space. Books, seashells, and other evocative trinkets such as a saxophone mouthpiece line shelves; a sliced grapefruit nestles in a bowl like a ritual breakfast for one; a closet door stands ajar to reveal soft flannel shirts and an unmarked box of potential secrets.
Suss began painting her detailed rooms after her grandparents’ passings, memorializing the rooms of their house in vivid oils as a way to process her sudden inheritance of their countless belongings. For Homemaker, her new paintings are less faithful to reality: the rooms blend actual, lived spaces with Suss’s imagined visions as well as details she looked up online.
In the expansive “August” (2016), for instance, a small library on the left emerges from memories of her therapist’s office, while the marble mantlepiece in the central living room is a copy of one in her current house. The view out the window of apartment buildings is a replica of that in David Hockney’s “Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy,” minus the British painter’s wispy foliage. For “Blue Apartment” (2016), Suss drew upon the architecture of an Upper East Side apartment belonging to her parent’s friends, and filled the cozy bedroom with a number of her personal possessions.
These diverse sources aren’t made explicit, but Suss’s paintings immediately feel unreal because of their flatness, broad perspectives, and use of three-fourths scale — which makes these rooms seem enterable from afar, but up close, are clearly diminutive, and even dollhouse-like because of Suss’s playful colors. But her careful and deliberate construction of them also lends them their sincerity and heartfelt associations of a relatable home. Her paintings celebrate the everyday environments that we may take for granted, and urge us to behold the wonder in our domestic spaces, which are stages for us to air our identity without bars. Our gaze is kept moving by the many curious objects and busy patterns, which encourage a meandering of another kind — to mine our own memories for places that hold meaning. Further inducing this psychological wandering are Suss’s many connective furnishings, like doors, archways, mirrors, and windows that create continuous realms, like abstract, labyrinthine spaces of the mind.
The show also features about a dozen small-scale paintings of book covers and decorative objects, such as vases and wall art, that appear in her larger paintings. These extend the fictional architectural spaces into the gallery so it, too, becomes her own constructed, personal space — one that we can actually walk around in — with these particular, chosen articles speaking to her own associations of home.
Two paintings of embroidery are especially personal: the original needlepoint of an American flag by her great-grandmother who was a suffragette; and one of the Irish phrase of allegiance, “Erin Go Bragh,” that hung in her grandmother’s house. Suss painted them partly because she wanted to honor her own family of women homemakers — a word, she told me, for which she has a slight disdain because of its traditionally gendered meaning. With Homemaker, she reclaims the term, devoting herself to the domestic space, but to domains that are utterly of her own and that are fully under her control. The title is also a proud assertion of her sustained labor and successful career as a working female artist. More broadly, it is a testament to her power and presence today in a system that has always catered more to men.
Becky Suss: Homemaker continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th St., Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 3.
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