HILLSIDE, New York — When you first enter Susan Carr’s solo exhibition, FLIPSIDE, on view at LABSpace, the 75 featured paintings and sculptures appear whimsical and carnivalesque; they’re heavy on primary colors and rendered in a childlike, faux-naif style. The longer you look, however, the more you realize this is not a carnival, but a multi-faceted document of Carr’s determination to make artwork by any means necessary despite decades of financial struggles after she became a single mother at age 16. What initially appears playful grows frightening upon closer inspection: the delirious smiles of her paintings’ subjects read as comments on how often average women are expected to “grin and bear it” after surviving trauma.
In a portrait called “Ear Plugs,” lime green hair, a yellow barrette, and a blue striped shirt rise up from a red wooden background; black pupils pop out from the whites of the subject’s eyes and a thick black stroke of a smile almost reaches her forehead. The image seems goofy and cartoonish until you really look at the face: the center is red and purple, furiously executed, as if someone had just ripped off a mask hiding an open wound.
In a portrait of the artist’s grandmother, Peg, who hailed from Appalachia and suffered through an unhappy marriage, a flat pink face with a half-open mouth and bright yellow brush strokes for hair bursts out from a creamy, light-blue background. Black eyes rimmed in red with lids half-shut evoke a sense that the subject is holding back tears.
A white orb punctuated with a black pupil appears in several paintings — a motif that the artist adopted after the death of one of her sons. Sometimes a pair of these orbs is riding a white horse; in one painting, they hold each other. In a past interview, Carr explained, “When my son passed, the eye motif became very important and has been dominant in my work. It is a way to communicate my feelings, a way to talk. So this motif comes from the deepest recesses of me.” The angst and loneliness found in other pieces is replaced with a sense of camaraderie and connection between these two eyeball creatures.
Several pieces resemble abstracted, fantastical riffs on the female anatomy, such as “Big Mama,” a frothy, hot pink oval wall sculpture composed of lush, concentric spirals of clay that appear to be magnetically pulled towards a nipple-like protuberance at the center. It thrusts out from a rectangular box dripping with paint-encrusted cascades of yarn, suggesting both a breast and an umbilical cord.
Evoking a sense of religious icons, Carr’s portraits are intimate in size and created using a heavy impasto technique. “Ear Plugs” is painted so thickly that it could easily be referred to as a relief, making the distinction between sculpture and painting seems almost beside the point here. “Gesture is integral to each of these works,” Carr said in a 2018 interview. “The presence of the human hand is very important to me. It is like dancing. Gesture says humanity was here.”
Susan Carr: FLIPSIDE continues at LABspace (2642 NY Route 23 Hillsdale NY) through May 19.