Art

Deceptively Playful Portraits Mask Personal Traumas

At first glance, Susan Carr’s paintings and sculptures appear whimsical and carnivalesque, but grow frightening upon closer inspection.

Susan Carr, “Big Momma” (2019) Acrylic on mixed media with yarn and wood (17 inches x 16 inches x 5 inches) (Photo: Hideyo Okamura)

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.

Susan Carr, “Ear Plugs”, (2019) Oil on Wood (11 inches x 9 inches)

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.

Susan Carr, “Peg” (2018) Oil on Wood (5 inches x 5 inches) (Photo: Hideyo Okamura)

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.

Susan Carr: Flipside at LABspace (2019) (Installation view) (photo: Hideyo Okamura)

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.

Susan Carr, “A Song, A Dream” (2018) Oil on Canvas (30 inches x 24 inches) (Photo courtesy of the artist)

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 at LABspace (2019) (Installation view) (photo: Hideyo Okamura)

Susan Carr: FLIPSIDE continues at LABspace (2642 NY Route 23 Hillsdale NY) through May 19.

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