By Hank Hoffman
Life is defined by temporality, by impermanence, and the artwork of Suzan Shutan reflects that. Shutan’s primary medium is installation art, which is both site-specific and time-limited.
Shutan embraces the ephemeral nature of installation art, saying in an interview at her home that she strives for “that lure into the unknown. I’m trying to create installations where it’s about a kind of literal or psychological illumination of the world.”
“My (works) always deal with alchemy, Kabbalistic ideas, even Buddhist ideas. It’s all about oppositions in life: the bitter and sweet, the senses, the yin and the yang,” says Shutan.
Installations have a certain preciousness — analogous to life — for just being temporary. We may have mementos or documents of people when they are gone but we no longer have their physical presence. Shutan tells me that when she was a child, a small birth defect — a problem that would be minor today and that was eventually corrected — required 16 years of extensive hospitalizations.
“My best friends were burn victims who died overnight. That was my reality, a real intense reality,” recalls Shutan. “As an adult, how I try and make sense of it — dealing with death and the reality of the known and unknown — is to use materials that don’t last. When an installation comes down, they’re gone and all I have is a document of it, mostly.”
But specializing in installations has a cost. Some gallery owners have told Shutan that this is a “world of objects” that can be sold. She faces a conflict between being true to her artistic vision to reflect the temporary nature of life through works of art that are time-bound and experiential and the economic imperatives of an art world “that is physical. It sells physical, visual things.”
“Unlike other artists that can sell a painting or a small sculpture, it’s really hard to sell an installation, not that it can’t be done,” says Shutan.
Notwithstanding its roots in suffering — or perhaps because of it — Shutan’s art often conveys a lively sense of whimsy. Her Pheromone series uses colorful cutouts of reflective paper stuck to walls with steel pins to visualize the free-floating nature of chemical attraction: Is falling in love akin to catching a cold from someone’s sneeze? In addition to a searing confrontation with the tenuous nature of life as a young girl, Shutan also realized that “adults lied,” even if their intentions were to protect her from difficult truths about her condition or the length of a hospital stay. Her resultant “lifelong quest for honesty and truth” has taken visual and metaphorical form recently in her series Pinocchio’s Lies.
“I loved the idea as a kid that your lie becomes visual,” says Shutan, alluding to the polygraphic nature of Pinocchio’s nose. One lie begets another and then, Shutan says, “eventually lies become a colorful patchwork of lies that support each other.” Shutan envisioned the patchwork of lies “as a physical thing, like a support system.” Shutan made 63 individual “lies,” covering pool noodles with overlapping rectangles of Color-aid paper of various colors.
“When you have them in bulk, it’s beautiful. It lines an entire wall, this collective set of lies, this collective set of color,” Shutan says. “Lies are seductive. That’s the danger of lies.”
Shutan often gets inspired first by materials. She describes hardware stores, Michael’s Arts & Crafts, and Jo-Ann Fabrics, as “candy stores for me.” Her Flock series of works, inspired by the flight pattern of starlings, features brightly colored pom-poms on the ends of sturdy wires stuck into a wall.
“I had M&M’s that day and I loved all the colors. I thought I wanted to find something like M&M’s I could use in my work. In Michael’s, I found big bags of colorful pom-poms. That’s it! There’s my M&M’s,” recalls Shutan.
For Shutan, color is often a lure that “draws people in” as well as a reflection of “resilience in life, the beauty of natural things.”
Like many of Shutan’s works, pieces in the Flock series depend on the interaction of color, line, motion, shadow, and viewer engagement. The small, medium, and large pom-poms represented the varying perspectives of traditional painting and drawing — foreground, medium ground, and distance. But the larger the pom-pom, the more it bent the wire to which it was attached, the physical weight of the object becoming a drawing element by increasing the curvature of the wire’s line. Shutan encourages viewers to activate the work by touching it; the large pom-poms bounce vigorously while the smallest pom-poms spring in tight little arcs.
There is a deliberate choice in many of the works, Flock included, for shadows of the physical line elements to be part of the visual field. Shutan is drawing both with existing physical elements and with the presence and absence of light.
“That’s the ethereal component I want. How do we know we exist in the world? Through our shadows. The idea of shadows as another layer to my piece is important for that reason — it is kind of the connection between this world and another world,” explains Shutan.
Shutan went to Paier College of Art, in Hamden, for a year then transferred to the California Institute of the Arts, known as CalArts, from which she graduated in 1978. She earned her MFA from Rutgers University 10 years later. In the years since, her work has been recognized with solo and group exhibitions, international shows, and prestigious grants and residencies.
“I learned my realism from Paier. I learned conceptualism and abstraction from CalArts. I was very lucky I had Paier College before that because so many students I was (at CalArts) with didn’t have that foundation and structure of understanding of how the world looks realistically,” says Shutan.
“I had classes with the ‘grandfathers of conceptualism’ — John Baldessari, Douglas Huebler, and Michael Asher. The school was process oriented but you had to have a conceptual basis for what you did,” remembers Shutan. Metaphor was central. “They really wanted you to probe what you were making — why you were making it, what it was about. It was the best education I ever had because of that.”
Metaphor makes its appearance again and again in Shutan’s works, which are deeply concerned with the fusion of image and meaning. Her recent work, Cluster, is a “metaphor for physical existence.” Made of hundreds of pieces of paper looped and attached together, it finds its own shape when hung on a wall.
Shutan says, “Its ability to grow and morph allows it to reference everything from cluster headaches to a subgroup of the population, from computer files to groups of atoms and molecules.”
Although she studied with teachers at CalArts who had been creating installations in the 1970s, Shutan says, “The first time I was invited to do an installation I didn’t even know what it was.”
Offered the chance to do a drawing installation by then-director of the Housatonic Museum of Art, Beverly Fishman, Shutan “didn’t want to pass up a great opportunity so I said yes. I ended up wrapping four walls and two columns with paper,” working in charcoal and mixing representational with abstract imagery. “It was very political and surreal.”
She traces her current working method to a 1993 residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. At Bemis, Shutan began “literally drawing with objects.”
“When I was in Omaha, I had no material. I thought, what’s out here? I went to junkyards to get whatever junk I could find. I started hiking and gathering whatever natural materials I could, amazing natural materials like tumbleweed,” Shutan says.
She merged the materials — cultural and natural detritus — in her work. She began to “create a language,” using components like rubber tubing and natural materials to form the shapes of letters and numbers.
“I understood that I could take a line and break it out of a piece of paper or canvas and extend it into the world and that it could be validated in the art world.”