To those who already knew Susan Bee’s work, this show of recent paintings might have felt at once familiar and strange. The familiarity was due to lush, boldly colored landscapes; proliferating abstract patterns; whimsical collage elements; and quasi-mystical allegories, all rendered in Bee’s distinctive stylistic blend of folk art and pastoral psychedelia. The strangeness came with a wall of small, closely hung oil paintings based on film noir stills. Most feature a man and a woman (he sporting a gray fedora, she with a wavy ’40s hairdo) engaged in a tussle (Cover-Up), a brutal courtship (Desire), or simply on the run (Recalculating; all three 2010).
In several paintings Bee departs from such classic noir scenarios. Women and children are her protagonists, most notably in Drive-By (2009), where one woman steers with one hand as the other thrusts a large-caliber pistol out of the car’s open window. A young girl, whom we instantly cast as the shooter’s daughter, sits next to her. Both figures are looking toward the viewer, while the gun is angled slightly to the side, pointing at some unseen victim/aggressor. Painted, like all the other film noir compositions, with flat colors and an unapologetic awkwardness that evokes Jean Hélion’s 1940s work, the figures in Drive-By appear oddly calm and determined, unlike the fragile-looking couple in Recalculating. Both paintings rely on a palette of faded grays and washed-out blues, and artfully employ car windows to frame their subjects; they are both also clearly informed by the artist’s strong emotional identification with her subjects rather than by any interest in the nostalgic glamour of the inspiring films. (The introduction of color into what were originally black-and-white stills effectively stifles nostalgia.)
It’s not only ’40s flicks that Bee adapts: this show included her awesomely direct versions (both 2009) of two old-master paintings in the Met: Woman Tormented by Demons, after the Michelangelo of the same title, and Saint Anthony in the Wilderness, based on a small Quattrocento panel long ascribed to Sassetta (now it’s credited to the Osservanza Master). What Bee prizes in the Italian primitives, and in other influences such as Marsden Hartley (especially his late landscapes) and Caspar David Friedrich, is their vision of painting as a medium of solace and revelation. She is still creating compelling symbolic landscapes (well represented in this show), but in the rawer film noir paintings Bee has shifted her focus from nature to human nature, an altogether darker subject.
Photo: Susan Bee: Recalculating, 2010, oil on linen, 16 by 20 inches; at A.I.R.