The following conversation took place via email over a week in November, 2016, in Winnipeg, MB.
Craig Love: Do you think of these images as drawings? Or, do you think of them as diagrams? Is there a difference? It seems to me that a diagram should be useful and a drawing need not be. But then I looked up the definition of diagram and it indicates: a simplified drawing showing the appearance or structure of something. Does any of this trigger and thoughts for this recent work?
Suzie Smith: I see the images as both drawings and diagrams. They are drawings in that I have drawn each element and the hand is very present in the shapes. They are diagrams in that they illustrate a set of rules I have set out showing a number of variations out of the endless possibilities. I also see them as collages. Well, collages of drawn elements illustrating a process. I guess I really like this murky area in-between where process, image and idea all weigh the same.
During my MFA I wrote a dissertation about art and instruction. Particularly looking at artists who use instruction as a main element in their work like Yoko Ono and Sol LeWitt. I like how instruction can be imagined or tangible. For me it allows for the work to be many things at the same time; an idea imagined, a spontaneous process, endless variation etc.
CL: Or the more abstract pieces make me think of Jasper Johns studio mantra of "take an object, do something to it, do something else to it, repeat". The funny thing is, and correct me if I am wrong, that the thing you do to the object is often the same thing i.e. take an object and do something to it and then do the same thing again.... the range of action is vastly reduced; the crayons make straight lines, which makes one acknowledge the vast potential of such a seemingly limited action.
SS: I guess by not allowing many variations I am letting the work have a life of its own. I can only control it so much.
CL: It seems like one of the things the works show is materials acting as themselves. For example, in the crayon pieces it is as if we are watching the work working. The images seem to acknowledge the possibilities within the structures presented, whether they be crayons or other blocky shapes made up of smaller drawn marks. Does this seem right?
SS: That is pretty on the nose. Work Working was another title idea I had. This series started a while back with a piece I created called Screenprint-Screenprint of two hands screenprinting a block of colour. It was a bit of a tongue in cheek response to the question of how my work is made. The piece made making the subject. Yet at the same time it is a facade of how artwork is really made, dumbing it down and eliminating the monotonous elements of the process. I am interested in how things are represented vs. what things are. A common thread in my work is this flattening or lack of illusion. I like to give hints as to how things are really made. I think this is a common thread through all the work in the show.
CL: The way you speak about the representation of things versus the reality of things is interesting... So a blue crayon draws a blue line and a red crayon draws a red line, and if these lines overlap it becomes a purple line. Now this purple line is made by just the optical effect of 2 separate colours of screen ink overlaid and not 3, i.e. a blue for the blue crayon, a red for the red and a purple for the line, right? So in a way it is a direct explication of the printing process. Thereby being a kind of instruction through the back door, instructions without us even knowing it.
SS: Once a teacher, always a teacher. The crayons and video are part of a larger series I have been making called ‘How to’ of hands or tools making things. The work references instructional manuals in appearance and subject.
In particular with the video piece one thing, then another (version 1) there is a heavy instructional element. In one way I am just doing a series of doodles of simple everyday objects. In another way I am showing even the simplest things can convey an array of complex concepts such as time, place, dimensionality, feeling, perspective etc. By adding even one line you can completely change how something is perceived.
CL: There is a definite sense of play to the work, if I push further I might consider throwing the seemingly oxymoronic description of 'stoic joy' upon them. By this I mean that despite the bright, fun colours there seems to be an equally serious and scrupulous quality to both the 'objects' and their composition. The crayons feign a kind of childish or simple casualness that may not really exist, I mean, they are not making scribbles or making some kind of all-over composition à la Pollock, they only scribe hand drawn lines. Maybe you could talk more about the basics: colour, line, shape, and any other recent formal concerns.
SS: I have created a system or structure to play within. Usually you think of a system as rigid or restrictive but in this case it frees something up, forcing me to be improvisational. The nature of the system allows room for play. The drying time of ink makes me do it quickly. I can’t question what I am doing. I have to act.
I am interested in the idea of thinking through making and I think it is evident in some of the crayon prints. Me adding more rules as I go such as limited colours, limited number of lines, lines in a certain direction etc. In this case they are more minimal but that isn’t to say in a different series they wouldn’t be scribbled in different ways but there would be a system for the messiness.
Leading up to the show I was looking a lot at artists like Sister Corita Kent and the Gee’s Bend quilters who come at art from the side with, at least initially, other goals in mind. Kent with an activist, devotional and instructional practice and the Gee’s Bend quilters with a functional and at times community oriented craft practice. The Gee’s Bend quilters make these incredible compositions that sit right beside abstract painting of their time but their work had other concerns; size, function, resourceful use of materials etc. Perhaps some of the success is partially tied to these parameters.
CL: When we spoke at your studio we talked about rules...if there were any, how and when are they liable to change, etc. There seems to be a kind of promiscuous design sense at work, especially in these blocky coloured works. You set up images on your silk-screens and then use them like building blocks or like wooden blocks in textile printing are used. You are drawing or collaging with the printed marks, which both makes a visual image and at the same time reveals how it's made. You can't ruin the illusion because there is no illusion to ruin. Does this seem accurate?
SS: I think there are a lot more rules than people are willing to admit to in contemporary art and design. In academia you are pushed towards a conceptual formula, idea - plan - make. I am just trying to switch the order around and be straightforward about it. I keep going back to the book The Craftsman by Richard Sennett that looks at the history of ‘making’. In it he talks about the relationship between making and thinking and how that has shifted though history. I am looking to have them more in line in my work.
It is also a bit of a reaction towards our overly designed world where it feels like expression gets limited to a series of templates and filters. I think sometimes we have to create our own system instead of playing within ones already created. In my work I become the programmer of my own work, as well as the labourer and sometimes the kink in the system. I create a set of rules or parameters for making the work. The rules determine the final result the process in-between is a push and pull of the rules.
CL: Your images picture cause and effect, the tool and its mark. I am also interested on how you think of this funny loop that is somewhat unique to printmaking. The loop being you make a drawing that then is transferred to a screen that then is printed to look like the original drawing. I mean it seems dumb to talk about but what do you think is unique about looking at these prints of 'drawing' and not drawings themselves? if you know what I mean. The other silly way to ask the question is why are these not drawings, or could they be drawings? Ha-ha. And what does this further removal/distance allow you? It seems almost as if the lack of an 'original mark' moves the work away from a stuffy type of capital A art situation, which I assume you are all for. It's not about taste, connoisseurship, or ego.
SS: In this case turning the drawn elements into printed elements allowed more possibility. The shapes become blocks that can be reconfigured for endless variation. If it was a drawing it seems like it would just end there instead of being more open ended. In a way I am trying to undo an idea of the artist’s unique mark and embracing our cut and paste culture. It probably also comes back to my love of print as a populous medium. It isn’t about creating one precious thing but about creating many. I allow for the medium to have its own voice. It has a say in how things come together. I feel it turns my drawings into collage pieces that I am then putting together. I am really drawn to printmaking because it sits between fine art – craft and industrial tool. It has an accessible quality to it. That being said I also like to mess with the inherent traits of printmaking. Instead of making multiples I often make one of a kind prints. Instead of being flat I sometimes make sculptural prints. The best part about rules is breaking them.
CL: What is your relationship to improvisation in the studio? Or Chance? etc. Do you feel like you are building images? Given some of your previous work that has dealt with bricks and hammers and tape, brushes, rollers and squeegees, now the crayons, etc. Your interest in breaking things down into simple units seems a constant. Some of these tiny marks in these new colourful pieces are somewhat like Bangladeshi or Bengali kantha stitching...we have talked a bit about your love of folk quilts, you've already spoken of the women quilters of Gee's Bend Alabama...maybe you wanna talk about this?
SS: Improvisation in the studio is important. I always like the work I do best when I am procrastinating doing something else and just start to play around. As far as building images I like to print an element then react to it and so on. Drawings become bricks to build prints; prints are shown in multiples that are built into installations. The context of how you understand something is directly relational to the shape before it. The tiny marks that make up the shapes break it down further. I also like how it looks like stitching. It adds another layer of labour to think about.
I have always had an interest in taking things apart. Even as a little kid when I learned how to use a screw driver I just started taking things apart to see how they were made up of individual pieces. With this work I am inviting the viewer to do the same. They see the finished ‘drawings’ but in order to understand it they have to in a way take it apart and put it back together. I think this is a common theme in my work, deconstruction and reconstruction and asking the viewer to imagine the same.
Craig Love is an artist and writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba.