San Francisco

Susan Hall

Quay Gallery

Susan Hall, in a commanding exhibition at the Quay Gallery, is also occupied, albeit in a manner differing considerably from that of Mr. Stiegelmeyer, with an essentially graphic approach to painting. Bold caricatures, cartoons and contour drawings in thin lines of color often stated against fields of a single contrasting color distinguish her present style, in which, while drawing from the currently fashionable, youthfully obstreperous vernacular of combining Pop hyperbole on mass-media advertising and comic-strip art with some of the spirited impudence and rowdy obscenities of Funk, she yet tempers and individualizes these pervasive influences with her own more versatile comprehensions of history and flexibilities of technique.

With one exception, significantly centrally placed in the exhibition, Miss Hall’s idiom is figurative, and its subject is women. The conspicuously placed exception is a cartoon without figures of a motion picture projection machine from the lens of which a beam spreads toward an unseen screen beyond the margin of the picture; the device is open on one side to reveal a zany jumble of improbable wires, cogs, springs, wheels and whatnots, while the word “Lust,” comically sprawled in large letters, appears uppermost on a pile of folios and film cans piled on the floor. This whimsy would seem to provide an intentional clue to the theme of the other pictures, for indeed, urban and suburban subcultural stereotypes of feminine sexuality, and women involved wittingly or unwittingly as the exploited exploiters in either conventionally accepted or bizarrely decadent “sexploitational” contexts is the pervasive theme of Miss Hall’s currently exhibited work.

The extent and multi-facetedness of the subject provide endless possibilities for graphic, Aristophanic satire to which Miss Hall brings considerable acuity of perception and wit. With playful audacity Miss Hall plunders a wide and eclectic range of pictorial conventions and familiar iconographies to implement her wry humor. There is hilarious slapstick on the clusters of objects used in Baroque portraiture to indicate a sitter’s career and status; and there are the allegorical mice and other domestic rodents of venerable pictorial lineage, all interspersed with tongue-in-cheek allusions to such comic-strip heroines as Little Orphan Annie and Blondie. Sex-exploiting art styles are parodied: the obliquely Lesbianic courtesan-models of Art Nouveau erotica are paraphrased in a statement entitled Models in which the contour drawing of a pair of semi-reclining nudes playing with a mouse alludes to mannerisms of Beardsley and of Schiele; while a number of studies of flabby floozies in the garter-belted, spike-heel shod semi-nudity of girlie magazines are drawn against pastel-hued paint washes in a manner strongly suggesting the bordello denizens of Jules Pascin.

Commercial promotion games and contests are an inevitable target within Miss Hall’s range and in a comment on them she employs the comic-strip convention of the word-cartouche to permit her subject to announce: “Look, I’ve just won all these lovely prizes on Lester’s Lust-In.” However, Miss Hall never really needs to borrow such conventions to clarify her message, for her powers of evoking complex recognitions economically is considerable. In a statement entitled The Clerks a small bevy of girls gathered around a stenographer’s desk in attitudes of smoking cigarettes and blowing smoke rings, conjure almost audible recollections of the cynically sex-oriented coffee-break “girl-talk” of clerical mills.

The sequence in which the pictures were arranged around the gallery seemed to progress in an order of intensity of commentative engagement, from the relatively detached, benignly patronizing humor of such genre-cartoons as The Clerks, through near-poignant caricatures of tired waitresses and forlornly erotocentric suburban housewives, and flamboyantly supercilious asides on the honky-tonk world of tenderloin burlesque and boardwalk beauty contests, to a final group of bitterly sardonic statements in which Miss Hall hints ominously toward more sinister extensions of her theme into regions of the Velvet Underground and of the more bizarre sadomasochistic and exhibitionistic manifestations of aberrant feminine erotocentrism. In The Artists’ Models, a nude female figure, rendered grotesquely in a style perhaps funkishly alluding to the crude conventions of erotic folk-cartoons on latrine walls, leeringly jabs a spiky finger against her hieroglyphically delineated genitals in a patently masturbatory, grimly frenzied gesture of defiant and mocking lewdness.

Certainly there is more than merely an accidental parallel to “theme, chapter and verse” of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, in Miss Hall’s indictment of the “sexual sell” and her acid observations on the public farce and private hang-ups attendant upon the lopsidedly erotocentric orientation of women promoted by prevailing slogans and media-projected, popularly subscribed stereotypes for defining sexual roles.

Palmer D. French