San Francisco

Susan Dannenfelser

Eaton/Shoen Gallery

The pivotal issue elicited by Susan Dannenfelser’s recent painted steel sculpture concerns the gains and perils of an intensified expression of emotion. This East Bay artist has always worked metaphorically, originally using ceramics in assemblages exploring states of feeling, personal fantasies, and cultural and religious beliefs. In this show she presented work manifesting two procedures of manipulating welded steel, each producing dramatically different emotive effects.

Although all the work is from 1984, Torch (Arson) is the finest achievement of Dannenfelser’s earlier approach to dealing with steel. For the past three years she has played with and against a flower motif, subverting the association of flowers with delicate fragility by making ever-larger works in increasingly schematic form. The thin steel sheets she used were pliable and could be formed into undulating sheaths. As petals, these sheets suggested an unexpectedly firm, independent strength, but they could also be appreciated as abstractions with no specific botanical sources.

The 65-inch-tall overlapping panels with loosely ragged edges of Torch (Arson) resemble both an elongated coppery lily and a flame. As is customary in the earlier work, color is applied in broad areas and in smoothly modulated tones. The convex exterior is darker than the creamier, luminous inner side, connoting a protective shell and a more vulnerable, even feminine, interior. The draped sheet steel and the subtle colors create an image of elegance which exudes passions simultaneously suggested by the botanical form, both undulating and firmly upright; by the coloristic duality of hard and soft; and by the suggestion of a large strong flame.

Torch (Arson) is the refinement of a body of work, and the majority of the pieces here take a different direction, so its perhaps not surprising that the remainder do not achieve that pieces subtlety within clarity. Apparently striving for greater directness or intensity of expression, the new work tends to vulgarize the former elegance. In the recent flower-inspired compositions, all pedestal-size, leaves twist around each other as if writhing in a contorted frenzy. With the steel covered in thick swathes of Bondo modeling paste, and the ridges and grooves painted with glistening rivulets of darkly contrasting color, the demeanor of these sculptures is more of coarse brashness than of controlled intensity.

A few more tightly structured compositions, like elaborate still lifes, offer a more stable ground for those dramatic emotions. The dynamic relief Swept Away is the most complete of these—a complex welded construction of a broadly bulging arrow curving around to thrust between two rows of overlapping feathers (or rigid leaves, or lips). With its acidic hues of blood red, green, and brown, and its rough, heavy surface, the work strains for emotional rawness. But the very directness of the explicit anatomical references results in a reduction of expression to a more blatant statement of engulfing sexuality than the allusions to dark desire the work seems to aim for.

Suzaan Boettger