Susan Harrington

Susan Harrington is this year’s best new discovery in Dallas. Although she has been exhibiting sporadically in this area for the past eight years, as recently as a year ago her work looked like a remake of mid-’70s New Image painting, specifically Robert Moskowitz’s. She made large paintings, mostly black, with barely visible silhouettes of figures or other forms, against which very small figures were suspended, usually in profile. The psychological drama of these early works seemed either contrived or wholly unresolved, and Harrington’s painting technique at the time appeared only slightly interesting.

But with her work of the past year Harrington has demonstrated a depth of emotion and a bravura that are startlingly new and deeply disturbing. Her large paintings are now diptychs and triptychs of images, usually divided into distinct sections. In each painting, one section contains an enlarged and somewhat distorted image of a face abstracted from a photograph. Painted in a brushy style in overlays of subtle grays, blacks, and whites, these blown-up visages are extraordinarily painterly and disjunctive, and are reminiscent of the abstract works of Clyfford Still. Harrington’s ambiguous, abstracted figures of the late ’70s have become, in these paintings, descriptions of human anguish. In one, a man holds his hand to his cheek, as if turning away from a blow (Through Transparent Silence, 1985–86); in another, a baby raises his fat fist to his contorted face (Children’s Games, 1985).

A second, and sometimes a third, section of each of Harrington’s paintings shows images evidently drawn from the artist’s imagination. A head may be barely visible on one mat-black stretch of canvas; a scribbled, schematic drawing of a face in profile shows up on another. And across this mix of obvious and hidden imagery Harrington’s signature minifigures again fall and tumble through space. But where she once ignored gravitational forces in her overlay of small-scale people, her little acrobats now seem victims of gravity—they are the alter egos of the larger figures, and as they interact with one another in dancelike formations they seem both dreams of freedom and, conversely, liberated demons. Harrington’s contrasts of small and large, internal and external visions have become ever more poignant as she has cut loose her imagination, allowing them to interplay freely.

What’s shocking about Harrington’s new work is the sheer vulnerability of the artist’s revelations. Despite their timely connection to the pseudoemotional painting that has recently flooded the market, her paintings are too overtly traumatic to leave her in the category of mere hangers-on in the mad rush to neo-Expressionism. With their passionate brushwork and unrelenting dramatic tensions, they convince us that Harrington is exploring her own private pain, one that, despite the absolute assurance of her technique, remains raw and exposed on the surface of her paintings.

Susan Freudenheim