Susan Chrysler White

Janet Fleisher Gallery

Susan Chrysler White’s mixed-media pieces explore both esthetic and political issues through multiple visual vocabularies. The images in the drawings at the heart of these pieces evolve through elaborate material manipulations that relate female sexual organs to botanical fragments, Italian eel traps, and circular rings. In some of the larger pieces, such as Catacomb and Codex, both 1992, the uniform size, scale, and presentation of the varied drawings (12-by-17-inch units, attached in a gridlike framework) make possible larger formal and political statements.

Codex emphasizes the verticality of the grid, its multiple panels separated in tall strips, like ladders with feet, resting against each other and the wall in a random arrangement that suggests the possibility of continuous rearrangement. Catacomb is the most materially complex of White’s pieces. The drawings emerge, as if organically, from intensely worked surfaces where paint, tar, wax, and glue are manipulated over wood, paper, and photographic images. These surfaces constitute a material representation of the alternately revealed and concealed underlying narrative, a specific text introduced by the controlled appearance of words and numbers: “EVERY 15 SECONDS” and “EVERY 6 SECONDS” refer to statistics on rape and other acts of violence against women.

In another grid based installation, July 18, 1991, Meru-Kenya, 1991, a specific incident informs the work. The date and place in the title refer to a night of rape in the fields outside of a small school in Kenya. Reported as a quasi-ritualistic act, this made the news because of the deaths of 19 of the victims. Both excerpts from interviews with the survivors and their ages are incorporated into White’s piece. A few of the drawings and frames are punched out from the rigidity of the elemental grid, isolating individual moments. On a shelf in the lower center of the piece sits a small booklike version of the grid; an even smaller painting of a single breast stands before it. Gathered in front of this elaborately layered image, like an offering at an altar, are 71 bundles of hay corresponding to the number of victims.

White appropriates the Modernist formal device of the grid for her specific political concerns. Yet one of the more successful works in this exhibition, Warped, 1991—varnished wax paper stretched on thin wood frames—bypasses the grid’s angled predictability, using large circular forms, approximately four feet in diameter, to hold the images drawn. Here, White breathes new life into the expressive powers of repetition, referring quite lyrically to the numbers, the statistics, the abundance of sexual forms, and the frequency of sexual abuse.

Eileen Neff