Philadelphia

Susan Fenton

Paul Cava Gallery

This recent exhibition of Susan Fenton’s painted photographs presented two bodies of work, one produced in France and one in Japan, where the artist is now living. Place has always been a factor in Fenton’s work, a subtext that underlies the immediately apparent subject matter and marks the extent of her experience in foreign places. The artist’s first important work evolved while she was living in Rome—the city became a source for the ritualized, ceremonial attitudes of her figures and the objects that accompany them.

Fenton’s general practice consists first of a highly controlled studio preparation during which a solitary model’s head might be capped or wrapped and then arranged into what seems like a tight still-life space rather than the expansiveness of a portrait. Facing down or away, these busts remain objectified by their refusal to meet our gaze. Presented—but never portrayed—they are subject to the same compositional considerations as a table edge or a piece of cloth. In earlier works, Fenton painted directly on the model’s body (just as Giorgio Morandi would sometimes tinge his objects with color), manipulating the surface even before the photograph is taken. As a final touch, Fenton uses a limited palette of oil paint on these black and white enlargements.

The most recent Japanese prints appear, on one hand, to be what the last ten years have been preparing the artist for; the minimal austerity of her style is well suited to her Japanese experience. Yet, perhaps because of the perfect fit, these images are more predictable, the mystery not so mysterious. Surrounding the figure with a lizard or a bamboo stick, or replacing the anonymous hood with a warrior’s helmet adds graphic rather than poetic depth to Fenton’s vision. The most successful are still those most formally conceived. The dead symmetry in Figure with Folded Paper Hood, 1992, remains compelling. Architectural presence grounds the figure as much to the floor as to the wall, shifting its conventional position and our relationship to it. Further engaging us, the image moves from the abstract to the particular—the slight bulge of an eye at the brim of the paper hood bringing the “individual” back to life.

In her French work, Fenton forgoes the enigmatic encounter between figure and object. In this purely estheticized experience, the content does not draw on but becomes reduced to the visual role of each carefully selected and arranged element in the bigger picture. Fenton’s formal intelligence is always present and most rewarding when the unexpected occurs, or something unexplained remains.

Eileen Neff