New York

Becky Suss, Mic (Lighthouse with Solar System), 2019, oil on canvas, 84 × 60".

Becky Suss, Mic (Lighthouse with Solar System), 2019, oil on canvas, 84 × 60".

Becky Suss

In a series of new oil paintings at Jack Shainman Gallery, Becky Suss furthers her search for lost time by excavating children’s literature, interior decoration, the chimera of memory, and fictional homes. The show’s title originated in the writings of Lucy Sprague Mitchell, a pioneer of early education, whose Here and Now Story Book (1921) promoted child-centered learning. Suss created fantasias of preservation, laboring to remake domiciles that echoed with the question Is anyone home? The answer was mostly no, but this body of work was concerned with lives lived, from the cradle to the grave.

Contents of rooms—even a coffin, as in Henrik’s House (Great Aunt Birte’s Funeral), 2020, a reference to Lois Lowry’s novel for young readers, Number the Stars (1989), about the plight of Danish Jews during World War II—were carefully displayed in Suss’s tableaux. The near symmetry of the painting’s composition was strikingly anchored by a yellow floral rug. The plain wooden casket is unobtrusive despite being placed centrally in the foreground; beside it is a rocking chair that awaits a mourner. The starry night sky, framed neatly by a lacy valance above the panes of a picture window, promises a greater freedom than the Holy Bible that lies open on a side table, next to an unlit candle. The innuendos are many, inviting speculation and deepening the mystery.

A half-dozen small renderings of books complemented the six large-scale domestic scenes. The literary sources included James Baldwin’s Little Man, Little Man: A Story of Childhood (1976), Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon (1947), Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (1902), and Dorothy Kunhardt’s Pat the Bunny (1940). Suss reproduced their covers or excerpted pages on backgrounds made up of flowers, stripes, and animal prints—the kinds of familiar patterns one can find on tablecloths, bedsheets, or wallpaper. Suss’s use of such designs was spirited but specific, recalling the work of artists such as Joyce Kozloff and Miriam Schapiro, who were associated with the Pattern and Decoration movement. The only nonpainting here was Alphabet Rug, 2020, a wool latch-hook rug that featured an illustrated lesson on the ABCs: o for orca, or u for umbrella, and so on. 

With each simulacrum of a room and its distinctive appointments, Suss was knowingly playing house, and her rather oddball arrangement of objects was refreshing despite being steeped in nostalgia. Time was at a standstill, as indicated by the Snoopy watch in Bathroom (Farmington, CT), 2019. Not a creature was stirring in any of these scenes, but a sleeping dog was curled up on a woven rag rug in Mic (Lighthouse with Solar System), 2019. The animal came as a surprise after the vacancies of the other pictures, and its presence seemed to animate the swirly wood grain of the floor. A dark, paneled wall was rendered with trompe l’oeil and covered with illustrations of the moon’s phases, our solar system, the Milky Way, and a comet mid-orbit—an idealized cosmos held in check. The outdoors was inert: a placid body of water was visible in the distance, and a flat, daylit sky could be seen through a window and screen door.

Suss’s paintings speak to the solitude of reverie and bookish pursuits, capturing not only the sanctity but the static feeling of grown-up settings as perceived by a child—the distortion of materiality and scale. Magic happens through the intervention of imagination. The writings of Georges Perec, a Polish Jew who lost both his parents in World War II, came to mind—in particular, his 1974 book Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, in which he notes that “the resurrected space of the bedroom is enough to bring back to life, to recall, to revive memories. . . .” Suss’s documentation of interiors was similarly an act of resurrection through iffy indexes and mementos, but to what end? Perhaps just to affirm that someone was here.