Susanne Stephenson – 2002

susanne-stephenson-essayTHE OLSON GALLERY | Bethel College
SUSANNE STEPHENSON | January 11 – March 8, 2002

On Susanne Stephenson’s Landscape Gestures

The rich, energetic, and sensuous presence of Susanne Stephenson’s clay pieces encountered in Landscape Gestures speak for themselves.  One’s eye and body are caught up in a tactile dance with these colorful, undulating forms, whether they be swirling on the walls or pedestals.  But if the viewer waits long enough to sit out the next dance, and really looks at these exuberant works, a curious question presents itself: what exactly is the viewer seeing?  One senses a convergence of three different artistic traditions within the making of these works.  Clearly they arise from the clay tradition of vase, bowl, and plate.  Yet they are not functional pieces.  Nor, happily, are they among those unsatisfying hybrids where functional pieces try to look expressive.  Some other logic drives them.  These works also make reference to the tradition of landscape.  But clearly these are neither clay landscapes, nor clay vessels with landscape imagery on their surfaces.

It is in the terms of the third artistic tradition that these works speak, catching up both the functional forms of clay and the natural forms of landscape together.  That third tradition is that of the expressive gesture.  The expressive gesture is the means by which abstract art explores the elemental forces of process, movement, fusion, and transience.  These elemental realities are the internal energies at work within nature, for despite the landscape’s naturalistic surface, which we see, the land is never really inert.  These elemental realties are also the internal energies inherent in making functional ceramics, as each bowl and vessel bears within its final form the pugging of the clay, the spinning of the wheel, and the fusion of the vessel’s body with the glaze through the kiln’s heat.  But such fundamental energies, which are the very forces that drive reality, cannot be re-presented (de-picted) in their pure state, for their state is abstract.  They can only be evoked by an equally elemental kind of form or mark making; that is, by an equally pure, abstract gesture made in color or clay or paint.

Susanne Stephenson speaks of her own work in terms of gesture.  In her aptly titled catalogue, Forming Gestures, she has said that what she is responding to are “the gestures present in nature,” “the gesture of the sun’s light…in the dark mountain of the sky,” and “the gesture in nature [which] is the energy expressed by the movement of water, mist, or rain breaking over rocks.”

Webster defines gesture as “a motion of the limbs or body made to express thought,” or again, as “an act made as a sign of intention or attitude.”  Thus a gesture is an outward form or mark signifying an interior energy or meaning.  Leonardo da Vinci once defined the task of painting as “the artist’s showing man and the working of man’s mind.”  He said, “the first is easy, the second difficult, for it is represented through the gestures of the man’s limbs.”  Thus, when Leonardo looked at a man (or for that matter, at a landscape), he sought to portray the exterior appearance of the model’s limbs in such a way as to reveal what is interior to the mind.  He put the weight of showing the soul onto the de-picting of the body’s outward appearance.

The modern tradition of gestural abstraction inverts Leonardo’s idea, turning it inside out.  For now, it is the gesture of the artist’s own limbs which express the interior thoughts and emotions; instead of re-presenting the material appearance of the model’s limbs as a “picture to be read,” the gesture of the artist’s limbs now leave a record of their movement and the feelings that drove them in the expressiveness of the materials used (drawing, painting, or here, modeling in clay).

The viewer should not, however, think that this is an arbitrary process subject only to the artist’s whim.  In Stephenson’s work, for example, her gestures bear a deep analog to two kinds of sources outside her own subjectivity.  One is the source of landscape and natural processes which she observes in all their force and delicacy.  These she has described in words, as noted above.  The other is the discipline of ceramics, of the wheel, of the limits of terracotta earthenware and the low firing process; of how a form can be thrown, cut, built, and of how a thick textured slip fits the clay (cracking or not ), and of how a thinner, vitreous engob bears the color; of how that vitreous engob must flux out at the right temperature to mature with the clay’s expressive body in the kiln’s heat.

In the final analysis, for an artist of Stephenson’s mastery, all of this is one.  As she has put it,

For me “landscape” is a three-dimensional concept.  It is all about gesture and the struggle of man within nature.  I perceive landscape in a circular way as it moves around the vase form. …Pottery forms tend to speak about volumes as do the sky and ocean. …The images I deal with in the plate, bowl or vase form are fragmented and abstract.  I am committed to expressing the visual energy that one sees in nature.

All of this, comprehended together, constitutes gesture.  That is what the viewer sees.

Wayne Roosa, Ph.D.
Professor of Art History, Bethel College