Katzen Museum Show, Washington, D.C. January 26 – March 15, 2013
The Paintings of Susan Yanero reflections by Alan Feltus.
Looking at correspondence this afternoon between me and Susan Yanero, revisiting our conversations over several decades as I was about to begin this introduction, I was reminded of Paul Klee’s 1904 etching, “Two Men Meet Each Other Supposing The Other To Be Of Higher Rank”. It’s a wonderful image of two naked old men bowing down deeply to each other. What that etching has to do with Susan and me, in my mind, is that for years I have told Susan that she is incredibly talented and makes very strong and wonderful paintings. And she denies that, and in turn says those things about me. In my estimation Susan has always been my equal, if not better than me. But, of course, Susan hasn’t been able to begin to accept that as a possibility. You see, Susan’s paintings are much more painterly than mine. They are close to abstraction while being, at the same time, fascinating images of her interior world made through the magic of the immediacy of her brushstroke laying down color in such a way that drawing and painting and surface exist in equal measure, strong, direct and unfaltering. We see something created spontaneously in the act of painting, without fussing or attempting to fix or to polish. Susan isn’t convinced that that is to be admired. To her it is simply what she is able to do. She has no choice in the matter. She has tried to paint differently, more the way I paint, and she can no more do that than I can paint the way she paints. I admire her work because it is so natural, so completely unselfconscious. So forceful and yet gentle. So personal and so surprising.
Susan was my student many years ago, at American University. She is easily the most gifted painter I ever taught. Susan’s paintings come from deep within herself and at the same time have the wisdom of great painters from the history of art. She painted her childhood for years, her childhood or our collective nostalgic childhood, and she now paints a world in which her cast of characters play out dramas on a stage that is both circus and is life as she knows it. Looking at these paintings it is clear that Susan internalizes her understanding of the paintings of past centuries in a kind of innocently direct and honest way, almost unconsciously. It is as though Duccio, Masaccio, and Uccello reside within her being and have become inseparable from herself. A little girl holding a cat, or a doll, is borrowed from a Madonna and child in a Renaissance painting, reborn as a Susan Yanero child, maybe her own child self. It is not the same as when a painter learns from, and pays tribute to, another artist. Susan doesn’t have that kind of motivation. She seems to simply work, and what comes out on the canvas is entirely about her, and is amazing. She often isn’t able to explain the meanings of much of what emerges on her canvases and I think that is to her credit. What we see in these paintings doesn’t translate into verbal language, or if she could explain everything, the explanations wouldn’t be quite right.
Susan’s most recent paintings, two large canvases in the exhibition that she refers to as black paintings, are even more intensely personal. They issue from a dark place deep down inside. They are about mysterious, ominous forces that haunt her being. This, in my thinking, makes these paintings stronger than those that appear to be more playful. Which is not to say these are not also playful, or that the circus imagery is not similarly engaging and about how she sees life. Her circus has its sinister figures. They, too, are about gentleness and danger. The “black” paintings are Susan Yanero, they are unmistakably her hauntingly beautiful complex world of imagery, and her humanity. In Susan’s words, the black paintings are about “the potential loss of innocence, although that innocence has protection through love”. Falling babies in one painting are “Giotto’s heap of babies, who were murdered by Herod”. I believe few painters have so vivid an inner world as the content of their work, so interesting a personal mythology, so magnificently depicted. And few painters are as true to themselves and as far from pretense as Susan Yanero.
Alan Feltus is a painter represented by Forum Gallery in New York, native of Washington DC, who grew up in Manhattan, taught at American University from 1972 to 1984 and has lived in the hills behind Assisi, Italy since 1987.