The first time I saw art work by Suzan Shutan, I sensed a political reading. Just in the way the works were installed, on both wall and floor, wrapping around corners, weaving mid-air. I read the subject of “environment” before I even got near enough to note the material used, the titles of the work. The seeping large shape of looped material poured out of and off the wall, continuing its path onto the gallery floor. The visual read as suspended or slowed-down liquid flow, something rather beautiful and intricate and yet unsettling at the same time.
Once closer to the work, it became more apparent as to what I was responding to and why. The material used to create these intricate woven constructions is tar roofing paper joined with industrial glue. The roofing paper is wholly visible as roofing paper, as tar paper used for roofing, as direct as is the gluing process holding the loops together. No attempts are made to alter the material as it reads industrial, bitumen, asphalt, oil. Integrated within these loops are sporadic holdings of vibrant areas of color composed of lokta paper, another durable resinous paper; a material time-honored for its role in the preservation of sacred texts. Shutan’s treatment of both kinds of paper are the same; both are looped, crocheted-like, and incorporate varying sizes. The transition from wall space (conventional viewing area for 2-d work) to floor space (traditional sculpture) is the art category integrating, or, “the straddling of both worlds” Shutan speaks of. But we also read the symbolic in the integration of material within its equally significant method of display.
Where we find Shutan’s work in the evolving discipline of art is somewhere between the Public Art social (an example might be Serra’s Tilted Arc) and the Earth Art political (Carl Andre’s Stone Field Sculpture or Christo’s pink islands of Biscayne Bay). Her past work (inspired by artists Andy Goldsworthy and Maya Lin) shows a connection to the environment and to the society and back again. The pieces engage in the language of Earth Art, Land Art, when artists were abandoning the conventional space in order to get their political messages out there. Here is where today’s world enters in – and, where I find Shutan’s oil-industry loop pieces to have the potential for moving our cloistered art world back into the real one.
If Shutan’s works such as “Ooze” and “Drift” were exhibited outside the gallery, as public art pieces – how effective would their language be? By exhibiting inside the gallery space instead, given the context of this space, this venue for showing art – and observing the artwork’s activity within it (seeping, moving, gradually spilling over) the work lends itself in metaphor and maybe broadens the meaning to include the very art world her pieces find themselves in.
Our environmental dilemma is echoed in these intricately designed loop constructions which take aim at the gradual formation of “cultural debris in our industrial enterprises” and, maybe, at our mutual acceptance of the closed-loop commodification and commercial sale of art itself.
Since Shutan’s Ooze and Drift are exhibited inside a gallery, seen alongside other artwork – we need to figure out how we read it given its context. The other work may allude to landscape, environment, the natural world and, in their making, be somewhat similar in the gluing and pasting of paper. This is the common ground that works wonderfully, but might it lead us to one large reading of “environment” and miss the tension or address, comment or menace of Shutan’s work? Does the political to be found in Shutan’s work get lost in the formalist visual magic?
So, when we take in the totality of the show, do we connect the art on the walls as a unifying theme and register a kudos for curatorial practice, or, only do this in an ancillary way and leave with what Shutan’s art is trying to say? Does it matter? Is what we take from the work leading us somewhere beyond the incredible visual, the wows of the making? How do we feel after leaving this space? Informed? Quieted? Appreciative? Alarmed?
Would Ooze and Drift be more effective in communicating Shutan’s valid concerns – if placed in the arena of public space – where our taking-to-the-streets-in-political-protest is our best method of communicating where we stand as a society? Placing the work outside the EPA headquarters in DC? Oil refineries? Gas stations? Or, bumping up the ante and oozing out into the gallery space itself – but not in a subtle manner, (relying too much upon metaphor) but literally, overtaking the adjacent works? (Would the artist(s) exhibiting their own work cooperate for the greater cause?) Seeping out of the gallery itself? Covering like ivy a Koch Brothers philanthropy-sponsored building?
These are some questions worth addressing. And, yes, these specific pieces might not physically hold up outside in the elements, but the ideal is certainly worth considering in getting the artist’s message out there where it needs to be.
How we got to this point in our art object making and exhibiting might be another thing to ask. With “ooze” and “drift” – words that signify slowly, almost imperceptibly, maybe we get our answer.