Susan Metrican’s paintings attempt to depict the unseen and force viewers to confront and make visual the invisible. This invisible subject is the gap between the viewer and the piece itself, exploring questions and relations of perception and the experience of seeing and understanding a thing. Metrican’s sculptural paintings do not attempt to represent or render these abstract subjects. Rather, she utilizes figurative narrative or realized subjects as points of departure, using their rendering and realization as a means of revealing material relations and perceptions of objectness. Canvas is sanded, folded, stretched, sewn, reshaped, and hung. Material becomes as much a subject as the form it renders.
Metrican’s more recent body of work is focused on animals as a thematic subject. Three recent works form a series of small frog paintings. In each of these works, the painted canvas is wrapped and stretched around the rectalinear stretcher bars. A subtle silhouette of a frog is shaped through these folds, and the worn and roughened canvas brings a life of use and wear into the piece. The frog is present, but so is the folded and measured way it has been constructed. Its figuration is abstracted, but the limited access and understanding of perception is present. In another work, a rectangular stretch of blue-grey painted canvas is hung against a wall. The top half of the piece is held taut and flat, and a full, pale yellow moon is painted in its center. The bottom half is folded into a series of cascading ripples. A second moon is painted there as well, but it is wavy and oblong. This work is clearly a depiction of a moon’s reflection into a pool or body of water, yet the simplicity of its form, rendering, and composition allow for the image narrative to be obscured. What comes to the fore is the act and thought process of representing a reflection. What does it mean to paint a reflection? What is the separation between the original image and its reflected self?
Susan Metrican earned her BFA from Kansas City Art Institute, her MFA from Massachusetts College of Art And Design, and studied at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She has recently shown work at SPRING/BREAK Art Fair, Field Projects gallery, and LeRoy Neiman Gallery at Columbia University, alongside numerous solo and group exhibitions across the United States. Metrican co-founded kijidome, an artist-run project space and arts collective in South Boston, which recently closed in 2017. Metrican is based in Boston, MA and currently balances her studio practice with working at Brandeis University as a Lecturer in Fine Arts and Curator and Director of Fine Arts at the school’s Women’s Studies Research Center.
Tell me about your background in art. How has your work developed into your current body of paintings that are primarily sculptural and three-dimensional?
In grad school I was making large scale, still life paintings. I started focusing on ancient Greek and Etruscan imagery, and it became a base for expanding my subject matter and discovering other sources of imagery. I was really interested in the Emission Theory, which proposed that vision is possible due to rays of light emitted by the eyes. The optical illusion of the tumbling blocks pattern seen in floor mosaics also gave me some ideas about how to structure paintings. With those paintings I was interested in telling a story about perception in some way.
A prominent experience that stands out in my mind happened when I was painting in one of the Greek galleries at the MFA in Boston. I was looking at some amphora pots that were encased in Plexiglas, and while trying to look at the pots inside, the glass was reflecting the light and everything that was behind me, which were more vessels. This experience cemented these ideas about perception that I was already thinking about because the thing that I was seeing was actually a surface in between me and the object, and that surface was showing me what was behind the glass, but also reflected what was in front of it.
That resonated a lot with me in the way that I was thinking about painting at the time. I was staging the still lifes and taking a lot of pictures of them, and I was trying to portray in some way both the three-dimensional and two-dimensional aspects of the objects depicted and the surface of the canvas. Craig Taylor, who was at MassArt then, said my paintings were like “allegories of perception,” and that has really stuck with me. I still think about my work that way. Another way people were seeing the work then was more of a narrative about the objects themselves; where the objects were and why. I wasn’t interested in that at all, and it made me realize I was not really on the right track. The experience at the MFA really woke me up to thinking about the split between the perceiver and what is perceived and allowed me to start thinking about those as two very distinct things. I started talking about that more in crits.
That separation is a very abstract idea, but I’ve began working off of it as a concept. Thinking about the split as a membrane led me to make a painting that looked like a hide as a way of representing that skin. Sometimes I would even focus on a seam as the thing that was separating perceiver and perceived, and so it might be two canvases butting up right next to each other...It is such a weird thing for me to think about and trying to visually portray it has been a really open process for me. In order to talk about it so I don’t get too closed in, I bring other imagery that I’m interested in into the conversation.
I’ve also been peripherally interested in theater in that the Fourth Wall is an acknowledged invisible screen with action on one side and spectators on the other, like painting. In my work I’m also thinking a lot about backdrops and props, which has helped the work become more sculptural. I have started working on huge pieces of canvas stretched to the wall, and I treat it like a backdrop in the way that it’s painted--usually with a pattern or some textured surface. I’m purposely very careless with it, sanding it and throwing it around. I love painting that way, and even though it sometimes doesn’t happen like that because I’m not sure what I’m doing, I want it to reach that point where it describes just enough so it either disappears like a backdrop, or you don’t feel the need to question how it was painted. I treat it like that so it can be used as a material.
My mother-in-law got me a sewing machine and the first thing I tried to make were shoes. I don’t really sew, but I tried making shoes based on my own feet, and I was trying to understand it as three-dimensional, as opposed to flat. Those shoes were made out of canvas, and I later attached them to a piece of canvas, and then I decided that I wanted the canvas to be stretched around stretcher bars. Now I’d say that the stretcher has become more important as a three-dimensional form in this work. The images get a kind of volume from the edges of the stretcher, so that’s what I’m exploring now.
Can you expand on perception as a theme in your current body of work?
Perception operates as an underlying idea that the work is about, and then the imagery of the piece takes on a life of its own in a similar way as the material. The idea of perception itself does not generate any visual content for me-- it’s the materials and the imagery that interests me and allow me to explore that concept more fully. I’m not necessarily thinking specifically about that split in perception for each new piece, but at this point it has entered into all of my subject matter, If I let the images peel off from trying to illustrate the idea and do their own thing, then when I relate it back to perception, it makes perception even weirder.
I recently made a painting of a worm snaking around a canvas. I’m thinking about image as a way to illustrate the idea, and the material as a way to give the image form. With this worm painting, I was thinking about the split between the perceiver and what they perceive as an airtight space that only something like a worm could wiggle through.
What is your work process like and and how do you develop of a piece?
Usually I start with some kind of premise. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of animal paintings, which is definitely due in part to reading so many children’s books to my daughter. But I’ll start with an idea like ‘tiger’ and then do some sketches to try to figure out how I’m going to put it together. I usually want the canvas to behave like material. In some ways I do want to defy the materials and push them, but in other ways I still want them to retain their natural tendencies. I’ve also been trying to figure out as much as I can about making creases and different kinds of simple seams. I have to do a bunch of drawings in order to figure them out and it’s kind of a really clunky process. I use the sewn canvas as a way to define the image as much as the pattern or the paint does. The basic process combines sketching, painting, sewing, and creating sculptural creases and seams that culminates with stretching the canvas around stretcher bars.
What materials do you use?
I mostly just use canvas and usually the work is only made with a single material. Sanding the canvas down allows me to make it more fluid and function a little differently. The sewing machine is a pretty large part of my process, but because I’m working with such large swaths of fabric, it ends up being a very physical operation. I refuse to sew by hand because I hate using my hands that way, and it would take too long because the painted canvas is so thick, but I do think that the process is important and necessary in figuring out the final work.
Looking at your work I notice moments where there’s an absence of a body -- specifically in the works with jeans or shoes. Can you talk about this?
I’m interested in portraying the body, but I’m definitely not interested in faces or even the form of the body. I made two shaped canvases that are these two green feet shaped like Buddha feet, with long toes that are all the same length. In Thailand there is this famous temple where there’s an enormous reclining Buddha. Approaching the Buddha, you are immediately confronted with the two feet like an enormous wall, and the body is splayed out beyond them. Thinking about that Buddha and making the two canvas feet was sort of my entry point into thinking about the figure in some way. I was also thinking about the seam between the two feet as representing the perceptual split that I’m interested in.
Everything that I’m thinking about is about a plane of separation in perception. With the feet, I was thinking about how feet can touch the ground, but there’s something still in between that interaction. I made another painting later of purple toes that have a reflection of wiggly water, so I was thinking of water as this membrane surface that also acts as a mirror.
It’s weird to talk about the work because the first thing I always go to is telling a story about what I actually am representing, even though it’s not immediately obvious to the viewer. I have a large piece that is a waterfall with ears sticking out of it, and I was thinking about how at night people can hear a waterfall but they can’t actually see it. Or the piece with the three pairs of jeans -- I liked that it could be three people squatting, or curtains, or also a way to reference the three cowboys riding off into the sunset. But I can’t insist on anyone knowing what the narrative is or what the painting is about, and I think that’s a nice surprise actually when people don’t see what it is. It’s interesting and I think it’s a good outcome.
One of the ways in which jeans came in was through me thinking about still life paintings. When you look at a painting, let’s say it’s a painting of some oranges set up on a table, that surface of the canvas is almost like the butt of an image. You can’t entirely see past it because in a way it grounds you and keeps you right there. In some way I was thinking about how painted space is very limiting. It’s not giving you full access to it, and I think that’s part of the reason why my work became three-dimensional. I was thinking about these limitations in painting and actually trying to fit them into a visual perception, which led me to thinking about the imagery of the jeans.
How do you approach color?
I like color that’s a little acidic, but I also work a lot with monochromatic colors as well. And I also have patterns sometimes too...I actually think the way I approach color when I’m about to make a work is to think about what color I haven’t worked with. I haven’t worked with this hot pink, 70’s fuchsia yet, so maybe it might be time to do that. Saying that now, it’ll probably end up mauve.
In the same way that I’m thinking about the subject, I’m aware of what the colors are and how they operate as part of the motif. I want the surface and the color to appear aged or used, reflecting perhaps a previous function.
I’ve recently been looking at old Japanese firemen's jackets as inspiration. They’re amazing. They have really beautiful and awesome graphic imagery on them and they’re made of this really thick cloth where the weave is visibly present. They're hundreds of years old and I like that quality of something looking like it’s been through a lot. In a similar way, I relate it to how backdrops have that quality and are abused -- like a park scene backdrop that is used over and over again.
What else are you looking at or thinking about that’s influencing your work right now?
I’m looking at a lot of traditional art from different cultures. I recently discovered Indian Kalighat paintings, which is a school of painters who paint different scenes depicting different Hindu gods that are sometimes really violent but also very illustrative and almost cartoon-y. I’m really attracted to surfaces that look old. The Kalighat paintings are interesting to me because they illustrate scenes from Hindu epics that are well known in Indian culture. When I look at them, I don’t fully understand the imagery, but I can see that they are recognized by someone. The aged-looking surfaces, to me, indicate that they’ve been seen.
A question that sometimes comes up with my work is whether or not they’re paintings. No one really wants to come to a conclusion at all, but in some ways they’re not really paintings because the painting happens before and the sculpting of the canvas happens later in a way that completes the image. Painting kind of gets pushed back, it doesn’t really get to be entirely in control. However, I do actually refer to them as paintings because my whole interest in perception is based around painting and its history. But also, if I start thinking about these limitations of painting and surface, then my work is trying to work within those modes of thought. For example, if I’m looking into this corner, there’s a bunch of stuff there, but I’m not touching it or interacting with it, so in a sense it’s just flat space that I’m seeing. So they are paintings because of that. Everything is visually flat unless you’re touching it.
What are you currently working on?
I just cleaned out my studio a lot, and just finished a painting of some monkeys swinging back and forth. Now I’m going to start a red and white painting of some kind. The initial premise is only that it’s red and white. I don’t want to do animals for a while, I think I might have overdone that a little bit, or it’s simply just not feeling exciting right now. I think I want to do something more landscape oriented.
Besides reading a lot of children’s books, what attracted you to animals as a subject matter and how were you approaching them as subjects for your works?
When I was at Skowhegan, I found this really awesome book about Kyogen theater, which takes place during the intermission of Noh theater. I was really drawn to the costumes used there because they were very simple and the themes focused on rural life and functioned more as comic relief or as a way to lighten things up. The book showed images of these vests that the actors would wear with very simple imagery, similar to the firemen’s coats, but they would have specific themes or imagery. There was one that depicted an ox-cart wheel, and the caption for the image said that an actor would have worn the vest and walked across the stage and the audience would have then understood that an ox-cart had just moved across the stage. I loved that. I think that approach to imagery is something that I’m really drawn to in my work. I want the imagery to have this quality of cultural familiarity where themes recur and have stories that go along with it.
I was thinking about portraying animals and little scenes like that, and that’s something that I’m really thinking about in particular. I’m interested in the image having this quality of being culturally familiar. In some ways I do also want the imagery to be recognizable. To me it’s recognizable, so I don’t worry about how it’s received necessarily, but I’m very interested in the quality of it being a repeated image in some way, or that it’s a part of some kind of tradition. Lately, I have also started thinking about the worn canvas as something that’s trying to look visually used.
What makes a painting successful? What are you trying to achieve in a finished work?
What I’ve been looking for right now is something really specific. I mentioned incorporating the stretcher bars as an important three-dimensional element to the work, but I’m also trying to work more with developing the image as a form with it’s own space. My task right now is to work with that outer edge area to make it do something. That edge is also the place where the two dimensions become three dimensions, so it’s a very important place.
Everything is a little wiggly, but I also think that’s important. I do let paintings out into the world when I don’t think I got the color completely right or it’s a little off in some way, but I’m always thinking about how they can be worked out.
I guess one thing that can make a work feel like a success is how I feel when it’s time to wrap everything up. I just recently finished a bunch of frog paintings that are 9 x 12 inches that just came together. They seemed very natural, and I think ultimately the works need all the effort and time and energy to feel and appear very natural. I don’t like when they feel too to forced. My earlier work also used to feel very sprawled out because it wasn’t stretched on a canvas. Now that I have that perimeter of the stretcher bars, I’m able to focus on making that natural thing happen in a more contained space.
Do you usually work on only one piece at a time?
There’s so much problem solving that goes into each piece that I mostly work on them individually. I don’t know how to make good diagrams, so I’ll usually write myself a note about how I think it should be made and what solution I come up with. As I move along, I realize that there’s a specific order to how things should be put together. Sometimes I’ll jump in too early and then realize that actually something else has to happen first, so then I have to undo it. I have to write down the order and work on each piece one at a time. It seems kind of stupid, but it’s hard for me to figure them out sometimes. I don’t know if they need to be as complicated as I make them, but each piece is very much a new experience and a learning process. It sometimes feels like I’m reinventing the wheel each time, which can be frustrating.
How do you approach scale with your works?
Mainly what can fit in the back of a Honda Civic? (laughs) That has been a factor...Before my larger work was unstretched and more free form. This meant that I would have to go somewhere and hang it, which is getting less and less possible for me. I think a 40 x 50 inch canvas can pretty much fit in the back of a car, and that’s a big enough space that I can deal with, and it’s big enough for the sewing machine. It’s almost too big for the sewing machine, actually. I do think I’m going to start making them a little bigger, and I may have to come up with some new sewing tricks to figure that out. But I think my size restraints are real ones- primarily how can it be transported and how can it be installed by someone other than myself. Thinking about those things has kind of made me grow up a little bit. And being a mom. That definitely has made me grow up.
What is your studio practice like?
I don’t have deadlines for myself to make work too often. If I do, I might cry a little bit or get freaked out, and then ultimately work through it. That’s about as exciting as it gets. Because there aren’t any deadlines, I’m kind of just making the work and that feels good.
During the summer I get three days in the studio, and then when school is back in session and the semester starts, I get around one two days. But let me tell you, for someone who is a parent and who has other job obligations and commitments, having at least one full day in the studio is just so amazing. Sometimes I feel like I really have to move and work, and there’s a lot that can get done in say four hours, there really is, but right now in the swing of summer I’m perfectly happy to just be working slower. I don’t want there to be weird stress or pressure. I think my studio still needs to feel relaxed.
Sometimes I dwell on the pace of the work that I put out. That can spur me to start moving a bit faster if I dwell on it, but I’m being as active as I can and that’s what’s most important.