Wednesday, October 1st, 2003

Susanna Coffey

Tibor de Nagy Gallery
724 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10019
212 262 5050

October 9 to November 8, 2003

Susanna Coffey Self Portrait (Eris) 2003 oil on panel, 12 x 15 inches  Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
Susanna Coffey, Self Portrait (Eris) 2003 oil on panel, 12 x 15 inches Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Susanna Coffey is a truly gifted painter and a repellent artist. I love her paint-her hand-but can not stand looking at her work. She has no subject matter that extends beyond her own narcissism. The focal point of every canvas is her own head, relentlessly fixed to the central axis. And an unpleasant head it is: brash, assertive in its sourness, a little crude. So much knowledge about the character and behavior of paint, such a keen eye for color, exquisite tonal control, surfaces to die for-all of it adding up to . . . to what? It is the Cindy Sherman script done up in oils. Smart-ass exhibitionism for the uptown trade.

Susanna Coffey lit from below. Susanna Coffey lit from behind. Susanna Coffey in drag of one kind or another. Susanna Coffey in a baseball cap turned backwards. Susanna Coffey in the same cap straight up. Susanna Coffey in a bathing cap, maybe. Susanna Coffey in eyegear with sparkles. Without sparkles. Susanna Coffey with a blue butterfly stamped on her forehead. (Sorry, that was last time. It all blurs together.) This year’s line-up reaches for social significance with three views of Susanna Coffey against a backdrop suggesting some holocaust or other. But which one? Don’t ask. It is only the pose that counts.

I can see the next exhibition already: Susanna Coffey and the Staten Island Ferry; Susanna Coffey and the Gaza Strip. Susanna Coffey and the rockets’ red glare. You get the picture.

This year’s exhibition includes one wall of small, identically sized [5 x 10 inches] flower paintings. More casually brushed, lacking the luscious surface depth of her signature self-portraits, they almost seem to have been painted by someone else. Each flower stalk-here a rose, there a tulip or bird-of-paradise-lies lengthwise in obedience to a display formula. The cookie-cutter format suggests commercial convenience. At $3,800 each, these are intended for the shallow-pocket collector who wants a Susanna Coffey but won’t pay up for the real thing.

In a pre-emptive move to deflect the obvious, anticipated criticism of Coffey’s head show, Mark Strand plays offense by asserting that her parade of heads reveals the difference between subject matter and content. Each of these faces (“a record of its own emergence”) is not guided by likeness but represents rather “the creation of a painting self.”

Nice try, Mark. But this is one of those counterfeit distinctions that come in handy for catalogue essays. And it sidesteps the issue of why anyone should care whether what emerges from these files is Susanna Coffey or the Cheshire Cat . The “painting self” is the living woman who sets out her palette while she finishes a second cup of coffee and reminds herself to call the dentist before lunch. What appears on canvas is no self at all. It is a construction, a self-referential fiction with no plausible reference to anything past range of a deadening solipsism.

To his credit, Strand limits his catalogue blurb to one paragraph. That in itself is refreshing but certainly appropriate here. There simply is not that much to say. And it is discouraging to see a large gift put to such small purpose. These heads are indeed records-of the banality and absence of conviction that afflicts so many of even the best contemporary talents.