BECKY SUSS IN NEW YORK, APRIL 2017. PORTRAIT: JACQUELINE HARRIET.
“I know that that word elicits a sort of cringe from a lot of people,” says Becky Suss of “Homemaker,” the title of her current exhibition at Jack Shainman Gallery in New York. Suss admits that even she, at first, was resistant to using the term—one that’s often used to diminish women—to describe her new body of work. But that very “recoiling” is what convinced her she had to, and is part of what spurred her to paint large-scale domestic interiors, void of people but replete with objects. In doing so, she elevates the domestic sphere, honoring its importance and acknowledging its invisibility in daily life. “If I have any goal for having that title be a success,” says Suss, “it would be that people can leave the show with a little more respect for that word than they did when they walked into it.”
Suss, who primarily painted landscapes before focusing on interiors and items related to her own family history, describes creating this body of work as “running on instincts.” After undergoing a multi-year period of psychoanalysis and the trauma of the 2016 election, Suss found a new compassion for her mother’s choice to leave school and build a home, and a new respect for the women who shape lives through the spaces they furnish. She painted hyper-detailed works “that in some ways are the stages for everyday life, the backdrop to what we do every day, of our own stories,” and small-scale “satellite” paintings that point toward specific objects within the larger canvases. From the pile of a rug and the squares of a quilt hung on a wall, to a Hamsa hung above a bed or a ship in a bottle placed on a bookshelf, one cannot escape the feeling that every thing has been meticulously placed. You can imagine who lives in these rooms, while recalling the halls and items that construct your own experience.
Each choice Suss makes is a meeting of the aesthetic and storytelling. An apt example is Mary (2016), a satellite painting which depicts a book by Sholem Asch that sat in Suss’s great aunt and uncle’s house, which she frequently visited while growing up. The simple question of “what is that?” unfurled histories both personal and broad. Asch, a famed Yiddish writer, was related to Suss’s great aunt, and his son, Moses Asch, was the founder of Folkways Records (now Smithsonian Folkways Records), which released hits by Woodie Guthrie and Lead Belly, and happened to be the soundtrack of Suss’s childhood. (“I thought every kid listened to that until I was 25 and was like, ‘Oh, you didn’t have those children’s records?'”) This experience of Suss’s is one that many face, blindly: homes and their objects hold histories, if one only asks. As Suss puts it, that book was “the key to a story that was in plain sight for my whole life.”
Interview recently spoke to the 36-year-old artist on the occasion of her show’s opening, a few weeks after visiting her studio in Philadelphia.
HALEY WEISS: How do you feel about domesticity now?
BECKY SUSS: There’s a way to look at it that has to do with how I think about the domestic within the context of the gallery. I can talk about that in a sort of art speak way, and I do have feelings about that and how it gets to be this thing that is simultaneously completely undervalued and absolutely relied upon. I was talking about it with my mother last night; it’s this perfect example of how women don’t get to win either way, it’s a lose-lose situation: they’re absolutely, completely depended on, and yet dismissed at the same time.
When it comes to my personal understanding, I wish I could live two parallel lives. I wish that I could live in that domestic space. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s with the feeling that, “I’m supposed to be a professional,” and that there’s something wrong with being a woman who makes the decision to be a homemaker—not because my parents deliberately did it to me, they just wanted me to have every option, but I think I internalized, “I have to be a success.” What that means is that I have to be a professional. Looking at it now, I can absolutely understand my mom. She was in graduate school for religion and the big shot professor in the department basically groped her. She felt like, “Here are my two options: I can leave or I can put up with this.” There wasn’t a third option; you couldn’t get him fired, you couldn’t get him spoken to by the administration. It was 1969 or 1970—it wasn’t not going to happen. That being said, my mom was really happy with the decision that she made to stay home with us, and that was something that up until very recently had been really hard for me to understand. So when I think about the context of my own life, I wish that I could have these two parallel lives sometimes, because I really would love to spend the time managing my own domestic space, whereas in reality I spend 12 hours a day painting. But, to be able to paint these domestic interiors in some way scratches an itch. There are parts of making these paintings that are really greedy for me. I find a 100,000-dollar rug online that I will never have and would never buy, and I can just put it in the painting and I get to look at it. The owning it isn’t a big deal. I kind of feel that way about the domesticity, too: I get to spend 12 hours working through, organizing these spaces. They’re in a much more pristine, controlled context, because my actual home, in a week it’s covered in dog hair and dust and the cat’s scratching at the wooden shelf—it’s totally different.
In terms of the painting world, I do feel like sometimes there’s a dismissal of subject matter: “What is it? It’s just a room. It’s just a domestic interior. What does it mean?” There’s this idea that somehow it’s not terribly meaningful. But so much of our time is spent in these domestic spaces; they are where the scenes of our lives play out. Again, it’s something that’s undervalued. It’s taken for granted in some ways, like it’s an undeserving thing for a big painting to be made about.
WEISS: That’s why I found it refreshing when you said, in your studio and now again, that if you like something online, you can just add it your painting. There’s no shame in that. Things can be beautiful and you can want to see them, and I think that ties into the building of a domestic space. There’s value in the aesthetic; we build these places for our comfort, to reference our history. You have a lot of cultural icons in these paintings too. It’s about how people display their past and live comfortably in the present.
SUSS: Yes, and though some of the objects are chosen because I like them, a lot of them reveal a story, even to me. I will pick something because aesthetically, it’s what the painting needs and I like it, and then I’ll research it—whether it’s an object, a houseware, a lamp or a pitcher, or something like that—I’ll find out who designed it, and it’ll be such an interesting story.
WEISS: Like the wallpaper.
SUSS: Like the William Morris wallpaper [in Hallway, 2017]. To look into William Morris a little bit more, when this is something that is sort of ubiquitous—certain neighborhoods in Philadelphia have a lot of foyers that have William Morris wallpaper—and find out that he was a socialist, he had this background as an activist, but then, when he really made it and he had a factory, he was conflicted. He wasn’t the greatest guy. He had better standards for his workers than a lot of factories, but he didn’t go all in with the ideals that he talked about. It’s amazing when I pick something for an aesthetic reason or a sentimental reason—I don’t shy away from the use of that word because I like it, I think it’s very useful and it’s meaningful—but then I’ll research it and realize, “Oh my god, there’s this whole other rich story to it.” That helps me to build on my understanding of what it means, what stories objects can reveal.
WEISS: You also have this painting of a cookbook [The New Moosewood Cookbook, 2017], and you have another one in the back room [Victory Cookbook, 2017]. I don’t remember seeing those before, so how did they become a part of the series?
SUSS: They are new. I like to have these satellite paintings, which are the small paintings that relate the larger paintings. I think that they anchor your position in the space of the gallery and expand the space depicted in the painting into the gallery a bit, because it stretches it out, and you can understand a kitchen [near] a cookbook. The other reason is, when I was talking to you before about the embroidery and thinking about this space of domesticity—these women’s spaces being taken for granted, and then also completely dismissed—I feel like cookbooks are a wonderful example of that. The Moosewood Cookbook is a book that a lot of people relate to and a lot of people have, so people have their own specific associations to it. The other thing is, as much as somebody will use a cookbook, they’re not valued in the same way that novels are. They’re treated in a completely different way. I have a Fannie Farmer cookbook that was my mom’s that I think was her mom’s, and I will love that and always have that, [but] it’s not valued in the same way.
WEISS: You’ve used the metaphor of keeping the window open in these paintings, which you do for the time period by not including super contemporary objects, but also the unknown light source. I always just assumed the people were out of the house at the time, and it’s waiting for them to enter, but what if they don’t return? There’s a creepy, haunting aspect.
SUSS: Absolutely. All of those things I think about a lot. It’s also just an intuition. When I think about these paintings, and that neutral light source and the empty house, I didn’t start doing it consciously, but I go back and I think about the way that my house felt in the middle of the day when I came home from school and nobody was there. There was something very specific to that sort of emptiness, and I think about that a lot with these paintings. I don’t think I did that deliberately, but it reminds me of it, and I always felt like that time of day was always really weird.
WEISS: I think of coming home sick from school in the middle of the day—
SUSS: Oh, yes, being home from school sick, for sure—that’s very much the way that this [looks].
WEISS: You’re confronted with, “This person, who I love and see when I’m home at night and in the morning, they’re here for a lot of the day. What are they doing?”
SUSS: And thinking, in some ways, “It’ll be so fun if I stay home from school”—not fun, but I never liked school. Even though I did pretty well, I was always was trying to not go to school. When I would stay home, I remember there was always a little bit of a disappointment, like, “This is all it is?” I’ve never talked about this before, but it’s really accurate.
WEISS: It goes back to the whole appreciation of the domestic space, that this life is largely invisible to you. And even when it’s made visible, it’s this weird, uncanny thing.
SUSS: And it’s completely common at the same time, which, I hope, is one of the things that comes across in the paintings.
WEISS: I think it opens up some empathy, too. It makes me think of my mom, at home, when I was off at school. You’ve said that the characters absent from these paintings are still you, your family, and family friends, and you’ve talked about maybe doing something more fictional in the future. One place I see that is in the worn chair in Hallway, because you think, “Who sits there on the phone?” Are you thinking about those things? Is that something you’re interested in yet?
SUSS: I really work on a continuum and I’m not deliberately thinking, “Okay, this is over and the next thing starts.” It’s very hard for me to do things that deliberately at least immediately. Usually I’ll recognize that I’m doing it, and once I recognize that I’m already doing it, then I can push it a little bit more. It’ll surface when I start imagining characters that can offer up different things. My family has a lot of shit and so do my parents, so who knows if I’ll ever run out of those things, but I feel like it will give me so much more ability to tell stories, build compositions, and build exciting spaces in the paintings. It is very hard for me to do something without objects that I care about, but maybe caring about them turns into something different that has to do more with building these characters in my mind that don’t ever actually manifest in the painting, but their decision-making and their objects do. Even though I never really followed up on it in any professional or adult capacity, short stories have been really important to me, and I read them a lot. I took this one workshop in undergrad and I still think about all of the things that we did in that class. The idea of narrative building, even if it’s only for me to have and eventually use, is not something that’s outside of what I think about.