“The paintings I created were intended for my eyes only. I felt I couldn’t exhibit them because they were so visceral, horrifying, and disturbing. I knew that I would be stigmatized.” ~ Suzzan Blac.
A Savage Painting
“During my teens, teachers would berate me for my ‘dark’ drawings and persuade me to draw ‘pretty’ things.” ~ Suzzan Blac, in an interview with Feminist Current.
I believe that an artist only needs to make one great painting, though usually a real artist will make at least several that really stand out. I also have complete faith in my own eyes and ears, so when it comes to art or music, I follow my own compass and don’t care what the consensus is. Madonna and Child by Suzzan Blac has remained one of my favorite paintings since I first saw it on DeviantArt, seven or eight years ago when I was living in China and DeviantArt was mysteriously unblocked in the country. While living smack dab in the middle of China, in an un-touristed, polluted town which looked like it hadn’t emerged from the 70’s, and completely removed from the Western art world, I began to make art again myself, and shared some works on DeviantArt. I looked at thousands of works by other artists who were suddenly putting themselves out there, and discovered about a dozen solid artists who were little known, or completely unknown. There were more than 100,000 submissions uploaded to the site per day, and finding anything good was looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. This image screamed off the monitor.
The artist, Suzzan Blac is often categorized as Surrealist, Horror, or Gore. Talk about missing the point. Horror is gratuitous, and Surrealism imaginary. I suppose such mislabeling makes the work more palatable, because it creates distance. This is a searing and cathartic visual materialization of vicious and sadistic child abuse, and realized by a survivor. It’s obviously personal, intimate, and real. The honestly is a bit too much, because the work is confessional, with elements of shame, anger, resentment, and sorrow. There are aspects that seem amateurish, such as the rendering of the neck and ear, but are more than compensated for by the gruesome and exquisite detail of the mother’s teeth, and particularly the rivulets of blood over the child’s skin. The face in the mouth, despite or because of the blood and injuries, is aesthetically beautiful.
“I wanted to go to art college when I left school, but when I told this to the man at the career office, he scoffed and told me to get my head out of the clouds. When I told my mother, she said, ‘Who the fuck do you think you are? You can get a cleaning job like me.’ So I didn’t go to college and left home as soon as I turned 16.” ~ SB
The less than perfect anatomy in places is inevitable, as the artist would never have been able to make this kind of art on an extended basis in college art classes, if she were allowed to paint figuratively at all, or even to paint. The work is self-taught, but also informed by art history. This gives it, for me, an uncontrived feel. It’s not trying to be radical or revolutionary art: it’s trying to communicate directly through the medium of painting. It isn’t outsider art, but someone who is informed doing her best, and with a fantastic visual sensibility and technical flair. The textures, colors, and form of the head in the mouth are spectacular, without even getting into the expression.
I like that it is a Madonna and Child because it references a long history of painted imagery, this time twisting the motif cruelly so that the Madonna becomes a beast feasting on her own young, part caught in the act (with the upper eye looking defensive and even tinged with fright), and part furiously fixated on her vicious act. I don’t see it as a criticism of Christianity necessarily at all, but rather of the mother in question here, who is the opposite of the ideal of Mary, in which case her dangling crucifix is hypocritical.
Painting With Pain
“I began painting as a kind of therapy and, even though I’d had conventional therapy, there were things that I just could not say to my counselor. I just didn’t have the words. But, in paint you can express intense emotions, with forms, textures, and colours. The paintings I created were intended for my eyes only. I felt I couldn’t exhibit them because they were so visceral, horrifying, and disturbing. I knew that I would be stigmatized.” ~ SB
Because Blac’s work was originally intended only for herself, it communicates on a very intimate level, with a kind of honesty people usually reserve for their private thoughts, and certainly not their public facade.
Her painting, One of Mother’s Boyfriends is nowhere near as beautiful as Madonna and Child because it doesn’t suit the subject. This one’s cold, gritty, and colored in the green-yellow of a faded newspaper. The man’s stare is confident, determined, and absolutely heartless. It’s very difficult to look at because it forces us to experience being looked at by him, as he had looked at her. He soothes himself with a relaxing cigarette after violence has transpired. We might guess at the precise nature of that violence.
She Likes It leaves little to the imagination as regards what might have transpired, and the artist has elaborated on the specific meaning.
“The monster’s answer to the mothers query, about why he was doing what he was doing. Laughing, he asked if she was jealous, and that there was ‘plenty to go around’. In retrospect, the mother was more of a monster than he.” ~ SB
We are dealing with full-blown pedophilia and sexual assault. Not the perfect painting you were looking for to go over the sofa or in the lobby at work! On that note, I was never one to conceive of a painting at all as decoration, or to assess it in terms of hangability. That would be like judging all music by whether it was suitable for the elevator. I see paintings as images, which are also statements, and given the world we live in, there are times when artists are going to need to say things that are not pretty. Some of my favorite paintings are things I definitely wouldn’t want to live with. This is not, by me, one of her more stylistically sophisticated paintings, but it is brave, especially since it is autobiographical. Perhaps the more rough execution suits the content. When it comes to Expressionism, these works are more expressive than the original movement.
I’m sure a lot of people will be put off by her imagery, and others may applaud her for tackling the subject matter, but either way, she is an exceptional artist. A lot of people might see this kind of work as naive, or antiquated, but I see it as straight up, like a short story, or a song with just vocals and a guitar. Would an installation with photos, statistics, props, or notebooks for people to write down their own experiences or opinions really convey more? Could images taken mechanically convey the same emotions, or have the same feeling of a memory recreated?
In one of her more stylized works we can see how the artist has abstracted and simplified the body while placing more attention and focus on the details and expression of the face.
“This is how many people have made me feel, once they knew of my childhood abuse. I was made to feel guilty, bad and ashamed of things that were not my fault. After a while, you stop telling people, thus silencing and exacerbating your pain and trauma.” ~ SB
The paintings can be dark, suffocating, and just far too uncomfortable for polite company. What kind of witty jokes or word-plays are we going to make? A painting titled “I AM A PIECE OF SHIT” could seem too self-destructive, self-pitying, weak, and playing the victim, in a way, except that it is so confrontational, and is about being blamed for being a victim to begin with. The artist already knew people were potentially going to look down on her because of the painting, and painted it anyway.
I had a similar dichotomous reaction when I first discovered Frida Kahlo in an article in The Smithsonian a few decades ago.
The image above was on the cover of the magazine, and my initial impression was that her style was folksy, and it was all a bit woe is me. Then I read the article and learned about her bus accident, in which several people were killed; she was impaled through the pelvis by a handrail; a few vertebrae in her spine were displaced; and she sustained fractures in her ribs, collarbone, and both legs. Never mind her tumultuous relationship with Diego Rivera, her suffering was real, and she was courageous to share her internal pain. After studying several more images in the article, I was won over.
I never had the same reaction to Suzzan Blac’s paintings, because they didn’t so much entreat sympathy as they addressed abject cruelty, at least at first glance. They don’t exactly invite you in as much as they test your ability to not look away.
Because her work sometimes appears in collections of “horror” I’m guessing people look at the image above and think something like Freddy Krueger, or slasher movie of choice. If you read the title, than it becomes about rape, and if you read her story of being sex trafficked at age 16, it depicts a very specific incident. After being taken to a hotel on the guise of the man being an agent who would find her work in London, she quickly discovered that was not going to be her fate at all. I can’t copy-paste her recounting of what transpired because, among other things, it’s X-rated. You can infer it from the image. The painting stands on its own, but when you know the story behind it, it’s that much more powerful.
The image above follows the one before, and is the threat that is the aftermath. Here’s the context:
“He told me to get dressed, and as I stood, to pull up my underwear; he lunged at me, forcing me against a wall, with a large knife that he had grabbed from a drawer.
He stuck it faultlessly and purposefully underneath my rib cage and seethed like a man possessed.
‘I’ve killed bitches that misbehave before, you fucking hearing me?!’
I felt rigor mortis had set in, I was totally paralyzed; I couldn’t move.” ~ SB
Suddenly I understand why the man looks the way he does, and that arm with the flesh hanging off of it is really something. Why do the men in these paintings look like they’d been skinned alive? And finally it hit me that it’s a way of showing how repulsive they were to her, both in appearance and especially behavior. Like Frida, if you don’t mind the comparison, Suzzan’s pain more than justifies any self-pity there might be in the imagery.
A Universal Image of Human Suffering
Blac gets around her subjects being perhaps too intensely autobiographical by addressing a more universal injustice and suffering. In the following image the age and gender of the subject are indeterminate.
This is another of her best pieces, and you can see here why people could mistake her work for Surrealism or Horror. But it’s not just a dream or a nightmare, and it’s not a scary fantasy — it’s a statement about the human condition. It’s also quite an achievement in rendering with paint. She’s managed to create a convincing shallow three-dimensional space with a humanoid form tucked into the middle. It’s like you’ve opened a can of “Human”. The figure is a terrified captive, so tightly bound in chains that it merged with the flesh, and the body has deformed into itself. The victim of monstrosity has become a monstrosity. It took me a while to even notice that it is bisected, with no lower half, and sits on its open, bleeding flesh.
At first I found this one so grotesque and unpleasant that I didn’t especially like it. It occupies a claustrophobic psychological space that I don’t care to inhabit at all. But it’s grown me, and now may be my favorite of her pieces. I don’t know how she did the chains merging with the flesh so well, the barbed wire stitching the lips, and eye’s that are windows into a soul that is recoiling into oblivion. I’m not sure what the shadow that falls across the figure is, but it adds another perceptual dimension of something on the other side of the picture plane that is obstructing the light. The right angles of the thick lines of the shadow form across the body mirror the triangles of the elbows and reinforce the composition. Now I think it’s an amazing painting.
I can remember years ago just finding her work too unrelievedly dark, even while I love Francis Bacon, and I’d been accused of being too dark myself. Other artists, like Joe Coleman, are dark and disturbing, but it’s a bit more like if he didn’t have art as an outlet, uh, well, he might be a little dangerous. That may not be true at all, but there’s the darkness that is on the side of the perpetrator, who can afford to be callous about it all, whereas the victim has to feel the pain. In short, Blac’s paintings can be too painful, and I gather she’d be a more successful artist if she painted unicorns, and half as well. Like it or not, this is a great painting.
There’s something I see here that’s rare, which Bacon talked about with his own work, and that’s the difficultly of capturing the quality of human presence in pigment: the human stain. A portrait may resemble someone, it may be beautiful and have exquisite lines, but it may not resonate with life. There’s a kind of alchemy that artists rarely achieve in which they manifest their inner person and infuse some intangible substance into their painting. We might see this in Rembrandt, Kahlo, Bacon, Auerbach, or Van Gogh. While in the beginning I couldn’t relate to this figure, once I got it, I can no longer see it as just a flat painting. It’s also the conjuring of a tortured being. And I think I also, on first exposure, felt the pain here was too artificial. Now I think it’s too real.
Stylistic Innovation Within the Figurative Art Tradition.
After we discover the artist isn’t making Horror paintings, and the subject is real human tragedy, we might feel content to categorize Blac as an artist who uses a standard representational approach to address drastic content; but she is also interested in painting as painting, and evolves her approaches to representation.
“In my late teens I developed a liking for Francis Bacon and Salvador Dali from seeing their work in Birmingham galleries. Before then I wasn’t exposed to any art, music, or books growing up, but drawing was something I was good at and enjoyed.” ~ SB
Bacon is surely one of the greatest interpreters of the human figure, and visual reality itself, of the 20th century. A lot of artists are influenced by him, including me, but I think Blac did something quite unique in her conspicuous reinterpretation of one of his most famous paintings.
According to the artist, this painting represents “searching for good,but always engulfed by evil”.
Compare this to Francis Bacon’s infamous Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion of 1944, and his revised version of 1988.
The monster with elongated neck and cloth draped over it in Blac’s painting is a direct reference to Bacon’s canvas, and the swastika, dangling single bulb, and safety pins are also motifs he’s used (though he used tacks or syringes rather than pins). This next painting also strongly suggests Bacon.
Neither of these are in the style of Bacon, which is what makes them unusual reactions to his work. Bacon’s mature images used paint in a rough way to suggest imagery. Blac takes inspiration not from his impasto painting style, but from the imagery he happened to create. Bacon is in my top three painters of the 20th century, but he despised illustration, and if he could draw or paint realistically at all, I’ve seen no evidence of it. Blac can draw.
Details in Bacon’s paintings are never delineated: instead he gives equivalents with smudges, splatters, and other artifacts of the manipulation of viscous paint.
It might even appear that Blac missed the point of Bacon’s art if she hadn’t taken the imagery so far in her own direction.
Weird, rubbery, twisted figures begin to emerge in her paintings. The exposed flesh and rivulets of blood are gone, but so is any anchor in consensual reality. Oversized fingers become a brow ridge; a jaw extends into an arm; rows of teeth open like a zipper; and an eye stretches like taffy.
The figure above sits on a square of glass peering at a version of itself in a deranged, psychotic, or psychedelic state (this would be a bad trip). Anguish is no longer directly associated only with immediate evidence of physical suffering: here it is primarily mental, and insanity is on the table.
The painting above is the most brightly colored canvas Blac has produced, and if I’d come across it anywhere else than in one of her own galleries, I might not have known it was her creation. If I didn’t know better, which I don’t, I’d think the figure was tripping balls. The eyes are completely glazed-over , in which case I’m not sure the figure can even see. It taps its own exposed eyeball with the sharp tip of a long, red, reptilian fingernail. I can’t quite make out how to interpret it — you may have a better idea — but neither is that necessary nor my main point of interest. I’m impressed by the stylistic range here, and just how bizarre it is.
“Derangement in Blue,” above, combines an almost cartoonish, contorted body with hyper-realistic details in the mouth. The tongue, if that’s what that is, looks like a section of organ meat at the butcher counter. The figure stares into a dark void where a floorboard is missing. Its shoulder melds into a hand which merges with the head, and if you try to make sense out of the body, you realize there are three hands, and that the black finger of one creates the illusions of a second eye, in which case it may only have one eye. My immediate sense is that the being is terrified of whatever it imagines, or whatever there is, in the darkness.
Evolution of Style With a Broadened Psychological Perspective
In “Don’t Look at Me”, above, the word me suggests a self-portrait of sorts. The figure is surrounded by five disembodied eyes hanging from hooks, looking at her, and sits atop a sea of eyeball floor-tiles. But most conspicuous is the giant blue eye looking at the viewer, and also back at the artist as she painted the image. There’s ambiguity, and I can’t even decide, in a more literal reading, if the victim here is telling the perpetrator not to look at her, or if the perpetrator is telling the victim to not look at him. Is the painting telling the artist not to look at it, or vice versa? It is probably both at once, which you’d expect of a mirror image. The only thing I can be certain of is that the painted eye is definitely looking at me.
I’m sure this is a self-portrait on some level(s), and if you compare it to an earlier version the differences become more apparent.
In the earlier painting on the left the artist depicted her face realistically, and the image directly references an incident in her life, though the giant claw emerging through her skull like a fish hook is metaphoric. This is a cathartic image in which she externalized her interior pain onto the canvas. In the second painting, pain is infused into an unreal, surrogate being within the illusionistic three-dimensional space of the picture. Tell me you love it! is a reflection of her own suffering, and Don’t look at me is an imaginary being that itself suffers within the frame of the canvas.
Think of The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde, in which the portrait ages rather than Dorian himself. Instead of aging for the artist, Blac’s portrait suffers for her. From the viewer’s perspective, we don’t need to relate to the artist through her work, but only to the figure in the painting. The suffering is no less real, but now the painting itself suffers rather than person behind it.
In the earlier painting we are seeing an event as if a photo had been taken, probably by someone complicit in the activity. But where is the camera in the second image? We aren’t looking at Suzzan from the outside: the camera is on a tripod inside her head. We don’t look at her outward appearance but we see her inner mind, as manifested in paint on canvas. In other words, one is a portrait of a body, and the other of a mind. In that respect the title makes more sense. We are not meant ot look at her, but inside her, and with her. We are certainly meant to look at the painting and savor it.
None of this, however, means that the latter painting is superior to the former, but just that it is more sophisticated. Not all late Beatles songs are better than all the early ones.
The Abasement of Dolls
Blac’s most recent series develops further. The subjects aren’t people, but objects, or materializations of objectifications (of females). The focus isn’t on the person as much as the factors themselves that shape people.
The title itself is ambivalent. For example, the phrase, “the dreams of clowns” can be refer to dreams about clowns or the dreams clowns have. The obvious meaning of the abasement of dolls here is that the dolls are abased, but the second reading is that the dolls are doing the abasing. The word doll, as everyone knows, is also used just to mean women and girls.
The first interpretation signifies what people do to dolls (such as what men do to sex dolls), and the second what dolls do to people (how the ideal of the doll — think Barbie — compromises girls, and how they compromise themselves in relation to it). This is another case where her paintings are an incarnation of multiple perspectives at once.
People don’t spend any time with images, and we think since it’s all there visually that we can absorb it in seconds as we scroll through our Instagram feeds. But it really takes time to sink in, and if one hasn’t taken the time to look at a lot of paintings and other images [in the same way one learns to appreciate music by countless hours of listening, not by reading about it] one can easily miss the point, even on a purely aesthetic level. When the artist shared a link to a webpage devoted to this body of work, it was almost instantly taken down. I’m guessing The Facebook censors thought the images were erotic art for people who have a doll or sex-doll fetish. In other words, they may have mistaken them for celebrating what they rail against. It’s an easier mistake to make than thinking Tell me you love it! is a rape fantasy, but equally misses the point.
The dolls are hollowed out, vessels, and broken containers. Red Hair Doll, while her face may be pretty, has lost her arms; her legs are broken off; and she has endured five large holes punched into her. The rendering of the plastic here — the sheen, texture, modeling, and cracks — is a testament to Blac’s growing technical skills. The doll sits, eyes closed or looking down, with a lipstick poised before her, as of it were a thing of worship (as well as an obvious phallic symbol). One could hardly notice the lipstick at all, and the condition of the doll, and not put together that there’s a serious element of irony here. A sparkling fluid oozes from her mouth that matches her eye-shadow and lipstick.
The influence of Bacon is still here. In his later paintings he often focused on just a torso, or half a body.
But Blac has a much different perspective and sensibility. Bacon never would or could have painted her dolls, and I like Red Hair Doll better than Bacon’s Study of the Human Body after Ingres. The connection to Bacon, Dali, or Expressionism, are important because with Blac’s imagery there’s been an attempt to lump it into one convenient sub-genre or another — Horror, Surrealism, Erotica — when it is straight up fine art. This is similar to how fiction is classified in book stores. If something doesn’t fit into established sub-genres (sci-fi, fantasy, romance…), and it is serious, than you look in the “Literature” section. But people aren’t seeing Blac’s work as the equivalent of literature, which is fine art, when that’s what it is, but trying to stuff it into one or another popular and more accessible package where it doesn’t fit at all, and will ultimately be seen as a failed or second-rate attempt specifically because of the inherent differences. I suspect, however, that the cases of mistaken identity, for the time being (until she’s recognize by the fine art community) are also the instances where her art is most widely appreciated.
When it comes to interpretations, I will defer to the artist’s own statements, if they exist. In this case Blac made a statement about a sketch which one can easily extrapolate applies to this series as well.
The center figure is very similar to Red Hair Doll. She’s missing her arms; wearing the same underwear; her earrings jut out at a similar angle; some of her hair has been pulled out, and the remainder sweeps up in the same fashion. She leaks a mysterious black fluid which will appear in some of the painted dolls as well. About this image she wrote:
“This was a sketch that I never got around to painting. It depicts the self-sexualisation of young women who are conditioned by society, advertisements, the music industry and the media to believe that their only value in life is to be sexually alluring. Also, many girls who were sexually abused or raped are often prone to ‘high-risk sexual behaviours’. They feel that they are empowered by ‘taking control’ over their own sexual behaviours and are often promiscuous or will exchange sex for money, drugs, alcohol etc.” ~ SB
Her methodology has become more intricate and involved in this series, and she’s stated that there are eight layers, and it took her 50 hours just to paint the hair.
The doll’s lips have become so over-sized they form a purple veil, and the oily, black viscous fluid that pools beneath her body also seeps from between her lips. Unlike her earlier bloody red canvases, the colors here are much more palatable, and this sort of (on the face of it) beautiful imagery could reach a larger audience if it weren’t for the darker underlying content that figuratively and literally exudes from every orifice.
We know what her message is here because she stated it powerfully and succinctly. There’s more to them than that, though, because visual art is its own language and communicates in non-verbal ways outside of the arena of linguistics. Consider that throughout her career her images, according to her, “just come from subconscious doodles”. This means the subconscious is involved, and in the same way we can’t always assign specific meanings to our dreams, even if we suspect there are deeper meanings, artwork which incorporates suggestions from the nether psyche will often contain material that can’t be translated into a conscious interpretation. The black liquid is more interesting because it isn’t specifically blood, or other known bodily fluids. There may be no one exact meaning that we can fix on, reduce the paintings to a persuasive argument about the negative conditioning of females, and slam the book shut.
Knowing the artist’s earlier work, we are aware that much of her art is autobiographical, and in her development her paintings have shifted from a bird’s eye view of her life to turning the camera inwards to focus on the homunculus of her mind itself. Now we are seeing something else, which is not a self-portrait, but a portrait of the societal forces and other external phenomenon that shape a person. The resulting entity is a manufactured doll which bears not only the history of its individual defilement, but is in its very conception a physical manifestation societal biases and prejudices which define women and girls.
In “Blondes” the twin girls are marionettes, and the controlling piece is a cruciform. The artist addressed the content herself on DeviantArt:
These playboy bunnies have devil horns instead of rabbit ears. The point about highly gendered and sexualized clothing is impossible to deny: one only need to stroll into a shoe store and look around. Differences in foot size and shape between males and females are not anywhere significant enough to justify the dramatic divergence in footwear (ex., high-heels, ankle straps, etc for women). Not all gendered clothing is necessarily pernicious, but some of it is, and there can be a cumulative effect that serves to subordinate and females and make them fragile.
The subjects aren’t girls, but rather incarnations of symptoms and effects. This is not to say that the personal is missing, but we can’t look at Blondes and remotely see a literal self-portrait. But there’s another sophisticated, artistic alchemy going on here. The dolls also relate to voodoo dolls in an odd way, which is, again, reminiscent of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, except here we have not just a portrait, but a doll as the portrait. Imagine instead of the pins stuck in voodoo dolls inflicting pain on others, that they transfer afflictions from an individual to the doll itself.
The dolls become a nexus for the pain of females inflicted by society and individual experience. I’m not saying they work in that way like some magical potion to take away the pain, but they do allow one to visualize an exterior universal manifestation, and without these paintings that visualization would not exist (or at least I haven’t seen similar art as powerful myself).
Black Hair Doll is, for me, the most disturbing image in this series, specifically because it is the only image I’ve seen by Blac which depicts genitals, and brazenly, even if they are not in the least realistic. She has describe the meaning in this way:
“This image depicts pornography. Esp the sex slave industry which forces women into this horrendous industry, and women who have been sexually abused and exploited in porn since childhood.” ~ SB.
I almost hesitated to include this image because my blog has already been blacklisted for advertising as not family friendly. Well, I hardly want to be on the same side of cluelessness and visual illiteracy.
One could hardly notice that black liquid, — which the artist has refereed to as a glittery, toxic, evil ooze and somehow conclude that this painting is intended to titillate. This is what, at worst, women and girls are reduced to.
Suzzan Blac is a truly exceptional artist, not just because she’s tied with the darkest artwork out there, or because she courageously shares her painful history. She’s an excellent painter who has evolved her style in league with the tradition of figurative painting, and she’s found a way to use imagery to give visual form to the inner turmoil of the mind as well as pernicious societal conditioning. She is also a critically underrated artist who I have never encountered in any mainstream art publication.
If you enjoyed this article, you might like these:
- The tantalizingly Mysterious Painted Figures of Amy Regutti
- Death and Regeneration: The Dark Vision of Bryan Kent Ward
- Sophie Derrick: Exhilarating Expressionist Impasto Paintings
And just a reminder