PRETTY POP! Interview with Suzy Smith
WALT MORTON: You can see in all your works two dominant threads. One is a deep fascination with color and design, and the other is a exploration of realist technique. I’d like to know about your sense of design first, where do you think that comes from? You’re willing to put together crazily precise works of bold color, complex patterns sometimes even approaching op-art. What do you look to achieve in these design-intensive works?
SUZY SMITH: I feel like my sense of design is innate, something I have always had, as I never took a design class. I am mostly a self-taught artist who took drawing and painting classes at the local community college in Casper, WY, where I grew up. Because I hated painting "plain" backgrounds, I decided to paint my still life from an aerial perspective, using wildly designed fabric. I began layering lace, fabric, and tapestries, which evolved into my black and white striped series, allowing me to show more dimension. My intention is to paint a subject and add a highly designed, sometimes elaborate background, so they work together, but also stand apart.....as subject and background. I like to play with 3 dimensional against two dimensional, and try to fill in every part of the paper, or canvas, to make a lively painting, with visual complexity. There is nothing I love more than an organized, complex, multi layered design! My love of color is something else I seem addicted to. Color is such a powerful expressive tool, and can add depth and magic to a painting, while also adding to the composition. Sometimes I wish my paintings were less colorful, so I am working on that. I actually just finished my first painting in black and white, which I quite enjoyed!
WALT MORTON: Your painting technique has always been realist but it developed in the 1990’s to a sleek hyper-realism, and then more recently has turned to a less photographic, more illustrative approach to painting. What can you say about that evolution?
SUZY SMITH: I have always strived for realism, but have never thought of my work as hyper-realism. I was headed in that direction with my still life, but after I moved to NM from CA, I started painting in oil, and also began painting nudes. When I started painting the figure I tried to paint traditional realism, (teaching myself) but then I started looking at Alberto Vargas, Gil Elvgren, and Mel Ramos, and decided I liked a more contemporary look, which may come across as illustrative. It seems the more I try to paint realistically, the more stylized my work becomes. I have finally learned not to fight it. I am always trying to improve, but I do have a "style" I can't seem to escape.
WALT MORTON: Around 2005 you switched from still life to painting people and pretty quickly to female nudes, while also incorporating your design sense into ornate, graphically intense backgrounds and settings. I know Martin Muller (owner of Modernism Gallery) in San Francisco originally encouraged to paint nudes, but now that you have been painting female nudes for ten years what are your thoughts on the subject matter in 2017?
SUZY SMITH: Painting nudes in 2017 has greatly changed from 10 years ago. It seems the pendulum swings, and one year nudes are selling like hot cakes, and the next they are not. Whereas in 2010 I might sell a full frontal female nude, today I have been painting more portraits showing only breasts. My clients who purchase the nudes are mostly male, and I am still surprised that some women are offended by my paintings, or think my models are too perfect, too thin, or not real. I am painting real women that invoke a style, and hopefully an accurate assessment of an era, and I am going to continue to paint them. I was already painting nudes when Martin Muller came to my studio. He did encourage me however, to paint more nudes, and less still life. Martin suggested that I add a "famous" painting to my backgrounds, and while we were thinking of who, we both said Georgia O'Keeffe at the same time. It seemed like a perfect match as Georgia lived in NM as I did, and her colorful sensuous flowers went well with my beautiful sensual women. Color and design were a given! From there I started adding Wayne Thiebaud paintings as backgrounds, and other various Pop Art. This enabled me to not only pay homage to my favorite artists, but to paint in different styles, contrasting figure and background. This also allows for a difference in textures, or it may be that a complex, or organic design adds to the sensuality or spirituality of the painting. In the meantime, I left Modernism and went to Scott Richards Contemporary Art and Tangent, also in San Francisco. Scott has a great sensibility and affinity for Pop Art, and has encouraged me to continue in that direction.
WALT MORTON: Your female nudes are intentionally beautiful, glamorous, posed and sexy. I am wondering about the reactions you get. I can imagine people trying to put all kinds of labels on them like: “porn," “pinup” or “feminist.” How do you react to the way people interpret your work? Do you care?
SUZY SMITH: I have heard my work called porn, but I prefer to think of it as more early Playboy/girl next door, or even Pin Up. In the end, I believe it is up to the viewer to bring their own meaning to the art. The art is not just about the artist, it is about the viewer and how he/she perceives the art. Popular culture determines what will be painted, and will also decide if the work is relevant or not. Of course I want people to like my work, or more importantly, to think it is well painted, but at this point in my career it doesn't really bother me what labels are used to describe my paintings. I have never heard my paintings referred to as feminist, but what defines feminist art exactly? I am female, and my models are smart, strong beautiful, young women. Most of them are putting themselves through college, and are proud of who they are and proud of their bodies, so in that sense, I would call my work feminist. I was lucky enough to sit next to Mel Ramos, at an after opening dinner with Modernism, and he was telling me that when he first started painting his nudes, in the early 1960's, women would show up to protest his gallery openings. He said he thought it would be much easier for me being a woman painting nude women. I am not sure if he is right or not about that. It would seem to make sense, but my work has still been censored many times on social media. I guess nudes are always a hard sell. I just didn't realize it when I started 10 years ago.
WALT MORTON: Most obviously, you are developing your own flavor of Pop Art painting. Andy Warhol presented iconic Marilyn Monroe and Roy Lichtenstein gave us his Ben-day Dot comic book girls. You are giving us perfectly idealized women against backgrounds self-consciously referencing Warhol and many other artists. What do you want us to know about your meta-pop commentary? Why is Pop Art still important?
SUZY SMITH: I think Pop Art is perhaps even more relevant today than when it was painted, looking through the lens of history. The commentary the Pop Artists were able to make on society about our culture and consumerism, changed the way art was not only created, but how it was viewed. It brings me personally back to the era when I grew up, and an age of innocence and my youth. I hope to continue the Pop Art conversation by painting in the Pop-realist tradition, portraying my idealized nudes juxtaposed against iconic Pop images. I am painting our uniquely American culture, with tongue-in-cheek humor, honoring my Pop predecessors, all the while maintaining a sense of irony that Pop Art is known for.
Suzy Smith is a Wyoming native, who currently resides in Albuquerque, NM, after living in the San Francisco Bay area for many years. She started her career learning to draw and paint in watercolor, at the local community college in her hometown of Casper, WY. Smith was recently invited to return to WY, where she had a one woman retrospective show: "Suzy Smith: Pop Realism", at the Nicolaysen Art Museum, where her work now resides in their permanent collection.
Smith has exhibited her work around the country. and her paintings are included in many private and public collections which include: the Howard Tullman collection, the Dryer's Grand Ice Cream Corporate Art Collection, and the Kaiser Foundation Art Collection. Smith paints in oil and watercolor, painting figurative work as well as still life. She is a signature member of the National Watercolor Society, and is represented by Tangent Contemporary Art in San Francisco, CA.