Referencing. This is the by word of contemporary art practice, the lingua franca and justification for the exchange of ideas between artist, critical theorist and audience. A “Where’s Waldo” for the informed art viewer. Referencing is the art world equivalent of the Shriner’s secret handshake. If you can’t spot the reference then you aren’t a member of the club.
But what happens if an artist’s commitment to their work is so complete, their investment to the evolution of their craft so intuitive that their work embraces the entire history of that craft without the sly nod or the knowing elbow in the ribs? Is this referencing or is it simply what happens when an artist works hard, knows what they are doing and adds in a measure of the ineffable?
Susan Budge makes art that can somehow make a connection to a range of work that includes Paleolithic talismans, early modernism via Brancusi, Miro and Tanguy, thrift store chatchkas and the backgrounds of Hannah Barbera cartoons. These associations aren’t entirely new and yet when they usually show up in an artist’s work they more often than not come with a hefty dose of irony. However, when a really talented artist hunkers down in the studio and roams around the culture and their own psyche looking for meaning, associations magically accrue. You see the connections between south pacific totems and Yves Tanguy. You understand why they wanted Roadrunner’s cacti to look like Brancusi’s Bird.
If the word ecstasy comes from the Greek ex-stasis, to be displaced, then somehow displacement has come to be associated with a kind of exquisite disorientation. This is what I get out of Susan Budge’s work. People have been squeezing together lumps of clay for as long as people have had the free time to do anything. This may be the oldest form of art practice known to man. If you engage in this activity then you are stepping into a slipstream of unbroken human history.
When you look at Budge’s work you can see every moment and every motive of creative human endeavor. You can find sympathetic magic, idolatry, shamanism, fetishization and comedy. You can see the ways that human beings have sought out the connections between high and low art. The exquisite disorientation that you feel is the result of a kind of slingshot free association that happens when the Venus of Willindorf starts to look like Jabba the Hut. One doesn’t necessarily neutralize the other. They don’t call each other into question; they simply call to each other. This visual point and counterpoint is ultimately about faith. The belief that all of this stuff that we’ve been making for so many years actually adds up to something.
One of the popular strategies of the post modern period was the idea that by filtering high modernism through the lens of popular culture you could de-mystify the inflated heroics of a seminal moment in history. In the hands of artists like Peter Halley and Phillip Taafe, this leads to an irreverent deconstruction of grandiose modernist assumptions. In the hands of Susan Budge this same lens seems to be pointing in the opposite direction. Rather than pointing down to pick through the minutia of modernist meaning her lens opens outward to suggest that the spiritual core at the heart of modernist purity can be found in the everyday.
Her operating principle appears very similar to the automatism of early surrealist practice. Budge has said,” I work in a spontaneous manner as an attempt to allow information from my subconscious to surface.” But what are we to make of her souped up cartoon-like palette? How do you explain the presence of ceramic hard hats with totems and the suggestion of Max Ernst? The implication is that just as early modernism was co-opted by popular culture; contemporary art practice can reclaim the impulse behind early modernism by way of popular culture.
But this isn’t simply a re-examination of previous movements, instead in Budge’s case it becomes an inclusive cycling outward where possibilities expand. The overall effect of the work has a direct connection to Freud’s theory of the uncanny. When the familiar becomes unfamiliar through repression the ultimate effect is a kind of disorientation as a result of the inability to distinguish between the real and the unreal, the animate and the inanimate.
In Susan Budge’s work a profound moment of disorientation comes when all of the cues for our collective experience of the work come slamming together in totally unexpected ways. What we are left with is our lust for the object, our need to make meaning out of it and our willingness to take a leap of faith with an artist who has given us good reason to trust her. We appear to have come full circle to a totally intuitive appreciation for an object, which inexplicably moves us.
The totem is a central theme in Budge’s work. In “Blood Moon” the conventional phallus association of the totem is subverted by creating a Cousin It-like creature whose stumpy abject form has red lens shapes at about eye level. Each eye is on opposing sides of the figure, one convex and the other concave suggesting that whether viewing out or in, some distortion will Occur. The entire figure is covered in a syrupy poured glaze, which feels like either the residue of countless rituals or the effects of years of exposure to the elements. It has the appearance of a mute oracle or a thumb shaped marker of a lost civilization.
In pieces like “Muse” and “Psyche” the totem is recouped in female form. The curves and cinched waists of both figures suggest a corseted dowager simultaneously authoritative and constrained, their décolletage marked by a graceful bustier dip. Limbs are only hinted at by petal-like flippers, which curve downward in a comic muscular pose.
In “Hawthor” pubescent nipples protrude from a zigzag Teletubby figure whose little boy blue glaze would feel completely at home in an alien’s nursery.
The only orifice in “Suspense” is located vaguely where a mouth should be, but it is more reminiscent of genitalia or an “innie” belly button. The conflation of sex, voice and birth leads the viewer to reassess identity from primal urge to maternal connection.
The female form is revisited in “Orpheus”. Its arms are raised in a balletic posture, but are equally suggestive of curled horns. A metallic glaze that seems to armor the figure in a protective sheath reinforces this conflict.
“Tribute” takes the familiar form of the hard hat and through repetition defamiliarizes it into both pure form and new associations. This most male of artifacts appears oddly female in Budge’s hands either as fertile protruding bellies or as forty distended breasts, nipples and stretch marks intact. Either way the viewer is made aware of the vulnerability of the human form by focusing on a man made exoskeleton.
Much of the Twentieth century in the arts can be seen as the separation of the mind and the body, the idioplastic and the physioplastic. The assumption has been that talent was incompatible with rigorous conceptualization. And while this was a reasonable response to the craft chauvinism of the salon tradition, some part of the marginalization of art making over the last hundred years can be attributed to this condition. Talented artists frequently found themselves relegated into craft ghettos. Serious inquiry into the meaningfulness of a language was seen as privileging the object. But if art is ever going to play a more central role in the culture, artists are going to have to reacquaint themselves with the tools that have created a broader discourse historically.
Susan Budge makes a very strong case for the idea that articulation and iconography can exist on an equally high plane. The beauty and complexity of her work make it clear that these things were never mutually exclusive. Through the seduction of her talent and the breadth of her ideas Susan Budge offers a reconnection to the origins of art making. If the earliest cave paintings and fertility figures were a form of sympathetic magic Budge has filtered that vision of the artist’s role through the warped prescription of popular culture to give the world a new Venus of the Saturday morning cartoon.
Peter Drake is a New York artist who has shown internationally for twenty years.
Drake, Peter, "Susan Budge: Referencing", Ceramics: Art and Perception - 2003 Issue #53.
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