Susan Madsen


October 24–November 23, 2012


This exhibit represents my two most recent bodies of work, Red Laments and Above/Below.

The more recent series Red Laments evolved from a period when numerous family losses had brought my creativity and inspiration to a prolonged halt. During these doldrums three small reproductions of Northern Renaissance paintings hung on my studio wall, all chosen for their beautiful luminous colour. Much later I realized all three were images of the Deposition and Lamentation. Inspired by this Christian iconography and the codified gestures of grief and lament in historical religious art, I engaged models and asked them to “reenact” these contorted and stylized gestures of prayer and grief. More subtly I worked with the ideas of “collapse” and “support” and from where renewal springs.

Although painted in a style of heightened realism that makes reference to the work of the Flemish painters of the early renaissance, the paintings describe contemporary figures inhabiting and recreating Western cultural narratives. The birds and animals in the spans of northern landscape are chosen for their multifaceted symbolic content. A certain good-natured, art-historical humour trails through the images. 

The colour red has become an integral part of this series, representing a palpable energy flow. In fact red has become more of a “life force” than a colour. In the paintings red represents an active link to spirit, a symbol of renewal and trust in life. Falling ambiguously from the sky the cloth has come to signify a support and connection to the heavens, a cloak of security, or a place of shelter. The fabric also suggests the vagaries of the “sails of fortune” and stretched taut, the linearity of life’s story. Increasingly the gesture and swag of the fabric have become anthropomorphized, functioning both as a solitary figure in the landscape and as an art-historical prop.

The series Above/Below took as subject the search for spirit from within or without, looking up or looking in. Isolated figures inhabit landscapes where elements merge, constellations are mirrored in patterns of pebble and rock, and a diaphanous sea reflects cloud and fog. Exploring the western tradition in religious painting of a seeker or saint inquiring to the heavens these skyward gazing figures search for knowledge or response from above. The partially submerged swimmers, eyes shut, drift contemplative in an oblivion of ocean and wave. Inspiration came from the words of Vivekananda:

“The Indo-Aryan man was always seeking Divinity inside himself. It became, in the course of time, a natural characteristic of his thinking. It is evident in his art and in his commonest dealings. But even at the present time, if we take a European picture of a man in a religious attitude, the painter always makes his subject point his eyes upward, looking outside nature for God, looking up into the skies. In India, on the other hand, the religious attitude is always presented by making the subject close his eyes. He is, as it were, looking inward.“

Questions of faith, beliefs, and spirit are ongoing subjects of my paintings. Consistently informed by the inherent religious and esoteric content within earlier western figurative traditions, my work reshuffles metaphors of religious imagery exploring the visual language of prayer, contemplation, lament, and renewal.

*Vivekananda: The Yogas and Other Works

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