Susanna Coffey at Tibor de Nagy

Susanna Coffey, Stream (2003), oil on canvas, 12″ x 15″; courtesy the artist

The horrors of 9/11 are not the explicit subject of Susanna Coffey’s paintings at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, though scenes of a city under siege do serve as the backdrop for her continuing exploration of self-portraiture. The events of that day have been transformed in her art into something else–but what that something else might be is difficult to grasp.

Anyone familiar with her oeuvre knows that Ms. Coffey is all about resistance. She’s both an ideologue and a pure painter and neither of those things: She trades in absolutes only to deny them. This makes for frustrating art. It also makes for pictures that stick, like a burr, in the memory.

Learning that the paintings are based on newspaper photos of the war in Iraq doesn’t help: try locating a political stance and you’ll be thwarted. If Ms. Coffey, wearing a camouflage tank top and bathing cap, seems despondent in Conveyance (2003), she’s serene when surrounded by explosions and fire in Stream (2003).  These paintings run the risk of exploiting events whose importance will inevitably overshadow whatever’s on the canvas, yet the gravity of Ms. Coffey’s purpose–of her mood, really–is unmistakable.

The war pictures (if we can call them that) are, oddly enough, conduits for reverie, simultaneously discomfiting, soothing and convoluted. Their stark, theatrical intensity makes the more typical self–portraits-passive-aggressive meditations on identity–look a trifle silly (though their pithiness as painting is inarguable).

Ms. Coffey wouldn’t be the first person to open up to the world only as it threatens to descend into disarray. Perhaps that’s what accounts for the subtle shift from negation to some semblance of acceptance. Ms. Coffey remains a problematic figure; if only other artists would present us with puzzles so intricate and true.

© 2003

Originally published in the November 9, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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