Sue Hettmansperger, Untitled (2011), oil on linen, 30″ x 27″; courtesy A.I.R. Gallery
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In the art of Sue Hettmansperger, the natural world is evoked both as a scientific discipline and an ecological conundrum. Her paintings are shifting conglomerations of flora, fauna, microscopic lifeforms, human anatomy and cartographic diagrams. The elements of Hettmansperger’s pictorial vocabulary–a cross section of bronchial tubes, for instance, of the leaves of a plant–bring to mind illustrations from technical charts and textbooks. The analytical aspect of the imagery is patent: there is in the work a satisfaction taken in the step-by-step cataloguing of natural phenomena. (Among the artist’s inspirations is the sixteenth century anatomist Vesalius.) Yet Hettmansperger’s paintings aren’t merely inventories. Her forms are transposed, if not entirely divorced, from their pedagogical context and placed into an enveloping and slightly ominous space. There they commingle and fluctuate, slowly disclosing an (at times fleeting) interconnectedness.
Hettmansperger’s paintings are democratic presentations of imagery, with each component given its own iconographic emphasis. Even when the compositions are chock full, as in her drawing installations, Hettmansperger’s particulars have elbowroom. In the work, clusters of objects are laid out for us, setting up a kind of 1-2-3 dialogue between forms. We “read” the paintings in a piecemeal manner, taking in each shape individually. In one painting, a plant-like biomorph bobs alongside an amorphous field and an array of brushstrokes suggesting cellular architecture. In another, a sketchy linear network–is it a map or a human organ?–nudges against an insect-like form which coasts precariously toward the viewer. It’s as if the artist were daring us to add up the images in order to clarify their mutual ambiguity. Yet the natural world, however dissected and classified, remains autonomous and bewildering. Hettmansperger’s work deepens the mystery of nature while, paradoxically, displaying its constituent parts in an almost mathematical manner. Her’s is an art of diversity and intrigue, not concision.
Sue Hettmansperger, Untitled (2009-2010), oil on linen, 27″ x 30″; courtesy A.I.R. Gallery
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It would be misleading to pigeonhole Hettmansperger’s paintings as post-modern. Her work is bereft of the superficiality that tends to characterize art labeled as such. Hettmansperger’s meditations on natural history are, in fact, earnest and felt. One doesn’t need to know about the artist’s commitment to ecological issues to intuit her empathy for the environment–it’s there to see in the paintings. Still, the disassociated nature of her compositions reflects artistic liberty indicative of the free-for-all of contemporary culture. Such multiplicity is a tacit–if, in Hettmansperger’s hands, gentle–critique of the modernist impulse towards essentialization. (In her paintings, certitude gives precedence to informed doubt.) Whether this can be accurately pegged as post-modern is a question better left to future historians. But the work’s philosophical tenor, composed of equal parts doubt and wonder, is decidedly of the here-and-now.
What isn’t in dispute is Hettmansperger’s deft touch as a painter. Her use of oils is sure and, within the confines of a single canvas, varied. Hettmansperger juxtaposes thinned fields of pigment with nuanced, impastoed brushwork. Her surfaces have a flexibility that mirrors the encyclopedic nature of the pictures: spaces are established, parameters expanded and images refracted. Hettmansperger gives her panoply of forms body with pithy, almost matter-of-fact brushwork. There is a self-effacing quality to Hettmansperger’s facture and her biological mementos have a corporeality that is quietly insistent. This artistic modesty signals an painter stepping aside, so as not to obstruct the work’s symbolic potential or the viewer’s entry into its elusive world.
Sue Hettmansperger, Untitled Installation (Four Paintings) (2010), oil on linen, 57″ x 54″; courtesy A.I.R. Gallery
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Hettmansperger credits her upbringing in New Mexico with her fascination with, and connection to, nature. This is, I think, especially evident in her sense of color. Notwithstanding the occasional vibrant hue, Hettmansperger’s chromatic range is muted and dusky; one can’t help but feel that such characteristics hearken back to the landscape in which she grew up. The austerity of Hettmansperger’s color makes for subtle modulations of warm temperature and glowing light. She avoids the trap, common to artists who trade in earth tones, of letting her colors descend into murk and mud. Even when her fields of light have an arid tonality, they register as coloristic events. The seemingly monochromatic that gives Small Plant, Intel Wind (1998-99) its spatial backdrop is made up of more variations of deep orange than is, at first glance, apparent. Again, Hettmansperger doesn’t set out to “wow” us with color. Rather, she sets into motion a chromatic radiance that unfolds deliberately. She reminds us that being a colorist doesn’t necessarily mean having to use every color, all the time. That Hettmansperger endows her limited palette with density and atmosphere reveals a palette that isn’t, ultimately, limited at all.
Hettmansperger’s paintings follow a distinctly American tradition of an abstract–or abstracted–art rooted in nature. Much like the early American modernists Arthur Dove and Georgia O’Keefe, or contemporary painters like Terry Winters and Bill Jensen, Hettmansperger locates magic in the mundane. Tempering awe with pragmatism, she gives shape to the natural world in all its multifariousness using brushes, oil and canvas. The depth of this pursuit is unmistakable, as is the artist’s understated passion. Sue Hettmansperger’s floating world commutes the specificity of fact into an enigmatic painterly cosmos.
© 1999 Mario Naves
Originally published in the catalogue accompanying Sue Hettmansperger: Paintings and Drawings, a 1999 exhibition at A.I.R. Gallery.