Susanna Coffey at Tibor de Nagy Gallery

Susanna Coffey, Conveyance (2003), oil on canvas, 27″ x 36″; courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery

* * *

The painter Susanna Coffey, whose canvases are on view at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, is a puzzle. She paints small, blocky and witheringly focused pictures of herself.

Not self-portraits, mind you–or, at least, not what we might consider traditional self-portraits. However many times we see her face–usually presented close up, eyes to the viewer, and boxed within the parameters of the canvas–we never get a sense of who she is. Ms. Coffey may depict herself as blissfully dowdy, eerily benevolent or blandly intimate, but she always remains a cipher. Reading the exhibition catalog, we learn of her fascination with the “ambiguity of gender representation,” but ambiguity isn’t her forte. Evasion is. The work is adamant in its refusal to commit and is defined by what it is not: not portraiture, not psychological, not feminine, not masculine–and yet, not nothing.

An adroit paint handler, Ms. Coffey builds form through edgy, itchy patches of color, and her surfaces have a nicely underplayed “push.” The pictures, as feats of painting, are worthy of putting our noses to, yet the closer we get to them, the more they rebuff us. In her recalcitrance, Ms. Coffey is reminiscent of Ad Reinhardt, another painter who divined an unyielding nugget of meaning by scouring his own meager patch of skepticism. Her goal isn’t to placate us; it’s to earn our grudging respect. She succeeds more than we might like to admit.

© 2001 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 4, 2001 edition of The New York Observer.

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