Susan Klein visited by Paolo Arao

I met Susan Klein while on a residency at The Wassaic Project this past June. There’s a humor and human-ness to her work and color palettes that resonated with me. Susan’s work is a very smart and playful combination of sculpture, painting and craft presented in wonderfully weird tableaus. They reward long looking. I visited Susan this past July during her residency at the ISCP studio program in Brooklyn.

Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and where did you go to school?

I grew up in Morristown, NJ and studied art at NYU for two years.  I then transferred to the University of New Hampshire.  I got my MFA in 2004 from University of Oregon.  


Can you describe the series of work(s) that are in progress in your studio?

Right now I am working on sculptures and paintings.  The sculptures are made up of bases and forms that sit on or within the base structure.  The forms are ceramic, epoxy resin, plexi, and found objects (with a few other materials thrown in now and then).  The bases are also a mix of materials: plexi, found objects, plaster, etc.  Some of these pieces sit on paintings.  The paintings, on raw, unstretched canvas, act as throw rugs.  There are also paintings (unstretched and raw) on the wall that act as tapestries.  

The work revolves around a symbol system that references artifacts, devotional objects, and popular culture. I like to think of this body of work like an artifact of the present.  

How did you start working with ceramics? Do they inform your 2-D work or vice versa?

I have been working with 3D elements since grad school, on and off.  In the past two years the sculptural has moved more towards the forefront.  I was working with sculpey, epoxy resin clay, paper mache clay, and foam.  Ceramics was a logical step.  I wanted a material that responds to my touch like paint does but has a longer working time than some air dry clays.  I have worked with ceramics for the past year and I love it! They absolutely inform my 2D work- I’ve become freer and more open to rawer moves in the paintings and drawings.  And the 2D informs the 3D- all of my work seems to refer back to a painterly sort of space.

What are the main questions/ ideas that you’re trying to answer/develop in the studio?

I think about the relationship between painting and sculpture - the connection between image and object.  How does an image become an object?  How do the things that I create relate to the ones that already exist? How does my daily studio practice relate to the history of making….not just art making, but the daily making of anything?  Why do I engage in making? What drives humans to make objects that do not serve a functional role? How can/has art exist/existed as a conduit between the physical and the metaphysical? 

Can you describe your use of color? Do you figure out the palette before you begin working or is it more of an intuitive process of call and response?

Talking about color is always sticky for me because it is a highly sensory experience and is intuitive.  Where I live, the nature of the light, my surroundings, and my mood all influence color choices. Sometimes a particular shape needs to be a particular color and I don’t know why. Sometimes color relates to a taste or texture - I often describe color in terms of these senses: soft, gnarly, acidic, sweet, smooth, etc.  My recent palette also stems from me giving my myself permission to make color moves that seem “bad” - I am giving myself complete freedom to let the color go where it wants, to indulge my instincts.  The new body of work feels like the light of the Southern Coast where I relocated four years ago.  I think the colors here are unlike anything I have experienced and are sinking deep into my psyche. The day is bracketed between peach and lavender: the mornings are infused with a warm pink-orange glow and the evenings with diffuse lavender light. 

You curated a show recently at the NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. Can you speak a little about the show and if curating has had an effect on your studio practice?

I really enjoyed curating. I had the idea for this show about a year ago, after meeting Heather Merckle and Holly Veselka and connecting them conceptually to Skye Gilkerson, who I have known for about 5 years.  I love the work of all three of these artists and was interested in the way that the work addressed our relationship with nature and time in various ways.  Heather’s work is more humorous, Skye’s more minimal, and Holly’s more based on optics, yet all three artists address the cosmos and the role of humans within it.  These artists make work that is different than mine, and I like stepping outside my own practice.  It is good to go beyond one's studio practice and think about the ideas and processes of others. 

What person/place/thing has had the most influence for you and your work?

Oh wow, this is a hard one!  I am completely overwhelmed by the visual information in the world, so I need to translate lived experience through a creative act.  I don’t think I can choose one thing…..I’m a total carnivore, a sponge.  I want to eat the world and then barf it back out in my work. 

Do you listen to music/ the radio/ podcasts while you work? What have you been listening to lately?

Yes!  Music depends on my mood, a lot of times it is my giant playlist of liked songs on Spotify.  It can range from Bach to Laurie Anderson to Angel Olson to Chrome Sparks.  I am loving the new Blood Orange and Justice albums. I also have a dance playlist because sometimes I have secret dance parties for one in my studio. I listen to many podcasts.  Call Your Girlfriend, Marc Maron, and Terry Gross are my all-stars. On Being is good too, and I recently added Sam Harris to my playlist.    


What is a typical studio day like for you? Do you work early/late? Do you work every day?

I like to get to the studio in the morning.  I have my best focus before lunch.  My ideal day is studio from 8:30-5, then yoga, then dinner and bedtime. Of course, it usually doesn’t pan out that way! When I am not teaching, I am in the studio every day.  During the semester, I get in three-four full studio days.  On teaching days, sometimes I can get a few hours before or after class, or in the evening.  I need to work so I get in there as much as possible.  The studio is the place where I feel calmest, most at home, most myself. 

Are you reading anything interesting at the moment?

I’m almost finished with a great book: 4321 by Paul Auster. It’s hard to put down. I love fiction and usually have a novel on hand to read.  I am also re-reading Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood.  She is one of my favorite writers and I relate to this book in a very real way.


Knowing what you know now, what is a piece of advice that you would give to your younger artist self? 

Have confidence in yourself and don’t look to others for approval.  That is a big one.  I spent a lot of time people pleasing and second guessing myself.  Also, have patience!  Things take time to emerge - art practice, career, relationships, everything.  Give yourself time to grow and mature. 


Do you have any upcoming exhibitions you’d like to share? 

I currently have a solo show called "Day Person" in Sumter, South Carolina at the Sumter County Gallery of Art.  It’s up until November.

For more information on Susan please visit her website.