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Michele Sudduth @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery

Mission Boogie, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 54 x 90"
 
Michele Sudduth's painting might easily be described as modernist jigsaw puzzles. With their saturated colors, soothing pastels and interlocking shapes whose symmetries call forth Ellsworth Kelly and Matisse, they playfully riff on the conventions of hard-edged abstraction. The story might begin and end there, were it not for Sudduth’s repeated use of featureless heads and torsos that resemble the robotic figures of early video games. Arrayed within kissing distance each other, they speak of social space, and in particular, the unease we experience on trains, buses and in other public spaces where we’re thrust into close physical proximity with strangers.  What initially appears sunny and decorative unexpectedly dissolves into something darker.  Like the protective masks we wear in public, Sudduth’s colors and forms serve as a foil that enables her paintings to speak in two voices, boldly and of things concealed in plain view.
 
Sunrise, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 24"

Paint she applies flatly and in solid colors, modulating close-value hues bracketed by other, higher contrast colors. Forms she defines with thin, curvilinear lines that continuously interrupt geometric shapes, recalling Heather Gwen Martin in LA and Amy Ellingson in SF.  However compartmentalized, the effect is of a mellifluous flow – broken by those truncated heads and torsos.  They remind us of how appearances can contradict reality.  Key examples, London Bus and Mission Boogie, both refer to people in transit, and in both, the oscillation between positive and negative shapes makes it appear as if we’re looking at mirror images.  We’re not, but the repetition of

those forms on opposite sides of a horizontal “axis” makes it appear as if we are, and within this claustrophobic, too-close-for comfort zone these works come to life.  

What sort of life might that be?  Here, I take Sudduth’s “faces” at face value. Shorn of anatomical features and expressivity, they reflect what we see in public: people in communal spaces relating not to each other, but to their electronic appendages.  This is a ubiquitous condition, I realize.  But in certain locales, like the tech-leaning, youth-dominated Mission District near to where Sudduth works, it’s even more pronounced.  That she packages it so appealingly and so obliquely makes the disconnection (once you get it) almost as jarring as it is in real life.  As Glen Helfand concludes in his catalog essay for this exhibition, “We’re all part of this picture.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
Michelle Sudduth @ SFMOMA Artists Gallery through July 3, 2014
 
 

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