Susan Joseph: A Tribute
By Betty Ann Brown
Susan Joseph is both a talented visual artist and a gifted gallerist. It’s rare to find one or the other–but finding both in one person is truly extraordinary. Remarkably accomplished in both endeavors, Joseph is, if not unique, then certainly a rare and precious member of the Los Angeles art world. Joseph has decided to close the gallery and move to New Mexico. She will be missed.
Joseph was born in Westport, Connecticut, and grew up in Everett, Washington. She thought of herself as a poet and writer during her teen years but shifted towards the visual arts in her twenties. She completed a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree at Claremont Graduate University in 1986. One of her mentors was Roland Reiss, who writes, “Joseph is an artist’s artist. Her work has always been deeply moving, original, and very beautiful. She has done what every artist dreams of doing and with Groundspace Project over the years: She has helped many other artists striving to realize their dreams as well.”
Joseph supported her graduate studies working as a secretary, then administrator, then instructor at Claremont. She studied feminist art and theory, and founded the Feminist Discussion Group to support female students. Her feminist roots have remained paramount throughout her career: Joseph asserts that she has always thought of herself as “involved in feminist spirituality.”
The artist’s MFA exhibition was an installation entitled Stick Game. (Joseph took the title from a Native American gambling game based on sleight of hand.) Elegant, evocative forms were scattered through a darkened, chapel-like interior: The shadowy space was populated by a glass ladder, a wrecked rowboat, totemic poles punctuated by paper cocoons, and a light bulb suspended over a hanging sheet of glass. Joseph built a mystical realm in which the nature of light was exploited to create seductive refractions and reflections, and the laws of physics were inverted. Artist and writer Suvan Geer has described Joseph’s installations as “poetic evocations of abundance and scarcity in [a] non-linear, often sensual, intuitive vein,” adding, “it is in the gentle interlacings of nature and female sexuality with social institutions or cultural patterns that the work is most arresting.”
Throughout the 1990s, Joseph turned her attention from sculptural installations to the multimedia world of videos and computers. She created a website–PerfectBitch.net–that merged women’s artwork with feminist scholarship. And she produced series such as “Sotto Voce” (2005) that paired images of African Gray Parrots with stenciled texts. Joseph covered white paper with gesso and drew on it with chalk pastel, mostly in black and silver. The birds appear to beat their wings against the written words that encase them.
The stenciled texts became subject matter in Joseph’s “Zero” series, a group of drawings comprised of layer upon layer of stenciled zeroes, arranged to create biomorphic masses (plants? trees? flowers?) and hauntingly dark mirrors. One drawing depicts a silvery disc mounted on a geometric base. The disc’s mercurial surface shimmers with arabesques, rhythmically spiraling curves suggesting stems and tendrils.
Arabesques have been the basis for Joseph’s visual vocabulary for the several years. Intriguingly, this abstract form is also related to the artist’s feminist spirituality. The arabesque probably originated in the Ancient Middle East. Often, the shapes were presented as unending, infinitely repeatable. For Middle Eastern artists, curving arabesques like the ones Joseph employs–those based on flowing plant forms–represent both the life-giving feminine and the Islamic tenet of unity out of diversity. Sometimes, she layers multiple stenciled images of arabesques, so that the accretion of shapes builds dense, tightly knotted textures. At other times, she scatters the shapes over an open white ground so they appear to drift like air-born seeds through light-filled space.
In the last several years, the silvery surface of lead pencil marks and the matte depths of black chalk drawn on paper have given way to indigo and white paint on canvas or panel. The blue lends an aqueous shimmer to the decorative linear profusions, so that the biomorphic references float over watery depths. In her current one-person exhibition, Joseph’s blue on white paintings–paintings that sometimes have subtle pastel colors folded into the layered cerulean arabesques–surround us much like the installations she created more than forty years ago.
Artist, writer, and curator John David O’Brien writes of Joseph’s work, “The flourishes (o come diciamo in italiano: i ghirigori) she embellishes the world with, the white on deep blue are like the wisps she metaphorically leaves in the air in her slipstream as she moves on to her next destination: distant now but remembered as a clear sign in the ever mutable firmament of the city of angels.”
Joseph’s “Hopeful Monsters” exhibition is on display at Groundspace Project, the gallery space she opened in 2012 in her studio on East Fourth Street in Downtown Los Angeles. Throughout the ensuing years, Joseph has presented numerous one-person exhibitions, even more themed group exhibitions, and two juried shows. She also organized a series of holiday exhibitions to which dozens of artists donated small works to raise funds for the gallery space. The list of artists supported by and exhibited in Groundspace is impressive: Rolo Castillo, Susan Feldman, Fred Hoerr, Alexander Kritselis, Alan Nakagawa, and Yoshie Sakai all had solo shows. Among the artists included in group shows are: Jodie Bonassi, Bibi Davidson, Enzia Farrell, Deirdre Sullilvan-Beerman, Tslil Tsemet, Takeshi Kanemura and Snezana Saraswati Petrovic… The full list of artists is dozens and dozens longer. The volume in itself would be an impressive service to the local art community. But even more impressive is the caliber of artists Joseph has chosen to support. Rarely has a gallerist embraced so many truly high quality artists.
Susan Joseph often says that she conceived of Groundspace as an art project. If so, it embodies the same sustained high aesthetic as her own artwork. It has been a remarkable pair of accomplishments. What more can I say? Susan Joseph rocks.
Artist and friend Susan Feldman asserts, Susan has been a sweet, sensitive, creative, loving source of awe and inspiration in this ever-crazy LA art scene. Her perseverance and commitment to showing unique topical and relevant work has made a huge impact on this community and I will be forever grateful to her for sharing herself and her space with me.
Alexander Kritselis remarks about Susan’s importance in the Los Angeles art world. “Susan’s departure from the LA art sheen is a major loss to our art community and will create a vacuum hard to fill. Over the years with her Groundspace exhibitions she helped create a community of artists, art aficionados and art goers like no other and nurtured, with her uncompromising vision and sharp focus an exhibition venue, an island of pure art practice, on the edge of LA’s arts district, east of the LA river when very few other art galleries were taking such a risk. A great artist herself in a wide range of mediums always searching for new ways to express herself and a true pioneer, generous and gentle but firm in her conviction and desire to provide a special space for artists to show and share their work with their peers and the public. I will miss dearly her encouragement and loving support and wish her all the very best in her new adventure close to her family. I am certain she will find her special place in the American Southwest where I look forward visiting her one day soon! Bon voyage Susan!
“Sections of the above appeared first in Brown’s essay for Joseph’s exhibition catalogue.”