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Back from the Edge

· The Lede

Soft-spoken artist Suzan Woodruff allows a shade of annoyance into her voice. With a show at a major Los Angeles gallery about to open, she's been on the cover of ArtWeek. The attention is merited. Her recent canvases have an intensity that even her much-admired earlier work didn't quite approach. But the article didn't say much about her extraordinary painting. "The only questions they asked were about my life," she says.

Her life is the stuff of fiction, so it's understandable. Woodruff grew up outside Phoenix, Arizona, and spent her childhood riding her dirt bike in the desert. Her biography reads that she was raised by gold prospector grandparents and a bohemian mother, and she allows that along with the Western romance, there was an element of the Gothic. She became independent early, settling in L.A. and eventually marrying straight outta Queens, N.Y. novelist Bruce Bauman, an intellectual mensch about as far from Arizona gold prospectors as she could get. Yet she remained true to her vision of nature.

Woodruff has been called the spiritual and art historical heir to Joan Mitchell, Marina Abramovic, and Georgia O'Keefe, not because she borrows their craft or methods, but because of her "use of earth, air and fire...the totemic, pagan magic" of her paintings, as her friend, art critic Shana Nys Dambrot wrote. In 2003, working with Jack Brogan, fabricator to the California Light & Space artists, Woodruff designed a physically challenging moving easel - she calls it a gravity easel – an omni-directional pivoting table that brought new intensity to her work. Then cancer struck, and for three years, she could neither eat - she was forced to endure a feeding tube - nor speak normally. Many surgeries later, she is still recovering yet as soon as she was able, she returned to the one of the ultimate desert experiences, riding a mule to the depths of the Grand Canyon.

Talking to her, I wonder aloud if abstraction becomes more compelling as we grow older, if we no longer need the instruction of the literal, the figurative.

"It gets closer to..." I was about to say "the eternal" but Woodruff broke in: "The abyss."

JOURNAL. How do you think you fit into the taxonomy of California/Western artists? Who do you consider your contemporaries? Artists with similar influences, either national or International.

SW: I think I fit in the light and space movement, and finish fetish movement especially with the new sculptures I’ve created for my new exhibition. I’m influenced by James Turrell, Ana Mendieta, Louise Bourgeois, Mark Rothko, and Georgia O’Keeffe. They are not often considered in the same group but they are my influences.

JOURNAL: Were there visual influences that struck you when you were young (as in very young?)

SW: The desert where I could ride all day on my dirt bike through the desert. I grew up next to a desert preserve. I only used trails that were already there. There was a lot of gold mining trails and mines. My grandfather taught me how to read the rocks for gold. I would draw and paint the landscape and storms when I was quite young.

JOURNAL: Can you give some idea of the machine (it’s a machine?) you use for your canvases? How much do you control

SW: My table turns and tips which gives me much control. I mix the paint on the panel as I’m turning and tipping and adding more paint. It’s like a natural occurrence and like chaos theory. One thing can change everything. I have to be open to changing the direction of the painting. Every piece comes out different.

JOURNAL: Critics have called your process “physically grueling.” Can you elaborate?

SW: My table is very large. I have painted as large as 6’ x10’ so it’s lifting and turning, so that requires physical strength and dexterity. I have to have total concentration. I finish the initial surface of the whole painting in one session. No matter how long it takes.
JOURNAL. Did the work change after the battle with cancer? (Sorry, it was in ArtWeek so I was going to mention it but only in passing.)

SW: It has changed. It’s wilder. Not as tranquil as it used to be. More charged up.

JOURNAL: Have you had a harder time because you’re based in the West?

SW: I think I’ve had an easier time. The art world is booming out here. People are much more open. I’ve had a lot of support from the art community.

JOURNAL: On that note, I’m sure you’re aware of trends in art. You seem to be able to hew to your vision. Is that a struggle?

SW: I don’t follow trends. I think you have to work from the heart. Taking everything with you into your art. I see nature influences even after the painting is finished.

Suzan Woodruff's solo exhibit, Back from the Edge, will be at the Billis Williams Gallery in Los Angeles, California May 11 - June 8, 2024. Opening Reception May 11, 4-7 p.m.

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"Back from the Edge" 48"x90"

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Cosmic Dust 48"x90"

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Dust Storm 50"x40"

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Rise 40"x50"

Painter ::: Bill Frissell

The Abyss ::: Kim Taylor

Morton Feldman ::: Rothko Chapel

Color ::: Marc-Andre Dalbavie

Painter’s Hands ::: Pieta Brown

Painting Box ::: The Incredible String Band

Primitive Painters ::: Felt

The Naked Dutch Painter ::: Stew

Close My Eyes ::: Redding Hunter