Tibor de Nagy Gallery
724 Fifth Ave.
New York, NY 10019
212 262 5050
October 9 to November 8,
Susanna Coffey Self
Portrait (Eris) 2003
oil on panel, 12 x 15 inches
Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery
Susanna Coffey is a truly
gifted painter and a repellent artist. I love her paint-her hand-but
can not stand looking at her work. She has no subject matter that extends
beyond her own narcissism. The focal point of every canvas is her own
head, relentlessly fixed to the central axis. And an unpleasant head
it is: brash, assertive in its sourness, a little crude. So much knowledge
about the character and behavior of paint, such a keen eye for color,
exquisite tonal control, surfaces to die for-all of it adding up to
. . . to what? It is the Cindy Sherman script done up in oils. Smart-ass
exhibitionism for the uptown trade.
Susanna Coffey lit from below.
Susanna Coffey lit from behind. Susanna Coffey in drag of one kind or
another. Susanna Coffey in a baseball cap turned backwards. Susanna
Coffey in the same cap straight up. Susanna Coffey in a bathing cap,
maybe. Susanna Coffey in eyegear with sparkles. Without sparkles. Susanna
Coffey with a blue butterfly stamped on her forehead. (Sorry, that was
last time. It all blurs together.) This year's line-up reaches for social
significance with three views of Susanna Coffey against a backdrop suggesting
some holocaust or other. But which one? Don't ask. It is only the pose
I can see the next exhibition
already: Susanna Coffey and the Staten Island Ferry; Susanna Coffey
and the Gaza Strip. Susanna Coffey and the rockets' red glare. You get
This year's exhibition includes
one wall of small, identically sized [5 x 10 inches] flower paintings.
More casually brushed, lacking the luscious surface depth of her signature
self-portraits, they almost seem to have been painted by someone else.
Each flower stalk-here a rose, there a tulip or bird-of-paradise-lies
lengthwise in obedience to a display formula. The cookie-cutter format
suggests commercial convenience. At $3,800 each, these are intended
for the shallow-pocket collector who wants a Susanna Coffey but won't
pay up for the real thing.
In a pre-emptive move to
deflect the obvious, anticipated criticism of Coffey's head show, Mark
Strand plays offense by asserting that her parade of heads reveals the
difference between subject matter and content. Each of these faces ("a
record of its own emergence") is not guided by likeness but represents
rather "the creation of a painting self."
Nice try, Mark. But this
is one of those counterfeit distinctions that come in handy for catalogue
essays. And it sidesteps the issue of why anyone should care whether
what emerges from these files is Susanna Coffey or the Cheshire Cat
. The "painting self" is the living woman who sets out her
palette while she finishes a second cup of coffee and reminds herself
to call the dentist before lunch. What appears on canvas is no self
at all. It is a construction, a self-referential fiction with no plausible
reference to anything past range of a deadening solipsism.
To his credit, Strand limits
his catalogue blurb to one paragraph. That in itself is refreshing but
certainly appropriate here. There simply is not that much to say. And
it is discouraging to see a large gift put to such small purpose. These
heads are indeed records-of the banality and absence of conviction that
afflicts so many of even the best contemporary talents.