Tabula Rasa

by HRM on July 19, 2012

American-born Parisian artist works with both paint and pixels

Susan Cantrick

The division between the virtual and the material seems to be absolute. Contemporary artists bridge this gap by using technology as a creative tool, a tool which then lends itself to their tangible work. Susan Cantrick is one such artist.  She began painting after an injury interrupted her previous career as a violinist. Now her paintings evolve through a process of transposition/transformation, from canvas to computer and back again. Her most recent exhibition used Francis Ponge’s poem “The Pebble” as its point of departure, playing with scale and detail much as he did. Her studio, located in the 16e, is filled with a soft southwestern light; books are stacked in a corner, and Cantrick quotes the likes of Lyotard and Bourriaud from memory. Her paintings oscillate from hard to soft, flat to spacious; they tease and tantalize the eye as one tries to find where the line ends and the shape begins.

Boston Pebble - Susan Cantrick

What was the transition like from the violin to the canvas? What aspects of the creative process carried over, and what had to be learnt anew?
It was a welcome transition – a big relief, in other words, because the tendonitis was interfering seriously with my ability to play well, causing me constantly to overcompensate and underplay.  You can imagine the ensuing psychological conflict.  Now I can just be myself creatively, without the technical/physical dysfunction and its negative consequences.

The most obvious carryovers from playing the violin were the work ethic – the discipline of daily practice – and a basic knowledge of how creative practice unfolds; how it is marked by highs and lows, as well as plateaus.  How to deal with those – how not to trust in the highs too much, or be dragged down by the lows, and to know that the plateaus are temporary.   In other words, to realize and accept the positive role that uncertainty and doubt play in the creative process.

What was new:  the tabla rasa.  The performing musician interprets a pre-existing score; the visual artist—like the composer—creates from scratch. I also, of course, had to undergo a certain period of visual training—of observing and drawing/painting from observation, developing the kind of hand-eye coordination that is as important to abstract work as to the representational, at least in my view.

Susan Cantrick's studio

The change in career paths might have been a difficult one. Yet it would appear that, above all else, you have a powerful desire to create. Can you speak to this motivation and impulse?
It’s a compulsion that I suppose is innate.  Both my parents had strong creative streaks and lots of energy.  Wallace Stevens put it nicely: “ It is quite possible to have a feeling about the world which creates a need that nothing satisfies except poetry, and this has nothing to do with other poets or with anything else.”

How do you feel the French artistic culture to be different than its American equivalent?
I’ve never worked in the U.S. as a visual artist. However, what I observe from a distance —through reading and viewing the major online and in print critical and creative sources, as well as my relatively infrequent visits to American galleries and art institutions, is that the U.S. art scene still has the entrepreneurial edge (from high end to low). France (or at least Paris) seems to be more institutionally dominated.

I suspect that this has a lot to do with the way money is distributed in the two places—France has a ministry of culture—but also with the different intellectual traditions.  French contemporary art is quite academic, dominated by critical theory, so heavily conceptualist and relationalist, with the more traditional media, such as painting and sculpture, being for the most part under-supported by both galleries and institutions.  So I feel a bit deprived here of opportunities to see contemporary painting.

Susan Cantrick

Two examples of the difference between the current status of painting in the U.S. and France come to mind:  a recent review by Roberta Smith in the NY Times of no less than five simultaneous New York shows focusing on contemporary painting.  I can’t imagine such a parallel happening in Paris at the present time. The other example is the Amy Sillman show that just closed here, in a small gallery in Belleville.

Sillman is known as a painter.  This was reportedly her first showing in Paris, and there was not a single “painting” in the show, which consisted of one video plus a number of ink-jet prints of her i-phone drawings.  While I found this work stimulating – especially the video—I had a context for it, knowing Sillman’s painted work already.  I wondered, though, about Parisians who don’t know her painting being introduced to her in this way.

I may be wrong, but I can’t help but wonder whether the decision to show exclusively this digital media—and so little of it, in a small space — had something to do with the critical attitude toward (against) painting that persists here…

Susan Cantrick's studio

Your most recent exhibition, “ponge.pebble.paint,” was inspired by a poem, Francis Ponge’s “The Pebble.” Why this poem? What has it been like to return, over and over again, to the same starting point? (in a way, much like Ponge himself exhausted his own subject matter).
My introduction to Ponge came in 2008 with the publication of “Unfinished Ode to Mud,” a new English translation by Beverley Bie Brahic of a selection of his poems.  I was immediately attracted to his unsentimental humanity and sly humor.  Also to the way he uses language, achieving clarity in unexpected ways.  The latter, especially, resonated with my own goals as a painter.

As I recall, it struck me as I read “The Pebble” that I had an existing digital image that might lend itself to a project loosely associated with this poem.  It was as random as that.

The project is not an interpretation or illustration of the poem; it uses the poem and its themes as a starting point. I was interested in the fragmentation of an aggregate (rock, for Ponge, a painting, for me), the recontextualizing of the fragments through recombination, and the implications this deconstruction/reconstruction might have for scale change and the renewal of identity.

I would say that while my project was extensive, generating a lot of work, my approach was perhaps less systematically exhaustive of the subject than is Ponge’s.  That said, I did make a conscious effort, for the Boston show at least, to retain visible links between the “mother lode” – the large diptych – and the smaller “pebbles” that evolved from it.  So, in that sense, I did keep coming back to my original painting.  And though the project eventually took on its own identity, I did make an effort to come back to the poem from time to time to key into the themes I’d initially purported to investigate.  But I didn’t want to be a slave to the text, since my project was not intended to be an illustration or interpretation.

Susan Cantrick

Inspiration has come from other literary works, namely Beverley Bie Brahic’s collection Against Gravity, which you responded to with your book “the eye goes after.”  How do you make the transition from text to image?
It’s rare, so far, for me to use literary text in association with my work.  I find it tricky to associate text and image because of the temptation viewers have to read the imagery as an illustration, even when it is explicitly stated that illustration is not intended!

For me, in both instances – “the eye” and “ponge.pebble.paint” – it was a question of creating a visual experience that either parallels or spins off the text in some way.  “the eye” was more of a parallel while the process for “ponge.pebble.paint” was more of a spinning off.  In both cases, the texts were simply points of departure, albeit specific ones having unique vantage points.  As de Kooning said, “any subject will do.”  In other words, it’s possible to over-interpret the intentionality of these projects in terms of their literary sources.  But perhaps, in the end, there is a mutual enrichment, as in any good marriage…

Susan Cantrick

Your pieces seem to work towards the pre-linguistic, without identifiable objects. What does abstraction allow for in the perceiving subject? How does one then withdraw from the abstract and reenter the concrete, the everyday?
I would rephrase your statement by saying that I work from the sub-linguistic.  This is just a way of trying to situate myself in the creative act, which begins in the “abstract” mind but which is heavily influenced by “real” physical experience.  Thus “abstraction” and “reality” become problematic terms in this context when they are segregated and loaded with pre-conceived notions.

For that reason, I try to avoid using either term when talking about my work, which I feel unavoidably references the world I live in, even if indirectly. For me, the two really boil down to the same thing.  The most interesting “abstract” work, for me, looks familiar, even though you don’t really know what it is.

Where are you going from here?
I’m now working toward another solo show here in Paris in January 2013, which is enabling me to take advantage of the many ideas generated by the “ponge” project, as well as what I’m currently reading and viewing. With the new paintings, I am taking forward my concerns about scale and identity, including the identity of so-called abstract painting — what it is, what it can be.

More of the “ponge.pebble.paint” collection, as well as Cantrick’s other work, can be found at

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