In Susan Cofer’s drawings one finds a range of composition from mild and gentle to bold and troubled. They range from figurative to abstract and their approach to their subject matter leaves a curious viewer with plenty of room to wonder–about creation, sin, beauty and the fragility of life.
Most of Cofer’s drawings in this survey since about the mid-1980’s are composed of vertical pencil strokes carefully applied to reveal both imaginary and realistic detail. In an interview on the High.org website, Cofer said that her preference for vertical strokes comes from her feeling that they are easier than horizontal strokes, allowing a meditative process. Perhaps similar to the chanting of a mantra, the repetition of a standard stroke may induce a mood of calm. I’m not sure I agree that a vertical stroke is, in general, easier than a horizontal stroke. Still, as with a meditative mood, it may be that the vertical stroke encourages a movement of diving downward; meeting the surface of a thing and then going beneath that surface; going deep.
Some of the drawings display natural landscapes that are mostly devoid of evidence of a human presence. The view tends to be from a great distance. A view from the middle distance is rare. The vertical strokes suggest motion, perhaps the vibration of the earth, a motion-pattern apparently knowable through observation, though the knowledge gained is not explicitly set out here. Most of the other drawings take their small subjects in close-up view. From the mid-1980’s forward we see so many drawings that take as their subject: a seed, a fruit’s flesh, an embryo of uncertain species, womb-like abstractions, some phallic shapes. Perhaps the artist’s meditation on a landscape leads to meditation on one small element of that landscape. This may lead to a problem: Diving below the surface for answers, we frequently find . . . more surfaces.
In my view the pivotal series of drawings here is the set of 16 drawings that focuses on the story of Eve’s time in Eden. Again we see the fruit, the womb-like images, and a snake. The drawings’ titles remind us of the natural setting of a wooded paradise, mostly devoid of people; of the innocence of exploration, of questions borne of curiosity. In one drawing there appears a small, dark, beastly face-shape. We know that sin is present, the danger of fatal punishment, and sinister purpose.
After viewing the Eve drawings I sensed that Cofer’s art wants to make a path toward the secrets of creation. The images of embryos and vessels and reproductive organs and early stages of biological development seem to be crucial as subjects because of their apparent proximity to creation. The artist is passionately curious, wants to “Draw Near,” as the exhibit is called. And yet there is hesitation in the work. Cofer’s colors are very mild, and perhaps even vague until the mid-1990’s, when we begin to see purer greens, violets, and reds. Is that a hesitating shyness, or is there an ethical concern about curiosity here? Perhaps the artist imagines that Eve was punished for being curious, and if so, couldn’t the artist be punished for the same offense?
This is only my speculation about Cofer’s drawings. Still, it seems to me that the limitations and dangers of curiosity are very relevant to our time. Intellectual inquiries are frequently dismissed as pretentious or even dangerous to creativity and productivity. On the other end of the scale, science is testing the limits of ethics with its study and use of reproductive technology.
For me, Cofer’s work stimulates questions about whether curiosity is always innocent, among many other compelling themes.
Susan Cofer’s “Draw Near” was on view at the High Museum through February 10, 2013.
Resource: To view the interview with Cofer currently (early February 2013) on the High Museum’s website, http://www.high.org, visit http://youtu.be/sAM7wgw951s .
Lines of Impulse and Deliberation
Drawings by Susan Cofer
Both to creator and viewer drawings offer a fulfillment of personal, intimate nature. The marriage of such private experience with transcendence through art is one of the reasons why for so long in the tradition of connoisseurship drawings have held exalted status. To draw is to contemplate and deliberate on the inception of art. While Susan Cofer does honor this tradition, in her work one sees no trace of the customary drawing techniques involving outlines and cross-hatching. The artist herself explains: “I have my own rules about how I make art. Those rules began when I drew one vertical line and moved my hand to allow a space before I drew one parallel to it. That space, which is in every drawing, is the key to my work—what I can’t draw, can’t say, can’t prove is what is most important to me. […] The first lines are more often without deliberation—like casting a line onto the water hoping something will bite.”
Unmistakably defined by their corresponding areas of unmarked paper, these pencil marks emerge as analogues of the prominent brush work in modernist painting. Susan draws in the manner in which Post-Impressionists painted. Her disciplined strokes seem to be a deliberate reference to Cezanne’s insistence on his analytical rendition of nature onto the canvas. Yet instead of the proverbial flattening of three-dimensional forms Susan creates voluminous images with a distinct sculptural quality. She explains the inner logic of this: “[…] Once the white of the paper was covered with a line I could not erase it. It was like carving the white. I always felt that painters could cover their mistakes or even sand them off but my line was closer to a knife.”
The art-historical premise of these drawings is not a goal in and of itself; instead it is devised to serve as an authoritative language of speaking about the human experience. Drawing for Susan is an absorbing, meditative process of interiorizing the formalist modernist legacy with all its male-chauvinist overtones and gesticulations and infusing it with feminine content. Several of her drawings candidly display genital themes featuring labial, glandular, or ovular forms, distinguished by serenity and lyricism. Years ago a famous Atlanta gallery went so far as to refuse to display those works because it deemed them pornographic. Susan’s art does have a carnal quality of startling directness, but it is far more than the simply pornographic. It is as if her drawings of anatomical specimens have metamorphosed on the paper into a state of heightened insight into human nature, one infused with the maternal sentiments of acceptance and forgiveness. Contemplate the dark and the bright and embrace your nature, Susan urges herself and us with an uncompromising tenor of an ethic maximalist and a stoic. In response to some past persistent comments, meant dismissively, that her drawings were too feminine, Susan Cofer says: “Somewhere along the way I began to think that this was an important gift. I could make art showing how a woman thought, how she sees. Would you believe if I told you that this took a lot of inner courage on my part?”
Susan Cofer came to my college art class around 1995 to give a brief lecture. She showed us some of her work and talked about her approach to the work. She said that day that all art comes from four words:
…and even though it was almost twenty years ago, I think about that all the time.
Thanks for your comment Carissa. Amazing that that has stayed with you for so long. The four words definitely resonate in the drawings I saw at “Draw Near.”