A couple of weeks ago, when I visited Susan Hodgin in her studio at the Harrison Center for the Arts, she was getting ready for her show …dreamed and not perceived — and relishing all the extra space. Hodgin had just moved from another, smaller space in the Harrison to a new studio, spacious and well-lit, that seems better suited for her large-scale canvases.
“I don’t know where I put it all,” she told me, laughing a little. “I paint large. I like a lot of space. I like a lot of light. So I’m lucky to have this space.”
I first saw Hodgin’s work in 2009, while she was still in her older, cramped space. On her canvases of that time, you could often see piles of variously-colored circles and ellipses that would form the foreground of an abstracted landscape. Often these accumulations resembled mountains. While I appreciated Hodgin’s use of color back then, and admired her work for its beauty, there was a certain lack of depth — in terms of three-dimensionality and not in subject matter — to some of her work that sometimes left me less than fully engaged.
What I didn’t know at the time was that Hodgin was ready to move on from this style. In fact, she felt that she had reached an impasse in her art. As she wrote in her MFA thesis essay, “These pile forms dominated my paintings, both thematically as well as visually. Solid and weighty, they were bound to the canvas by the law of gravity … By the time I entered graduate school, I was caught in this flat, hotly colored world.”
It was a prelude to an evolutionary leap in her artistic practice that took place during her work towards her Master of Fine Arts in a low-residency program at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Mass. She began the program in 2009 and received her MFA in 2011.
“I was in this program because I was ready to really push myself visually,” she said. “I’ve been slowly growing, evolving as an artist for years but I really wanted to accelerate. I really wanted the resources of a university program to help push me further than I was doing on my own. I started really incorporating a lot more lines, a lot more linear aspects into my work. I was going with my desire to paint extremely large. If I could always paint that big my life would be a very good one. I love painting extremely large so I just kind of indulge myself there.”
I first saw the fruits of this new approach to her art at the Indianapolis Art Center, at a 2010 faculty show. With its twisting gridwork of lines, its vast depths and its violent movements, her seven-panel, oil on canvas painting “Gale” looked like no depiction of a storm that I had ever seen. It was as if Hodgin had perceived a hurricane-strength storm through the eye of an MRI scanner and was transferring that reality to canvas.
I was curious about her composition of such works on canvas that seemed to combine elements of gestural painting with the more deliberative approach of, say, a 19th-century landscape painter.
Hodgin pointed to some work in progress leaning up against the studio wall by way of answer. “These three paintings right here they’re hideous right now because they’re underpaintings,” she said. “A lot is going to get painted out. A lot of color is going to be subdued… If it was beautiful from the beginning, it would be really hard for me to go in there and change it. Because for me, for my work, I have to have all that time and all those thin layers built up on it. It’s never going to be done in just the first couple of swipes of the brush no matter how beautiful those look.”
This process leads to stunning compositions in terms of color, which leads some people to tell her that her work is about color. She says, however, that this isn’t the case.
“In all honesty color is once again very secondary to subject matter,” she said. “And color to me functions more as value than color. Value is what creates volume if you’re working on a piece. Thank goodness most of us are able to experience color but we could function just fine in a black and white world. That said, we could not function in a world without value, without light and shadow.”
In Hodgin’s recent work I was able to see her working with value — with shadow and light — to create a sense of vastness and space. It is, all in all, a completely different kind of landscape than I saw back in 2009.
This difference also relates to a 1797 essay by Edmund Burke entitled “A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” that Hodgin seems to have taken to heart. Per Burke it’s the sublime — which has the power to inspire and destroy — that’s a more compelling subject matter for artists than the merely beautiful.
Hodgin seems to be engaging the sublime in her new work. Take for example, her 2011 painting “Sunrise Climb on Mt. Baldy,” which relates to a climb she took in New Mexico when she was sixteen years old. In this painting, you encounter the vastness that you find in mountainous regions. And because one false step in these environments can send you flying off a cliff, there’s much that inspires reverence for—and fear of—the power of nature.
While her palette has evolved so much in the past two years, it’s perhaps ironic that Hodgin is often working with the same mountainous subject matter that she has dealt with in the past. However, this Indy-based artist, who graduated North Central High School in 1996, isn't always returning to the same landscape — i.e. the greater Indy area — in terms of showing her art. She has upcoming exhibitions of her work in Minneapolis, Madison, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio (a solo show at the Cultural Arts Center) — in addition to her big solo show at the Harrison on Friday.
“Showing big here doesn’t mean a whole lot to people in Boston,” she said. “But showing small in Boston could mean a whole lot to people in Indiana. So I think it just has to do with Indiana having too little self-esteem for its own good. We’ve got a lot of good things going on here. We don’t give ourselves enough credit. We rely too much on the rest of the country to determine how they think about us. And we’re actually a lot cooler than that. “