Susan Marie Dopp: Lacewing
Paul Horgan Gallery
October 7, 2023 – April 7, 2024
Artist Talk and Reception: Friday, October 6, 5:30-7 p.m.
Roswell-based artist Susan Marie Dopp has never stopped experimenting or evolving in her nearly 60-year career. Fluent in an impressive array of materials, methods, and styles, self-transformation has been her lifework and her gift lies in visualizing, creating, and sharing her capacity of building an imaginative, immersive world. Dopp’s latest creations reveal an immense amount of creativity through decades of expertise in art making. “I am happiest when I have no idea where I’m going,” Dopp says. “I am content in discovery, at my best when I am at play.” The illuminated sculptures-in-motion she has been working on over the past several years have given new life to objects abandoned by contemporary society. “There is a freedom, as these objects have previously been given form, which allows me to interact in unexpected and unpremeditated, perhaps, more playful and inventive ways,” she says. Dopp’s solo exhibition entitled Lacewing is on display in the Roswell Museum’s Paul Horgan Gallery from October 7, 2023 to April 7, 2024.
Born in Fort Hood, Texas in 1951, Dopp began drawing and painting at the age of 14. She was blessed with parents who encouraged her creative expression. Dopp predominantly grew up in Washington, DC where she took art classes on Saturdays at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Also in DC, the National Gallery of Art with its early Renaissance Italian paintings deeply inspired her and led her to first express herself through figurative painting. As the depiction of radiance was important in Renaissance painting, so too was Dopp thinking about how her work was interacting with light and visual perception. Dopp explains: “The beautiful jewel-like qualities of oil paint result from light traveling through the viscous substance of the medium, say linseed oil, in which the colored pigment is suspended and bouncing off the fragments of pigment and refracting light back to the eye.” Dopp moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1979 where she received a BFA in 1984 and MFA in 1987, both from the San Francisco Art Institute.
In 1988, Dopp was granted the prestigious Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Award. Established in 1967 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the annual award recognizes emerging Northern California artists with a cash grant and an exhibition at the museum. The 1988 SECA Art Award announcement read, in part, “Working with striking imagery and unusual materials, Dopp crafts a world which is mysterious, dream-like, and highly personal,” and in the exhibition wall text, Peter Samis wrote her “finely crafted images draw upon the techniques of several traditions, and unite them in a contemporary form of personal mythmaking.” And it was with her figurative paintings that she continued exploring installation art by using how her paintings were displayed and the addition of environmental objects ranging from furniture to plants to actualize the physical replication of her inner mystical world for others to experience. Her figurative, mixed media paintings at this time were often compared to artists in the Surrealist movement decades prior. Seeking to distinguish herself, Dopp is quoted as saying in 1988, “Unlike the Surrealists who placed random images in unusual juxtapositions to describe the workings of the unconscious, I assemble forms and symbolic images of personal significance to express specific dreams and conscious as well as unconscious states of being.”
Very soon after receiving the SECA Art Award, Dopp was accepted into the Roswell Artist-in-Residence (RAiR) cohort of 1988-1989. The solo exhibition at the Roswell Museum resulting from the residency was entitled Susan Marie Dopp: Recent Paintings on display June 18-July 23, 1989. The Roswell Museum curator at that time, Wesley Rusnell, wrote “Much of the image-vocabulary she has relied on until now arrived spontaneously in her conscious mind through the discipline of hypnogogic reverie; a method of tapping the personal unconscious as described by the 20th century Swiss psychoanalyst-writer, Carl G. Jung.” The seeds sewn for the world-building evident in her contemporary work were recognized at this time. In the 1988 San Francisco Bay Guardian article Dreamscapes: Dopp’s works turn the waking world topsy-turvy, Harry Roche wrote of Dopp’s paintings, “Like the often strange or surprising imagery unleashed as one nods off to sleep, hers is a world in which the laws governing a Newtonian universe simply do not apply: What goes up may stay up or appear on the verge of vanishing like a puff of smoke… Hers is a realm chock-full of inexplicable events that turn the humdrum predictability of the waking world topsy-turvy. Quite simply, this is a place ruled by the illogical, the irrational and the fantastic.” This realm of the fantastic was very real and clearly visible to Dopp through her dreams and represents a through-line of subject matter throughout her career from these dream-like paintings to her current sculptures. In the catalog essay for the 1988 exhibition The Precious Object at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Atholl McBean Gallery, curator Richard Pinegar wrote “The world of dreams is a world of gorgeous impossibilities. Every object, every person and animal, is illuminated from within. The paintings of Susan Marie Dopp are magical objects, transcending the objectivity of the picture plane… They draw us into the artist’s private world, her freezing of a moment of spiritual discovery.” Fast-forward to 2023 and this statement can be equally relevant of Dopp’s Lacewing sculptures. They are illuminated from within and can be understood as magical objects or talismans guiding us into and through the artist’s inner, spiritual world. Her current sculptures effectively build upon the dreamy, magical paintings she was making in the 1980s.“Either through conscious or unconscious process,” Laurie Rufe, then the Roswell Museum's Assistant Director, wrote in 1989, “Dopp has developed a glossary of motifs, often recurrent, that alludes to fragments of self-evolution and experience.” The building of this glossary has been Dopp’s lifework, intuitively growing year-after-year and providing different forms of entry portals, inviting us into her inner world. “It seems to me,” Dopp says, “that art is an almost direct reflection of the artists' psychological and emotional state at the time of its creation. One can read paintings if one understands the language of paint. Or other mediums, for that matter.”
Between Dopp’s first RAiR residency in 1988-1989 and her second RAiR residency in 2007-2008, the artist and her visual language continued to transform and evolve from the figurative to the abstract. The artist devoted twelve years to expressing herself through the language of geometric abstraction. In 2008, Dopp reflected on changes in her practice during the 1990s and early 2000s: “In 1997 I became interested in translating the inner quiet and tranquility I was experiencing in my meditation practice into the language of paint. Beginning in 1995, my attempt to address these experiences through the literal and objective approach of figuration proved to be unsatisfactory. I have since been engaged in an attempt to reach beyond the boundaries of the dimensional world, working within the geometry of pure form… early explorations led to a body of work I refer to as ‘Tessellations,’ employing geometric patterns which tessellate and the optical effects manufactured by these relationships. Contrasting colors and the repetition of patterns act upon the brain, affecting its visual apparatus and the ways the brain interprets this information… In 2004, my series ‘Dynamic Equilibrium,’ evolved through the employment of singular fundamental ingredients, exacting compositional contingencies and color relationships to reach a balance between tension and rest which is alive, vibrant and resilient while simultaneously peaceful and soothing. This hermetic work, evolving from a contemplative internal and visual process, requires an investment of time to allow for the color harmonies and compositional pulse to become activated… My ‘Cluster,’ and ‘Ether,’ series, inclusive of previous concerns, involve forms based on geometric configurations, a relational interactivity of compositional tensions, intricate color relationships, optical effects and geometric complexities.”
Many of these explorations in abstraction she was engaged with at this time can be seen in Dopp’s current sculptures moving from two-dimensional, optical tessellations to three-dimensional objects that move and are illuminated from within and without. Dopp’s Ether series was the focus of her 2008 solo exhibition at the Roswell Museum. In the introductory essay to the catalog for this exhibition, Taney Roniger wrote: “To behold the paintings in Susan Dopp’s Ether series is to be quietly beckoned into a strange new world. As inviting as it is unfamiliar, the world that opens up before us is a world of pure form, a world that transcends our usual sense of space and time and hovers somewhere in a dimension of its own… The shapes, aggregates, and clusters that occupy this dimension are of a higher order of complexity than the circles and squares of Euclidian geometry. And yet as irregular as the forms are, a discernible order asserts itself in the reappearance of many of the same elements across the series, suggesting a kind of symbolic language whose meaning defies logical understanding. Logic and reason being inadequate to the task, we realize that if we are to enter this world, another kind of knowing will be needed. A universal order is established in Dopp’s realm by way of a subtle irregular grid that pervades the space of all the paintings. Barely visible from a distance, the delicate lines that make up this grid suggest threads in a kind of metaphysical fabric that renders the world a
Top: Susan Marie Dopp, Lacewing (detail), 2022, Mixed Media, Photograph by Tonee Harbert, Courtesy of the Artist.
Bottom: Susan Marie Dopp, Carapace, 2021, Wire Fencing, LED Lights, Tracing Paper, Theater Gels, Photograph by Tonee Harbert, Courtesy of the Artist.
unified whole. By virtue of this all-pervasive grid, we know we are not gazing into an empty space, punctuated here and there by forms, but rather into a space that has as much substance as the forms it envelops. Subtle fluctuations in the weight of the lines indicate that this is no dead, mechanical space; it is very much alive, and its pulse activates everything it contains, sending subtle vibrations to all its inhabitants. Nothing is arbitrary inside this world. Within each painting, the forms and configurations are suspended in an exquisitely complex equipoise, replete with tensions and counter-tensions, all perfectly balanced in relation to each other. One senses that the displacement of a single form just a hair’s breadth to the right or the left would upset the whole cosmic order, that even the slightest rupture would send the symphonic harmony spiraling into cacophony.” While written about Dopp’s paintings from 2007-2008, most of this description can be applied to the three-dimensional, navigable world Dopp created for Lacewing.
Dopp’s 2015-2020 expansive project My Thoughts Eat Leaves serves as a material and conceptual bridge between her abstract paintings of the early 2000s and her newest sculptures-in-motion. Having dedicated several years to two-dimensional geometric abstraction works, Dopp ultimately found this form was not the ultimate manifestation of what she sought to express in her artistic practice. Frustrated with the limitations of the painted object, she eventually arrived at a complete physical incapability of continuing the work in that form. In a 2019 statement about My Thoughts Eat Leaves, Dopp wrote, “Representing a major breakthrough in my process resulting from my total inability to any longer ‘paint inside the lines,’ I began creating simple handcrafted sculptures using cardboard, gouache and found or sculpted objects. Indescribably liberating after a very uncomfortable… year, of not knowing how or with what I wished to make my work, I suddenly found that I had given myself permission to play.” In viewing the installation of these objects, including hand-altered lamps, it is clear the permission she gave herself to play resulted in her most recent Lacewing works.
If Dopp’s earlier works, such as her dream-like figurative paintings and her two-dimensional geometric abstract compositions can be considered invitations or windows into the artist’s inner, spiritual world, the fully immersive Lacewing can be understood as the fantastical world itself that we as outsiders can experience first-hand. Back in 1989, Wesley Rusnell described Dopp’s figurative paintings as “luminous and jewel-like.” Her Lacewing sculptures, aptly, also can be described in this way. Instead of being figuratively or merely optically luminous, the moving, three-dimensional objects are literally illuminated from multiple sources. The intricately formed objects suspended from the ceiling and constructed mostly from upcycled materials, can be considered themselves jewels and, simultaneously, as an agglomeration of multiple jewels.
Lacewing is comprised of multiple, internally lit sculptures suspended from the ceiling in a dark environment. Most of the suspended sculptures are formed from abandoned scraps of metal the artist scavenged, then they are wrapped in stretched and glued strips of tracing paper, and into the tracing paper surfaces are cut small windows of geometric shapes. Solid color, partially transparent theater gels are inserted into the windows. There are two sources of light. LED string lights in most of the sculptures shine through the tracing paper and gel windows. Directional LED lights of various colors in the gallery ceiling provide the only other light source in the space and they project complimentary and tertiary shadows from the sculptures’ forms onto the walls and floor. A fully immersive experience is achieved as the suspended sculptures rotate to a musical composition from Agustin Lucho Pozo Galvez's album Little Buddha.
The name of this series of sculptures and the installation they comprise came to the artist in a moment of rest and reverie while she was working in her studio: “my eyes rested on a dead Lacewing moth on the table in front of me. I have always been fascinated by these tiny, delicate insects with their light pale green bodies and their diaphanous, transparent wings. The structure of the wings closely resembles the sectional skeletons of my sculptures.” The transparent spaces of this creature’s wings mimic the tracing paper of Dopp’s sculptures while the veins on the moth’s wings resemble the upcycled metal understructures of her sculptures.
Originally written about Dopp’s geometric abstraction works Ether by Taney Roniger in 2008, this statement seems even more appropriate now with regard to Lacewing: “Given sufficient time, and the willingness to let one’s self go, one can be taken into the realm of these strange forms, into a full participation in the rhythms and vibrations that animate their space.” Dopp has indeed invited us into a world she has created, protected, in a way, from our own day-to-day life stresses. Through this gesture of generosity we are free to spend as much or little time in this environment moving, meditating, or simply returning, if only temporarily, to a state of child-like wonder. “I want to speak of hope and serenity, while never forgetting the unendurable pain and terror,” Dopp says. “I want to make nonsense, order, complexity, and fragility. I want to make it like the song of the diaphanous wings of the Lacewing moth.”
This immersive installation at the Roswell Museum marks the debut of the artist’s series of sculptures entitled Lacewing. The exhibition will kick off with an artist talk at 5:30pm on Friday, October 6 followed by an opening reception. In addition to participating in the RAiR program twice and the prestigious SECA Art Award, Dopp’s accolades include an award from the Pollack-Krasner Foundation, two Yaddo fellowships, and a Fleishhacker Foundation Eureka Fellowship. Her extensive exhibition record includes venues such as Argazzi Art in Connecticut, the Berkeley Arts Center in California, Budapest Gallery in Hungary, the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, Gail Severn Gallery in Idaho, Galleria Posada in Sacramento, Hosfelt Gallery in New York and San Francisco, Lehmann Maupin Gallery in New York, the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, Palo Alto Cultural Center in California, Parker/Zanic Gallery in Los Angeles, the Richmond Art Center in California, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the San José Institute of Contemporary Art, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, Susan Cummins Gallery in California, and the Triton Museum of Art in California, among others. Her work is in countless private collections as well as in the collections of the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art in New Mexico, New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, the Roswell Museum in New Mexico, and the San José Museum of Art in California. For more information about the artist, visit susanmariedopp.net.