Susan Yanero, Early painting, Photo by Alan Feltus
Over the years I have encountered many painters whose work I have greatly admired and respected. Susan Yanero is one such painter. When I first saw her work in the 1970s, Susan Yanero was painting quiet self-portraits that brought to mind some of Rembrandt’s self-portraits in terms of composition and bold self-assuredness. At the same time, they had a surface energy and compositional structure that I associated with Abstract Expressionist Action Painting. In my eyes, Susan Yanero’s self-portraits seemed like paintings that Willem de Kooning in the late 1940s or Franz Kline in the mid 1950s could have made if either of them had decided to paint their own versions of female Rembrandt self-portraits. I make this analogy to describe more clearly what Yanero’s paintings are like in surface and temperament. As we know most, if not all, paintings lose a great deal in the scaling down and the distortions of color and surface when seen in reproduction.
Following the period of self-portraits, Yanero began a series of large canvases from small family photographs. They were paintings of children playing together that incorporated such things as a child’s red wagon with its wheels seen as elliptical discs of color and its handle a diagonal line in an opposing direction, or the broad curving ribbons of a maypole. What Susan Yanero painted was both elegantly drawn and visually fast moving, reduced to an essential geometry, nearly abstract; and within that structure she could paint the gentle innocence of a child’s face. These seemingly discordant bits of imagery worked perfectly together in her paintings.
Susan Yanero, Garbiel with Tiger, 51 x 41 inches
Yanero then gradually moved into a world in which her cast of characters played out dramas on a stage that is both circus and life as she knows it. Looking at these paintings, it is clear that Yanero internalizes her understanding of the paintings of past centuries in a kind of innocently direct and honest way, almost unconsciously. It is as though Duccio, Masaccio, and Uccello reside within her being. A little girl holding a cat or, in other paintings, holding a doll is borrowed indirectly from Madonna and Child images in Renaissance paintings, reborn as a Susan Yanero child, maybe her own child self. The girl who played with other children in her previous paintings now lives among circus clowns and vaudeville characters who are sometimes funny and sometimes sinister, a metaphor representing something more felt than known.
Susan Yanero’s paintings balance what is depicted and what is barely suggested. On top of and within the layers of paint exist structures and figures that may be no more than thinly drawn lines. And those passages, alongside strongly stated passages, make the paintings seem like something indistinct, the way memories and ideas behave in our dreams and our musings. The fainter marks are like remnants of an earlier image, or possible beginnings of something not yet fully stated, lending the paintings a sense of time that is not pinned down to a specific moment.
Susan Yanero, Protecting the Innocent, 2013, 39 x 55 inches
A Yanero painting is both abstract and figurative and, as such, it is as much about painting itself as it might be about the personal stories of this painter’s inner world. The image and its surface as paint exist in equal measure; both are strong, direct and unfaltering. Each part has been drawn and redrawn, eventually becoming what I see as a distillation of form and relationship that evolves out of necessity in the physical act of painting. The changes are made intuitively. And the paint at times becomes so thick that Yanero uses a disk sander to take the surface down in order to rework an area. She is fearless in her assaults on a painting.
Susan Yanero has made some large paintings that she refers to as ‘black” paintings. They issue forth from a dark place deep down inside and seem even more intensely personal. They are about mysterious, ominous forces that haunt her being. This, to my thinking, makes the “black” paintings stronger than those that appear to be more playful, which is not to say these are not also playful, or that her circus imagery is not similarly engaging and about how she sees life. Her circus also has dangerous, shadowy figures together with potentially ferocious animals interacting with children and domestic creatures. Her paintings are about the opposition between gentleness and danger. As I see it, the “black” paintings are unmistakably Susan Yanero’s hauntingly beautiful, complex world of imagery that expresses her humanity. In her words, the “black” paintings are about “the potential loss of innocence, although that innocence has protection through love”. Falling babies in one painting are “Giotto’s heap of babies, who were murdered by Herod.” I admire her work for its unpretentiousness, its vivid inner world and personal mythology. It is forceful and yet gentle. So personal and so surprising.
An excerpt from the memoirs of Alan Feltus, not yet published.
Alan Feltus, Studio Days, 2004, Oil on linen,43 1/4 x 31 1/2 inches, Courtesy of the Artist and Forum Gallery
Alan Feltus is a painter represented by Forum Gallery in New York, native of Washington DC,and has lived in the hills behind Assisi, Italy since 1987.