Susan Sommer has given her body of work from 2013 the name “Progression” – a telling moniker, as it bespeaks the painter’s own awareness of her evolution. Sommer still takes full inspiration from nature in her painting; indeed, she credits a very specific natural phenomenon, the markings on and movements of the monarch butterfly, which inspires this series. But she has “progressed” in her apprehension of nature, out of a generalized appreciation of the natural environment (specifically the wooded landscape she inhabits, in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City) and towards a more specific, even deliberately ordered response.
To be sure, Sommer’s previous paintings display a structural cohesion that emphasizes both the order into which natural phenomena fall and the human tendency to recognize such pattern. Her various series have distinguished themselves from one another primarily by their coloristic and, especially, compositional similarities, similarities she made sure to nurture and even to amplify. In the “Progression” paintings Sommer has taken this sense of cohesive pattern one step further. Where once brushstrokes comprised the basis of Sommer’s formal vocabulary, in these works actual shapes emerge beyond her painterly gesture. Such shapes are still defined by such gesture; but their contours here seem formalized rather than improvisational, occurring at regular intervals – much as similar forms recur in the intricate markings on the wings of butterflies.
The shapes are inspired perhaps more, however, by the overall shape of the butterflies’ wings than by their specific markings. The simple forms Sommer sets in motion she describes in a positive-negative relationship with the implied vegetation that still dominates her paintings. Her palette remains deep, warm, and verdant in the works in “Progression,” describing not so much the monarchs’ bodies but the ecology that nurtures them.
Further, Sommer makes sure to pace her evocations of winged creatures with a rhythmic grace, an almost choreographed regularity that she has noted in the appearance of monarchs: they can appear several at a time, seemingly dancing in tandem, describing parallel arabesques in the air. Even their solo flights are poised and august in comparison to other flying creatures, even smaller butterfly species. Was it Sommer’s regard for monarchs’ elegant kinesis that provoked memories of her childhood ballet training, or, conversely, did a recollection of such training make apparent to her the balletic motions of the monarchs? Even the artist is not sure – nor does it much matter. The paintings manifest neither recollection nor reaction so much as they do reflection, an in-the-present response to the alignment of natural movement with somatic memory.
The demands classical ballet makes on the body constitute an elaborate compromise between what the human body can do and what humans wish it could do. There is nothing we wish our bodies could do more than fly, whether it’s to soar like birds or flit like butterflies, and ballet is full of kinetic tropes evoking the condition of flying. The relatively languorous flight of monarchs and slow, paced beating of their wings allows their movements to be observed by the human eye over extended periods – and thus to be compared most directly to human movement, mundane and fanciful. Moving away from the physical and the embodied, but staying in the natural and the musical, Susan Sommer has determined an analogous means of conveying flight, dance, insect behavior, and human vision all at the same time, in a medium and format at once entirely foreign and entirely of a piece with insects and humans and the troposphere they share.
Peter Frank is Senior Curator at the Riverside Art Museum of Riverside California and is art critic for Angeleno Magazine and the LA Weekly. He is also contributing Editor for Art Ltd magazine and contributes to ArtNews, Art on Paper and Artweek.
He has organized exhibitions for the Guggenheim Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Religious Art and is currently preparing a show with the forthcoming Venice Biennale