Susan Sommer’s recent works are painted with a hard-won confidence of intense dedication and perseverance. This assurance is made immediately evident by the bold application of oil to canvas coupled with a sure sense of color abstraction. Her “plein air abstractions” began in 2001 in upstate New York, continuing the tradition of out-of-door nature painting in the Catskill region which dates back two centuries.
Sommer’s signature style continues to be her free and vigorous brushwork, laden with deeply sensuous color and guided by keen intuition. Her expansive array of interlaced bundles of brush strokes blurs or obliterates recognizable imagery. These works are characterized by a painterly complexity of overlapping ovals and rectilinears in which nuanced forms coalesce with softening or thickening areas of color. The deep emotions embodied within the inchoate shapes give these works their power and life. Sommer often outlines her shapes with thick, flooded bands which tend to slow down the viewer’s eye. In other paintings, she employs delicate thin lines which quicken considerably the velocity of the forms.
The shimmering light of Sommer’s art, so alive and vibrant, reveals forms which are surprising suggestions of physical reality. Although these subliminal abstract shapes vary from picture to picture, they proclaim her recurring theme of nature. Sommer’s singular vision of the natural world is strongly focused, yet her abstraction is often brimming with ambiguity. This paradoxical approach does not compel her to give up the world she inhabits.
The soft, sensuous light of her compositions corresponds to a more generalized vision of the natural world, yet also resonates with the specific locales where the artist lives and works. This sense of place, emanating from her vivid memories of the verdant lushness of the bucolic topography of rural upstate New York and the sun-drenched Caribbean islands is immediately palpable. Still, the dynamic rhythms of her home base in man-made New York City is evident in more subtle ways, especially in certain quick passages of her more euphoric paintings.
Town and country combined with a potent dose of the tropics give these paintings a jolt which separates Sommer from other third and fourth generation New York School Abstract Expressionists. Her debts to deKooning, Kline, Newman, and Hofmann is apparent but never redundant. Their spirit can be found in reflected patterns of urban landscape which occur even in her most botanical works. Sommer manages to deflect the stream of this patriarchal abstraction into a personal idiom of her own making. By avoiding the familiar feminist ploy of emasculating the male-dominated gestural painting of prior decades, she more than holds her own by enriching Abstract Expressionism’s vocabulary of color and form. With her deliberate adherence to a great American tradition, instead of following a knee-jerk iconoclasm, her work has become increasingly expansive. The current paintings encompass a microcosm of all possible worlds, amalgams of human, plant, mineral, and animal worlds. By evading direct topographical descriptions, the viewer is rewarded with a spontaneous sense of being there.
Sommer’s paintings have the power to evoke many moods: the light quality and coloration of clouds and sky under contrasting meteorological conditions, the luminosity flooding over vast meadows and hills, mist waves and fog-drenched water, sun-shimmering seas, rock and mineral outcrops, interior densities of woods, and reflected light. Certain of her paintings encode quite specific pastoral locales, yet more typical of her works are the amalgams of memories of diverse points on the compass which merge and overlap within a single canvas. She is able to realize this simultaneity through her fluid sense of space. Deep space as well as close-up effects make seamless transitions due, in part, to the open-ended liquid quality of her compositions.
In terms of technique, the more fluid her painting style becomes, the more it serves to express her cognitive self with an unfettered directness that leaves no barriers between the artist and her expressions. Sommer’s own brush, so sensitive to the undulations and irregularities of impasto, responds to the volatile paint medium from deep within her unconscious. After many years of attempting to achieve this deceptively easy fluidity by overcoming the inherent anomalies and limitations of her materials, these recent works attest to the complexity and formidability of the progress she has made.
Sommer’s over-all tonal harmony consists of the deft placement of light colors over dark and warm colors over cold in inexhaustible combinations and variations. Her layered hues contain a wide diversity of mixes, intensities, and degrees of clarity. In particular, the radiance of Sommer’s subcolors enhances the experience of decoding the displacement of her spontaneous forms. Vibrant tonal gradations result from alternating colorful whites and off-whites of creamy radiance with opulent high-keyed flaring tones. Her highly personal utilization of color, based on years of improvisation and experimentation, reaches far beyond conscious perception and avoids the necessity of literal representation.
Sommer’s mastery of the brush stroke is engulfed in the grand spectacle of nature, continuously transforming and refining conventional space into a dynamic space of great emotional power. The paintings bear witness to the gravitational pulls effecting our planet and evoke seasonal variety and atmospheric changes with an enveloping sense of sublime light and a love of art. In our post-modern age it is refreshing to encounter a painter whose work eschews emotional detachment, yet is oblivious to the ideological hype of our soundbite mass culture. Sommer’s forceful gestural paintings, bathed in dazzling light linger as dreamscapes heavily laden with residual memory of pain, anxiety, and triumphant exuberance, linking the transcendental aspirations of man and nature.
Dr. Metzger recently retired from the Reading Public Museum, where he served as Director and Art Curator. He was previously Director of the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art at the Stamford, Connecticut Museum and Director of the Center Gallery at Bucknell University. He also was a Professor of Art at Bucknell and at the University of Bridgeport. He earned his doctorate at University of California, Los Angeles.