master: a self-portrait by Susanna Coffey.
By David Brickman
College of Saint Rose Art Gallery, through Dec. 8
Rembrandt did it. Gauguin and Van Gogh did it. Probably every
art student and former art student on the planet has done
it. And Susanna Coffey has built a career out of it: looking
at herself in the mirror and painting a portrait.
But don’t be fooled by appearances. It is neither easy nor
facile to do what Coffey, through stalwart commitment, masterful
technique and deep reflection, has managed to accomplish as
a contemporary artist. In a postmodern world, where representational
painters have usually been put down in favor of conceptualists,
she stands between the proverbial rock and hard place, making
traditional art that also holds up intellectually.
Twenty-one of the New York City-based artist’s paintings are
on view at the College of Saint Rose Art Gallery; all but
a few of the pieces are unframed oils on linen or panel, and
they are modest in size, ranging from 8 inches by 10 inches
to 20 inches by 18 inches. Of the few framed works on paper,
there are a handful of similarly sized monotypes, and two
much larger pieces in oil paint, makeup and pastel (yes, face
The gray-walled Saint Rose gallery is ideal for artwork of
this intimacy—really large pieces simply couldn’t fit there—and
the paintings inhabit the room the way characters in a play
fill the stage: strongly present but each leaving enough room
for the other characters to speak and the audience to react.
And these paintings are in fact characters, all representing
different facets of Coffey, or personages she has created
What are they saying?
According to the artist, all appearances are mutable: The
more we look, the more identity may seem to change. Rather
than try to capture a crystal-clear moment in her paintings
(like a photograph, perhaps), Coffey builds up layers of impressions
over time, thereby recording these subtle transformations.
At first glance, the figures in the paintings all seem similarly
unembellished. But the more you look, the more small variations
take on importance: natural or artificial light, from above,
below or both sides; the addition or removal of a scarf; hair
up, down or braided; with earrings or sunglasses or strongly
colored makeup; with backgrounds lush or plain, indoors or
out; even the color of the mirror the artist views herself
What doesn’t change is the pose: face-front, mostly cropped
at the neck, in many cases with chin thrust out (defiantly?)
or seen from slightly below so that the face tilts away from
the picture plane; often, a bit of chest and shoulders can
be seen, usually naked (but clearly not “nude”). The heads
are pushed strangely to the bottom edge of the canvas, only
one or two life-size or bigger, the rest quite small.
So, what is she saying?
Perhaps I would do better to instead write, What is she asking?
The unanswerable, age-old questions, of course: Who are we?
Where do we come from? Where are we going?
Coffey asks these same questions over and over, while
painting the same picture over and over. And—every time—the
answer is different, the painting is different.
In less sure hands, this exercise could be a disaster, but
Coffey has the skill necessary to render all the changes in
mood without letting the technique get in the way. Whether
using whisker-thin orange marks to capture the light on an
eyelash or broad strokes for a shadow or a pointillism effect
for a smudged expression, her means of execution ends up feeling
necessary, not forced.
Among the most successful pieces in the show are several from
2002 (it’s always a good sign when an artist appears to be
getting better with age), including the first one inside the
gallery entrance, titled Self Portrait (cast). Here,
a very small head casts an enormous shadow on the wall or
ceiling beyond. But relief comes in the form of a pair of
big, blue hoop earrings that dangle rakishly from the sides
of the garishly lit face.
Like cast, a 1998 piece titled Self Portrait (Dartmouth
sky lit) places a very small head beneath a large, empty
space. But instead of appearing to mock us, the subject looks
out lovingly, like a grandmother. A white, lacy scarf wraps
this dear woman’s head and flows down over her shoulders.
Another 2002 painting, Self Portrait (holiday for night),
places the artist, larger and more serene-looking this time,
before a starry sky. Her headband bears stylized stars, her
gaze is blue and soft. Yet another from 2002 takes the color
blue as its theme, presenting a spooky visage out of a futuristic
Other personas hide behind mirror shades, but most of the
paintings reveal the subject’s gaze, whether direct, distant
or slightly averted. Ultimately, it seems to me, it’s all
in the eyes. If you’re accustomed to staring at paintings
to your heart’s content, be ready: These paintings stare back.