Susan Spencer Crowe: a playful minimalism

"A Carnival of Color 2013" by Susan Spencer Crowe.

“A Carnival of Color 2013” by Susan Spencer Crowe.

Susan Spencer Crowe’s solo exhibition of encaustic-painted wall pieces and sculptures at the gallery at R&F Handmade Paints, entitled “Encaustic/Form II,” has its roots in the Minimalist art of the 1960s. She employs Minimalism’s rigor of form and its use of the grid, but the playfulness, wit and rich pictorial associations of her work express a very different sensibility.

Along the walls of the squarish gallery are a series of similarly shaped, modular pieces arranged in a grid, made out of cardboard and covered in encaustic paint. Several pieces consist of a grouping of diamond-shaped forms. Some of the planes are missing, as if folded back, or slitted: a cubist skewering of the solid form that reveals as much as it covers, so that we are seeing both the sculptural form’s interiority and its shell. The encaustic colors, a perfect calibration of pale and saturated which tend toward the lighter values, are layered on the cardboard plane, suggesting luminosity as sculptural substance — an effect that strangely dematerializes the pieces. They have a luscious sensuality and evoke the cupcakes and cakes of Wayne Thiebaud. It’s a pop palette, although there is nothing chalky or brittle about Crowe’s pastels, just a marvelous warmth.

Crowe suggests a universe of meanings with the simplest of means. A horizontal wall piece consisting of a band of three curving half-circles protruding from a base of two sloped planes, all painted a pale blue, into which two bright orange triangles have been inserted, is entitled “Pyramids at Dawn.” The piece is completely abstract, but we can see the glowing orange monuments reflected in water, where the plane plunges into shadow. Aligned vertically, the same form, painted red, blue, and pale green, becomes “Harlequin Rib.” The show’s tour de force is a model-sized architectural construction, entitled “Bumble Tumble,” composed of the castoff pieces of cardboard left over from the construction of her other pieces. Bearing an obvious affinity to Tatlin’s Constructivist tower, Crowe’s construction is more whimsical: There are crevices, cubbies, gutter spouts (though never so literal) that entice the mind to climb and explore this equal-parts mountain, tree, skyscraper, tower, and cliff dwelling.


Crowe, who moved to Kingston in 2005 from New York City, has received numerous awards and grants. She also has had a successful career as an arts administrator, managing program funding for the Jewish Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art and working in development at other prestigious New York-based institutions. She is active in several local initiatives, including the mayor’s task force for establishing an arts district in Midtown. This reporter recently interviewed Crowe, who grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, by phone:


LW: What are the roots of your development as an artist?

SC: My mother taught me how to sew, knit, and make things. I made my own clothes because I couldn’t find any clothes I liked. I made creative headdresses and a paperclip dress in high school. I went to Pratt and studied fashion design for a semester, then dropped out and lived in California for a while, staying on a commune. Then I came back to New York, worked for a year, and reentered Pratt, supporting myself. John Pai was head of the sculpture department and was my mentor. Through him I got control of my creativity. He schooled me in Zen, about training your mind and disciplining yourself. When I learned how to engage with materials intellectually, when I looked behind what I was doing and generated my own trajectory, I was captured. I graduated with a BFA in fine arts, with focus on sculpture.


LW: What are the secrets of harnessing your creativity? What do you teach your students?

SC: You learn more from your mistakes than your successes and you have to engage with the materials and work with them to work through the idea. There’s a dialogue back and forth when you immerse yourself in the process. You have to push out the parameters constantly and think outside the box.


LW: Does this apply to non-artists as well?

SC: You can think outside the box in any field, or you won’t achieve much or be very happy. The creative people in economics do the same thing, which is putting two unlike things together and looking at the relationship and seeing what happens. I kept pushing the parameters out there in arts administration, when I was writing grants; I tried a lot of things, and we got the money. I ran organizations, and as soon as people discovered I could put together funding for projects they hired me. The only way to move up in the art world was to work for different organizations, so periodically I changed my job.


LW: How did you balance this with making your own art?

SC: I had to work in something I felt engaged in and always wanted to help my field and other artists. Then at night I worked in my own studio. I bought a house for $35,000 in the late 1970s in Vinegar Hill, then I went to Williamsburg, then I lived in Greenpoint, from 1985 to 2005, when I moved up here. I’ve gotten two New York Foundation for the Arts grants, which pretty much allowed me to work on my own stuff.


LW: Your earlier work employed steel armature and fabric. How did you get into encaustic?

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