Suzan Shutan Interview

By Jason Clay Lewis | June 25, 2022
Suzan Shutan

How did growing up in Connecticut form your artistic side?

I grew in bike riding distance of two great local museums in New Haven, the Yale University Art Gallery and later The British Art Museum. I went often as they have amazing collections, which formulated my young self. Additionally, I grew up in a neighborhood under development surrounding by beautiful woods. I fell in love with nature and then had to witness its demise. This loss of life and my love for the natural world seeped into my work.

How did you first become interested in art?

I first became interested in art when I was about 5 years old having spent 16 years of my life in and out of hospitals annually for continuous surgery that today, is resolved in one outpatient surgery. I had to stay weeks and often months. My only outlet was the art room. I relished the days that the artist in residence came to do projects with us. It was my escape from reality and I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. My trauma was soothed by art making. As a result of having been introduced to art on a bi-weekly basis, in between hospital stays attending school; I was that kid that others praised for art abilities. I was not good at math, but art- yes.

What helped develop you as an artist?

The freedom to experiment materialistically and conceptually as an undergrad at Cal Arts without being locked into art movements, genre or style of the time, pushed me forward as an artist. Outside influences did seep into my work that's unavoidable, but I was very lucky to be in a supportive environment. Also not having money forced me to consider using found and materials at hand. This freed me from the confines of what constituted as being acceptable.

What are a few things that you have read or seen lately that have been inspirational?

One of my favorite books is The Secret Lives of Color. As a colorist it's like a bible to me. I pick it up over and over again. I am currently reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I listen to a lot of podcasts when I work in my studio. My favorites are; Ahtcast with Phillip Mellen, I Like Your Work with Erike Hess, Art for Your Ear with Danielle aka The Jealous Curator, and The Art Angle/artnet.

Suzan Shutan

Who are a few of your favorite artists? What do you like about their work?

I have so many favorite artists working both two and three dimensionally and they change each year as I learn about new ones. Here are 20 kick ass women sculptors who share my love for surprise, for creating immersive magical works that are site responsive and intimate critiques about our world. Pardon my one-liners.

  • Judy Pfaff was my teacher in the 70's. Her audaciousness transforming materials and creating entire spaces that you walk into as an artwork, freed me to experiment in new ways.
  • Janet Echelman for her massive public outdoor works that move with the wind. She says, “when a single knot is removed, every other one is affected”, this is close to how I think about a body of work I make.
  • Sheila Hicks bales of colored fiber that explores the possibilities of what a thread can become.
  • Yayoi Kusama for her bold colored patterns of dots that inspire my circle motif.
  • Tara Donovan for her repetition of common materials that becomes architectural.
  • Phyllida Barlow for her surprising and exciting anti-monument structures that are no less monumental choreographing urban life.
  • Niki de Saint Phalle for her colorfully playful feminist activated sculptures especially her Tarot garden and water works.
  • Louise Bourgeois for her psychologically charged body as emotional fodder scenarios.
  • Ruth Asawa for her ability to make her wire forms-within-forms look soft and zaftig.
  • Simone Leigh for her empowering, non-colonized and imposing structures of women standing their ground against history and what had been removed from them.
  • Eva Jospin honoring the natural world, our lost forests, recreating towering slices in remembrance of what has been removed.
  • Genesis Belanger for her humorous well-crafted detailed objects as sensually domesticated body surrogates.
  • Eva Fàbregas for her erotica and playfully seductive forms that you want to touch and caress.
  • Ursula von Rydingsvard- for taking cedar to a whole other level beyond its labor intensity by personalizing and feminizing it.
  • Sarah Sze for creating a technology of living objects and daily detritus into fractal like structures that seem process driven as scientific minutiae.
  • Petah Coyne‘s work for conveying a sense of fragility, beauty and decay, my favorite work being her chandelier sculptures that recall fairytales.
  • Ann Hamilton for her tactile visceral work that explore the senses.
  • Beverly Fishman for her politically subtle, seductive abstractions of pharmaceuticals whose radiating light glows as aftermaths of consumption.
  • Orly Genger's knitted environments that enliven, define, and domesticate the outdoors.
  • Kara Walker for her poignant unforgettable silhouettes and sculptures that expose the ongoing psychological injury caused by slavery.
Suzan Shutan

Your work has always had a playful side, what was the genesis of wanting the work to be interactive?

In fourth grade on a field trip to the MET, a huge mirrored sculpture box by artist Lucas Samaras that you could enter. Inside, it was entirely lined with mirrors, a few steps to walk up and a small seat to sit on to stare at oneself into infinity. I was mesmerized and lost a sense of time and place. The interaction that piece allowed me to later, delve into metaphysics. The playful side of my work is about participation/engagement. I am using play as a non-elitist entry point to understanding the deeper intent of my work. Touching and walking under a piece, pulls one in- where the act of discovering is more plausible.

How do you categorize your work?

I hate categorization because for me, my work is always evolving, it's never one style or one thing. Once you say its one thing you get pigeon holed and then it is hard for an audience to see something else. However, I do say that my work is material driven and a continuum of sorts.

What is your creative process when developing a new project?

I work from a very intuitive place. There might be a material I come upon, or a shape that I see that presents itself as inspiring because it was beautiful, or odd, captivating in a way that stirred my soul and I could not get out of my head. It could also be a line from a book or poem or seeing something in nature. These are jump off points for me, but it is all about delving into the psyche of what I am making, the emotional moment of how I link to it.

Suzan Shutan

When creating new work, do you think about how your work would look as an installation or the pieces individually?

Good question, I think of both at the same time. I always think of what I build as line and form extended into space. How do I activate a space? This is a question I always think about. Yet the work individually must stand on its own and be poignant, it must resonate; it must live beyond its moment of creation and stir something within.

It's been a really difficult last few years. What kinds of things have you experienced that have changed your art practice?

I am used to being alone and working alone in my studio so it was great having a bit more time for my studio practice, but it terms of changing my art practice, nothing has really changed other than giving myself permission to experiment more. Having more time on my hands allowed me to roam social media and see what other artists were doing. There is so much great work out there, often under recognized by lesser-known artists that are pushing the limits of art making. It made me look at my own work and unlock myself from any restrictions self-imposed.

What are you currently working on in the studio?

I am working on two painting series, one very small sculptural work in the vein of Richard Tuttle, and the other very large work that hugs the wall with parts that slide onto the floor- less sculptural in the moment but will evolve into being more dimensional. Also working with reflective materials again.

Suzan Shutan

Tell me about a really memorable moment you have experienced as an artist?

It was seven years ago, when I was invited for a solo exhibit at Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, Poland. I was treated as a famous 1% artist would be; made to feel valued, appreciated and my work honored. They could not do enough for me. They housed me for almost 4 weeks in a beautiful apartment within the museum, paid for all my travel, my materials, professional documentation, giving me additionally an exhibition stipend. They provided two fabulous meals each day in their restaurant and installed all my work- an entire floor and 6 rooms worth- rebuilding a ceiling and installing drywall over it and marble walls temporarily, which extended 100 yards. All I had to do was watch and advise. They created a huge opening with food and wine, brought in television, radio and press. It was huge and so incredibly generous never to be forgotten.

If you could to give advise to your younger self, what would it be?

Don't take an opportunity for granted. Some things don't come around a second time. Never stop learning and never believe that you know something because the world will change and the meaning of things will change also. Be a lifelong learner. Consider your failures as clues to everything that came before and what comes after. Trust your ideas, be able to self criticize but be careful to not self-sabotage. Lastly trade and collect the work of friends, support each other especially those creating exciting motivating work.

The Royal List Profile: Suzan Shutan