Years ago I wrote an article about a made-up art movement called Seattle Grunge. It was the visual art equivalent of Grunge music and weighed heavily toward ideas taken from graphic novels and Surrealism. There’s no such movement in visual art, but if there were Olympia artist Steven Suski would be one of its stars.
Suski has been making art in the Olympia area since about 1988. Three years ago he was chosen as the juror’s award-winner in the annual South Puget Sound Community College juried art exhibit for his “Underwater Diptych,” a two-panel painting of swimmers. The next year he was given a one-person exhibition at SPSCC and this past year he was included in the college’s “Postcard” show “Wish You Were Here.” His entries in that show were clever memorials to the ’60s in the form of a series of brightly colored photo collages with images from famous album covers such as the “Hair” cast album, and postcards featuring rock icons the likes of Ringo Starr and George Harrison.
Suski’s devotion to art began in high school. “I was an art nerd in high school,” he says. After high school earned a scholarship for a summer at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle. And then he took drawing and ceramics classes at Pacific Lutheran University, and then he went to University of Washington where he studied under the great Michael Spafford. From there he returned home to Olympia where he studied printmaking under Young Harvill whom he said “jumped on the computer and digital bandwagon quite early in the ’80s.”
From the beginning Suski was influenced by Surrealism, by Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp. Today it’s called Pop Surrealism, he says. “It’s so much in the culture these days.” Pop Surrealism is also called Lowbrow — a funny name if you consider that the term “lowbrow” means uncultured or unsophisticated, but then art movements have always adopted the insulting names handed them by their detractors. Impressionism, Fauvism (translation: the wild beasts) and Cubism all took their names from insults thrown out by critics. As an interesting aside, here’s how Wikipedia defines it: “Lowbrow, or lowbrow art, describes an underground visual art movement that arose in the Los Angeles, California, area in the late 1970s. Lowbrow is a widespread populist art movement with origins in the underground comix world, punk music, hot-rod street culture, and other subcultures. It is also often known by the name pop surrealism. Lowbrow art often has a sense of humor — sometimes the humor is gleeful, sometimes impish, and sometimes it is a sarcastic comment.”
Back to Suski and his early influences. He recalls that when he was younger there was a TV show on Channel 9 that talked about different movements in art. “It seemed like there was a new movement every day. Those were very exciting times.”
He was also in the early days influenced a lot by Andy Warhol. What he liked about Warhol was that everything was on the surface. “It is what it is. The surface was the whole thing.”
He started out as a youngster copying images from comic books. To look at his art today and to hear him talk about how he works it is easy to see that he has not veered far off the tracks laid down by the art of his youth. Comic book and pop culture images still play a big role in his art. He does a lot of work using all kinds of found and recycled materials as well as found and recycled imagery. He takes ideas and images from everywhere and makes them his own, collaging, drawing, painting and recombining them. He works intuitively, using a method he refers to as controlled happenstance. He does a lot of drawing in notebooks, and then he uses images taken from those notebooks and other sources in what he calls building things out of mosaics of images. “It is very satisfying to take stuff from piles of junk and toys and make art out of it.”
He says there is a long gestation of ideas that “rise to the surface after a while. A couple of ideas will juxtapose out of a sketch book and come together.”
Suski seems to live the way he works or to live within his work. I visited his home studio and it was like walking into one of his paintings or into a world created from his paintings. He works at home. He jokingly described his studio as being the space between his refrigerator and the back door, but as I saw when I got there it’s actually in the garage and in a little room off the kitchen, and it kind of spills off into the whole house. Everywhere there are paintings, collages, assemblages, works in progress, and boxes and boxes filled with junk he has collected, much of which eventually finds a home in some of his art.
Suski’s most recent works are some small figurative works that he describes as being a little bit mythic and a little bit surrealistic. “Surrealism never seems to go away,” he says. Some of these new works will be on sale at the POSSCA Artists Garage Sale at the Olympia Armory May 19. His work can also be seen at Matter Gallery in downtown Olympia.