Susan Spector Offers Words of Wisdom – by Genie Davis, June 5, 2022 diversions.com http://www.diversionsla.com/susan-spector-offers-words-of-wisdom/
Susan Spector: Sticks/Stones – Essay by Richard Speer – copyright 2022
Within our psyches each of us totes along residues of our past, among them a cache of chestnuts of wisdom imparted by parents and grandparents, mentors and friends. Some are moral injunctions, others insipid clichés, still others homilies intended as builders of self-esteem that wind up undermining it instead. To prepare for her thought-provoking exhibition, Sticks/Stones, at TAG Gallery (5458 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles), artist Susan Spector crowd-sourced Facebook and Instagram to discover which catchphrases from yesteryear are most widely remembered by people across the globe. Combining social and studio practices, she winnowed down the myriad responses she received to a manageable 21, which she used as source material for a suite of text-and-image vignettes in spray paint, acrylic, vinyl lettering, and gold leaf on unprimed canvas. Rendered in a purposefully naïve stick-figure style apropos the childhood memories they reference, the paintings are boldly iconic, chromatically exuberant, and, at the show’s opening, provoked many a chuckle and grin. But for all their whimsicality, many of the works have a wistful quality as well, reminding us how fragile a child’s developing character is, how readily molded and easily wounded. It is this complexity and nuance of emotional tenor that lends these works a heightened poignancy and punch.
Some of the phrases in the series offer benign self-affirmation (“I am at peace with who I am,” “I am smart and powerful”). Some share D.N.A. with the sayings one finds on inspirational calendars and posters (“It’s always darkest before dawn,” “Always come from love, not fear”). But others touch nerves and seem out of date, judgmental, curmudgeonly. You can almost hear them croaking from the desiccated larynx of some stern father or creepy uncle, the priggish schoolmarm, the sadistic coach: “Be a lady.” “Don’t do anything stupid.” “Don’t let them see you cry.” “Get your head out of the clouds.” “Tits out, belly in.” There’s something scolding, chastening, repressive, and chauvinist in such adages. They’re like backhanded compliments, undercutting as they purport to buttress.
For years, Spector’s day job was working in administration and designing curriculum at American Jewish University. Given this proximity to the world of education, she knows firsthand the power of early learning to influence adult life for good or ill. Subtleties of subtext, once imparted, can be devilishly difficult or impossible to unlearn. “Teach your children well,” we are enjoined by the troubadors known as Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. But helping young people build knowledge and character is never easy, and our most earnest efforts and sagest nuggets of would-be counsel can play upon our vulnerabilities and score lasting scars across our spirits.
Art at its best provokes self-examination. We smile upon beholding these boldly colored stick figures abutting crudely scrawled text, then discover that our smile has given way to an unexpected lump in the throat. Some of them hit too close to home. That is their power. These deceptively simple paintings lay bare the blades of the double-edged sword. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can harm us too.
—Richard Speer is an American art critic, curator, and author whose essays and reviews have appeared in ARTnews, Art Papers, Artpulse, Art Ltd., Visual Art Source, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, Salon, and Newsweek. He is the author of two-dozen books, has curated major exhibitions in California and the Pacific Northwest, and has received curatorial grants from the Ford Family Foundation and the Sam Francis Foundation. For more information, please visit www.richardspeer.com.