Suzanne Stryk has exhibited her conceptual nature paintings in solo shows throughout the country, including the National Academy of Sciences (DC), the Taubman Museum of Art (Roanoke, VA), and Gallery 180, the Illinois Institute of Art (Chicago). Her work is in the Smithsonian’s Art and Flight Collection (DC), the David Brower Center (Berkeley, CA), and the D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson Art Collection (Dundee, Scotland). Stryk’s Genomes and Daily Observations series appears in the Viewing Program at the Drawing Center (NYC). She is the recipient of a George Sugarman Foundation grant and a Virginia Commission for the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship. Her artwork graces the cover of the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review and a portfolio of her artwork appears inside the issue.
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky: Your paintings appear in KR’s Poetics of Science issue. How does science inform your art?
Suzanne Stryk: My fascination with the natural world began as a child, so the study of biology seemed a natural fit. Early on I learned the names of animals and read about their life histories. And being a visual person, I loved the look of diagrams and maps. So along with living things, science became—and still is—the raw material of wonder.
But science can’t explain the “why” of it all. It doesn’t explain how an organism experiences the world. It doesn’t fully explain our own species’ capacity to reflect on it all. What I’m saying is that though science reveals the workings of the living world, the spirit of nature remains elusive. It’s this dichotomy between science and mystery that informs my art.
SLR: Can you tell us about your artistic process? How do you enter a painting? What typically draws you into a painting? At what point does your concept for a piece become clear? Do you discover the painting as you create it?
SS: The seeds for most my ideas begin in my sketchbook as direct observations—a quick drawing along with a written note. For instance, that Yonahlossee salamander in the Kenyon Review portfolio? I discovered one up in the Blue Ridge while hiking, made a sketch on the spot. Later I read about it in Salamanders of the Southeast and remembered an interesting diagram I’d seen in a biology textbook. Such experiences merge once I’m painting.
And, yes, I do make discoveries during the process. Initially I get an idea for an image, but a painting as it progresses gains a life of its own. I try to remain open to the unexpected as I go along. Especially in work using plant stains, such as Night Moves or Future Primeval, an accidental drip might suggest a microorganism or plant gall. That’s when the painting tells me what to do!
SLR: You’ve written “the subject of my work is not the natural world, alone, but how we humans look at the natural world.” Your work is deeply “textual,” including fragments of language, scientific notations, and DNA sequences. What’s the relationship in your paintings between our visual perceptions of the natural world and the ways we translate those observations into language?
SS: I’m fascinated with how language both connects us to the natural world and distances us from it. The texts in my paintings are intentionally unreadable, by the way. They represent the impulse to interpret nature in our own symbolic codes.
I have to add that I love the way the text works graphically, the way it creates surface texture. You know, after all is said about conceptual ideas, the painting has to first work visually.
SLR: A number of your paintings include shadow images or bodily forms that are left blank, as if an unfinished canvas for the viewer’s imagination to complete.
SS: Yes, that’s one way of looking at it—forms left blank invite viewers to complete the image. A negative shape is suggestive in a number of ways. For one, it conveys that what we don’t know is as compelling as what we do.
SLR: You describe another series of paintings as a contemporary bestiary. Medieval bestiaries included both observations of the natural world and acts of imagination that attempted to give form to mythical beasts. Do you see the animals depicted in your work as occupying the boundary between nature and myth, vision and imagination?
SS: I do. I consider science the “myth” of our age, but “myth” in the sense of an explanation of reality. For that reason, the DNA double helix appears in my contemporary bestiary quite often, for it’s a groundbreaking advance in our understanding of nature. And it’s so elegant!
SLR: Many of your paintings seem to draw on the tradition of the naturalist’s sketchbook, combining an evolving series of “drafts” of a natural form. Do you see that form as replicating an evolutionary process in nature?
SS: What an interesting observation—constant revisions or “drafts” are akin to the evolutionary process. Continually revising drawings and paintings is much like natural selection as the image shape shifts into a final form.
SLR: One might say that you’ve expanded your work beyond scientific observation to a more poetic, mystical interpretation of nature. How have you integrated those elements into your paintings?
SS: Well for one thing, I don’t show an animal in its natural habitat as such. The surrealistic aspect of my images suggests they’re about something beyond factual description. Within each design, I attempt to convey more than scientific observation by juxtaposing it with spontaneity, by painting objects glowing from a dark ground, and by combining incomplete with more complete shapes, as we talked about before. Of course, the inclusion of scrawled text and numbers implies the image isn’t a literal illustration, too.
SLR: Did your experiments with various media (painting with coffee, walnuts, on mirrors/glass) enhance this visionary evolution?
SS: Absolutely. Experimenting with materials pushes me into new visual and conceptual territory.
Artists, as writers, often have one seminal story to tell and simply tell it in varying ways. For me that story is our place as observers of the natural world. I’m always seeking diverse ways of expressing that idea. And “playing” with various media keeps me engaged in the studio, much like taking a new path in the woods—“I wonder what I’ll find down here?” kind of thing. It’s important in the process to get lost for a while!
SLR: What can’t your art capture?
SS: Smell, taste, the wind or sun on my face, the mosquito buzzing around my ear, the quick dash of a lizard up a tree. Forgetting the fatigue of hiking up a hill when a chestnut-sided warbler flits out of the bush into sight. Rolling over a rotten log to uncover a glistening salamander.
It might sound like I prefer to spend all my time outside, not within the walls of a studio. But my perfect working day’s a balance of the two. Painting lures my mind into the present for long tracks of time—a way of living in the moment, often a highly keyed moment. And so it’s ironic that my mindset in the studio, working, might most closely resemble how animals live in the here and now.
SLR: What is the wildness that draws you on?
SS: Sometimes I feel like a refugee trying to get back home. Wildness is home to me, not alien, and I want to be part of it. The natural world has always drawn me. Yet the way I’ve chosen to explore it—with symbols, images, the language of science—keeps me at a paradoxical distance. A seductive paradox.