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Travels with State of the Art: Susie Lee Re-imagines the Portrait

Don Bacigalupi (left) and Chad Alligood in an artist's studio

Don Bacigalupi (left) and Chad Alligood in an artist's studio

Don Bacigalupi (left) and Chad Alligood in an artist's studio, looking and documenting their finds.

Don Bacigalupi (left) and Chad Alligood in an artist’s studio, looking and documenting their finds.

Crystal Bridges’ President, Don Bacigalupi, and Associate Curator for Special Projects Chad Alligood have been traveling around the country for more than six months, visiting artist studios in every region of the United States in preparation for the upcoming exhibition, State of the Art.  Don has recently begun blogging about their experiences, and providing profiles of some of the artists they have encountered on their travels for the Huffington Post, and we’d like to start sharing some of their adventures with you, as well.

This week we focus on one of the artists the pair met with in Seattle: Susie Lee.

Susie Lee

Susie Lee

Portraiture is one of the oldest artistic genres, ranging from ancient carved likenesses on Egyptian sarcophagi to Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of George Washington to photograph Arnold Newman’s iconic atmospheric portraits of cultural figures, to Glamour Shots. But Seattle artist Susie Lee is adding a new dimension to our thinking about portraiture.

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From “Still Lifes,” by Susie Lee

Lee has embarked upon a series of portraits based in time.  With Still Lives, she has asked her subjects, many of them residents of a long-term care facility, to sit silently for her video camera for periods of up to 30 minutes at a time.  The images she captures in this fashion represent neither the fleeting, frozen moment of still photography, nor a painting’s static image created through long observation—but rather, Lee’s images become an act of observation in and of themselves.  These time-based portraits present Lee’s subjects in all their human physicality: small adjustments, breathing, yawns, scratches, and all.  Some even fall asleep on camera.  While they can cause a viewer to feel uncomfortable, even voyeuristic, when that awkwardness is past, the images also create a powerful awareness of shared humanity.

Because the portrait subjects are elders, the works also become an exploration of the dichotomy between being and not being. Over time, these works also explore the gradual transformation of the artwork itself:  from its beginning as a record of a living individual, to a historical record of one who is gone, to its eventual evolution into an artistic object, whose subject becomes less about an individual and more about art for art’s sake.

“There’s sort of an intensity that’s there because half of the individuals who are in the portraits…have passed away,” Lee explained.  “So … now there’s a transition, almost, between them being here and not being here; to them actually, then, almost being like a painting of somebody in the 1800s where you don’t know the individual but you know somebody like them.”

In his regular Huffington Post blog, Crystal Bridges President Don Bacigalupi provides a short video interview with Susie Lee. Click here to read the blog and view the video.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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