Eye of the Storm 

The work of Bonnie Sucec draws power from the peripheries.

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The thing about the peripheral is that it’s all around us, so omnipresent that it’s almost right in front of your face. That’s true of the conflicts raging in “other” parts of the world that nonetheless manage to dominate our attention and energy. It’s true of unconscious symbols that inhabit the background of awareness. And it’s true of the paintings of Bonnie Sucec.

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Sucec has long been prominent in Salt Lake City’s art scene, yet she has had comparatively few solo exhibits like her current Sideshow. But the University of Utah graduate is highly enough esteemed that her 1981 collage “Yellow Brick Road”'complete with sparkle'was included in the Salt Lake Art Center’s 75th anniversary show. She received the Mayor’s Artist Award in Visual Arts earlier this year. And she had a hand in organizing the first Utah Arts Festival, operating its Children’s Art Yard for several years. “It’s always a challenge,” she notes of working with children. “It forces you to see in different directions.nn

Her own work can take you in different directions as well, like a Rorschach test. Are the tiny triangular figures in “Confess” boats or birds, spilling out of the mouth and coming into the ear of the person in profile, whose head itself is somewhat birdlike? Before you have time to answer the question, you notice a thin, almost translucent net pattern running over the entire painting, rendering the subject a prisoner, and you are netted as well, bound by the captivating detail. In “Second Thoughts,” pictured below, shapes whirling around a character’s head could be birds or fish or planes, perhaps the closest thing to a self-portrait.

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The seemingly whimsical quality of her work often evokes adjectives like “childlike,” yet such descriptors miss the conflict and tension mixed up in the canvasses that utilize spiral shapes, like a vortex pulling everything in, or a tornado spinning out of control. In “Stories,” a waterfall erupting out of a vaguely shaped figure’s mouth is composed of shapes that could be letters, or some strange hieroglyphs. Neither bird on each side is telling. These paintings are meant to tell stories, Sucec has said, but the elements of foreboding make them darker than illustrations for a children’s book.

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She admits that the pieces in this show, all from the last three years, contain a lot of imagery dealing with war. “It’s hard not to become involved in it,” she finds, although they don’t express a political point of view. “Sinking Ship” and “The Fire/the War” both include whirlpools, the former with ships spiraling around, lights on as if passengers were awakened by their imminent peril. The latter features a ring of fire, blue in the center as if looking through a porthole at a ship in the distance. The warfare evoked isn’t combat itself, but larger forces on the scale of the epic or subconscious'the individual rendered miniature, losing control to the sweep of historical events.

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“I don’t start with much of an idea,” she says of her method; “I just start putting down marks and see where it takes me.” Two works offer more sparing yet telling details. “Power” depicts a robed king, only an open hand showing and on his crown, holes poked in the paper’s surface. “Tied” ties two works together: a broadly drawn bird with rope around its neck, and a Christ with the face of a cat painted over it, clutching a bird. The birds in many of these works seem to bear witness, if to something that can only be glimpsed in periphery.

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This “sideshow” has been tucked away in an exhibition hall at the Museum of Fine Art that is usually reserved for receptions, as if an aside to the main course of shows there. But perhaps it’s fitting for this painter so much an integral part of local arts, yet never quite at its center. After all, the eye of the tornado isn’t where the action happens.

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BONNIE SUCEC: SIDESHOW
Utah Museumof Fine Art
University of Utah410 Campus Center Drive
Through Jan. 28, 2007
581-7332

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