Time and Decay in Jen Susman’s Recent WorkNovember 15, 2010
Enter a gallery when Jen Susman’s Practice Makes Perfect has recently been installed (as it was in Silverman Gallery in July 2010) and anticipate the overwhelming odor of synthetic sweetness. Arrive a few days later, and the olfactory sensation has transformed into the equally overpowering aroma of rotting cream. The smells emanate from ice-cream-filled clothing pinned to the wall. Typical baseball pants, generic athletic socks, and, occasionally, black cleats are attached to the wall and stuffed with gallons upon gallons of ice cream. As time elapses, the ice cream melts at a rapid rate. After approximately three hours, the torso has deflated, and the viscous, pastel substance has crept across the floor in unpredictable directions. Performative by default, the sculpture continues to evolve for forty-eight hours, a slow drip marking the passing of time. Eventually, the clothing molds to the point of decay and it is removed from the wall, leaving only the colored trace of the rotting cream as an imprint on the white surface.
In 2007, Susman moved across the country from Ohio to attend graduate school in photography at the San Francisco Art Institute. She soon abandoned the classic medium of photography in favor of a less conventional material: ice cream. With a perpetual line for Bi-Rite Creamery, a New York Times Magazine feature on Humphry Slocombe's oddball flavors, and the traditional delights of Mitchell's cones, San Francisco has become known for its frozen desserts. However, Susman eschews artisanal, organic ice cream in favor of classic treats like grocery store mint chip and neon-colored Good Humor Rocket Pops. Her first work involving ice cream was The Great Meltdown (2008), a three-minute video that shows only a melting soft-serve vanilla cone with the sound of traffic zipping by in the background. Another recent work, Dream Team (2010), is a configuration of popsicles secured between nails on the wall in the ratio of the American flag. Spaced evenly, and uniformly positioned, the red, white, and blue frozen pops slowly melt. The wooden sticks rotate in different directions, destroying the order, and colored lines drip down the wall, creating an abstract marker of the work. The sticky syrup running off the popsicles suggests hot summer days and delicious sugary treats.
Susman was a competitive softball player from age seven to twenty-two, and athletics influence her work. In conver- sation, she talks about the dual nature of ice cream as both a reward and a Band-Aid. Whether her softball team won or lost, they were treated to a victorious sundae or a conciliatory double scoop. Furthermore, the unpredictable ephemerality of a work such as Practice Makes Perfect is analogous to the fleeting nature of an athletic career. Susman's work is uniquely American, with its references to baseball and stars and stripes, and specifically Californian, putting an edgier slant on the Pop Art pastel aesthetic. Practice Makes Perfect and Dream Team are reminiscent of the painted ice-cream cones of Wayne Thiebaud, but unlike the latter’s pristine works, Susman's sculptures mutate over time, creating a mess of nostalgia.
Each of Susman’s recent works transmutes from one moment to the next, eventually deteriorating into a rotten mass of noisome remnants. The baseball uniform deflates, the popsicle sticks are left dangling alone, and the ice cream cone collapses. The inevitability of decay and marking of the passage of time that are mainstays of her practice can also be found in the 2001 video Still Life, by Sam Taylor-Wood, which depicts the accelerated process of fruit decaying. However, while Still Life addresses mortality and death, Practice Makes Perfect is more visceral and, ultimately, comical. A bowl of fruit has the loaded connotations of natural perfection and art historical precedent, whereas mint chip ice cream suggests playfulness and excess. The floppy, cream-soaked baseball clothes are humorous in their decline, avoiding the gravity of art concerned with death.
Susman's work can also be examined in the tradition of feminist artists such as Janine Antoni, who foregrounds the passage of time in her work Gnaw (1992), a sculptural installation that utilizes food to challenge female stereotypes. To make the sculptures, Antoni carved two six-hundred-pound minimalist blocks from chocolate and lard, respectively. She chewed on the cubes every day for six weeks, and created heart-shaped chocolates and lipstick from the removed material. Gnaw conjures up falsely feminized ideas regarding food cravings and binge eating. Similarly, Practice Makes Perfect hints at the cliché of a woman gorging herself in a post-breakup haze. The two pieces share a sense of elapsing time and the confrontation of female stereotypes.
In their nascent stages, Susman's experiments with ice cream already suggest a wide range of interpretations, influences, and connections. Her work both references local ice cream culture and addresses American nationalism through nostalgia and sports. More generally, this body of work also taps into universal concepts of ephemerality and decay, and even feminism. Fraught with symbolism, Susman's recent work is nevertheless ultimately a visceral experience that shocks the senses.