Susan Mikula: u.X
This book marks the occasion of Susan Mikula's fourth show with the gallery. Mikula is presenting the 25 pieces of her suite u.X, pigment prints from Polaroid originals on handmade Japanese mulberry paper, mounted on aluminum plate and framed in steel. A boxed set of the entire cycle as unframed, un-cropped prints is available.
Published on the occasion of exhibition SF30: u.X
9.75 x 8.75 in., 70 pp., 25 color reproductions
Introductory remarks by Christopher Bonanos
Solo Exhibitions include:
2013 u.X, George Lawson Gallery, 780 Sutter St. San Francisco, CA
2013 Selections from the American Bond, The Brandstater Gallery, Riverside, CA
American Bond, selections from the cycle
Sept 9 - Oct 30, 2013
In 2009 Susan Mikula traveled to Louisiana and Texas and then on to California with close friend and volunteer driver Jill McDonough to take a series of Polaroid photographs of industrial dock sites, using an SX-70 Alpha 1 camera that by then qualified as an antique. She had to procure the packets of self-developing film, long commercially unavailable, on eBay, through garage sales, or wherever she could find them. In some cases the film had been sitting around on people’s dusty garage shelves for decades. The red spectrum of the dyes had faded and the surface emulsions had coagulated, leaving her with a characteristic greenish palette and fractured surface that she learned to exploit. Her choice to shoot in Polaroid may have initially been driven by aesthetics, but as the series has unfolded into a cycle of almost 60 finished images that span three years, it has become apparent just how commensurate are her chosen medium and her chosen subject. Mikula has captured a fading aspect of a bygone era with fading film and an obsolete technology.
Following her initial foray into the ports of Galveston, Texas and Long Beach, California, Mikula gathered the best of the images under the title, American Device, and then took a second trip, this time inland to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to shoot the factories and ware- houses of companies such as General Electric and Raytheon. By now she knew she was working on a greater cycle, later to be collectively titled American Bond: the second leg of the suite she called, American Vale and the third series American Breakbulk. The term “Breakbulk” refers to cargo that has been separated from its container on the docks for handling, and perhaps there is something of a summation in the reference.
Susan Mikula in
Susan Mikula: Artist Spotlight
By Christopher Harrity
October 22, 2011
Susan Mikula Featured in
Art Week LA
Susan Mikula: American Bond
October 17, 2011
Susan Mikula in the
Polaroid Exhibition Captures Beauty of Industrial America
October 14, 2011
Instant Moment Susan Mikula
Susan Mikula uses Polaroid film to document derelict industrial docks and other wrecked Americana, a subject I myself have a fondness for. But she does it in a way that’s entirely her own: using badly outdated Polaroid film found at garage sales and the like, embracing its messed-up color palette and unreliable reagant. That incorporates a stochastic aspect into her process—will this pack of film work? How about this one?—that is, in the digital age, interesting turf to be exploring. She also deliberately shoots out-of-focus, then scans and lightly modifies her Polaroid images to (among other things) get rid of the Mylar gloss of the top sheet. The combination of blur and spoiled film and editing puts her subjects just at the very limits of recognizability. As her gallery’s Website puts it, “Her choice to shoot in Polaroid may have initially been driven by aesthetics, but as the series has unfolded into a cycle of almost 60 finished images that span three years, it has become apparent just how commensurate are her chosen medium and her chosen subject. Mikula has captured a fading aspect of a bygone era with fading film and an obsolete technology.” My kinda photographer. Plus her partner is Rachel Maddow, who gets a lot of airtime in our household.
By Brian Mattlin
Susan Mikula’s elusive art challenges conventions. Her physical subject matter is often abstracted, sometimes highly so, and typically portrayed within a tight chromatic range; one that, nonetheless, contains an expansive scale of tone and texture. Yet to call her art “abstract” is a misnomer—the end result often remains strongly figurative, even when no longer overtly identifiable with its origins. Distillation is a more apt description of her process.
Mikula’s creative roots rest deep in the aesthetic legacies of painting and photography, so it’s no surprise that her art is sometimes taken for painting—but it is photography. Shooting exclusively with Polaroid films and cameras, Mikula works in available light, and does no cropping or image manipulation after the fact. Her in-camera technique strips away detail and softens edges only to better reveal the underlying and essential form and feeling of her subject.
To capture and convey beauty as she sees it is always a present element in the work, but it is rarely only about the inherent interplay of shade, color and form. There is a conceptual underpinning as well, and a narrative within. Mikula also has an abiding concern with the physicality of the prints themselves: the materials and methods of their manufacture, the structure and character of their surfaces and supports, their scale and their modes of presentation, and how those all affect the relationship between the viewer and the art. Where certain aspects of her aesthetic reach back to the 19th century Tonalists, these other facets of her creative process put her very much in sync with contemporary practice. The result is work of depth and enduring impact.
Born and raised first in urban/industrial New Jersey, and then in a small New Hampshire town, Mikula now lives and works in rural Western Massachusetts and in New York City.
Susan Mikula in the Examiner
Artist Susan Mikula finds beauty in industry at the edges
February 26, 2010
Susan Mikula in SheWired.com:
Refined Beauty: Artist Susan Mikula on Finding Beauty in Industry, Exclusive
by Jamie Wetherbe | Article Date: 02/23/2010
Susan Mikula in the Advocate.com
Susan Mikula Finds Beauty in America
February 24, 2010
Susan Mikula in the Bay Area Reporter
by Heather Cassell
Susan Mikula interviewed in Curve Magazine
art, inspiration and heart
a must see
An interview with Go Get Your Girl On Magazine:
Susan Mikula is coming to San Francisco with a new body of work, sharing her unique and meaningful photographic expressions with the bay area. All I can say is that Susan Mikula and Rachel Maddow are one dynamite couple with a an ideal balance of art and politics. They both shine is their careers and we're here to tell you a little bit more about this dynamic artist, her process and why you will be sorry if you miss her exhibition while it resides in San Francisco.
Susan's photos seem to bring an element of enigma to the subject and there are a lot of variables that motivate her to take a photograph. One thing that makes Susan feel like she wants to work with something as a subject, and take pictures of it, is seeing something submerged in the water. There are a lot of old piers on the west side of New York. When she sees the old pilings just below the height of the water when the tide has come in just so on the Hudson River, that is what she wants to bring to the photograph. She has likely seen this 1000 times but she is moved every single time. It's a feeling for Susan and this is how she sees the world. Susan's photographs are heavily associated with a well thought out process mixed with this type of feeling and a touch of " I feel like how I get to see things is a gift to me.."
So essentially, Susan is trying to re-create this effect in her work, whatever the photographic version of it is to make that experience and feeling happen for the rest of the world.
In her upcoming exhibition there are no people which is a huge departure from her earlier Nine Portraits exhibition.
SUSAN: I did those nine portraits and that was really hard for me. First of all a portrait is different than a model. I have had some nude models in my early work, never with a face and only with people who I was paying as models, so that's very different. You don't have the same responsibility to a model because a model is someone that you're using for your own ideas.
When I was working on those portraits I really felt a responsibility to get some of that person into the work and treat them like a person. I know that sounds ridiculous but I look at this differently. This person is going to come through in this picture if I do it right. That was the most difficult thing I've ever tried to do. It was difficult working with other humans who you like so much, and you get along, who are being extremely kind to you about allowing you to take pictures of them. I found that much harder because of the human element but it was really worth it. That's why I think that portraiture seems so hard for me in general. That responsibility.
I know that everyone laughs about it but that's the thing that people thought at the beginning of photography. I'm so grabbed by that. For example August Sander, who was photographing ordinary people in what I think were extraordinary ways. All of those people would be dead right now and I look at those photos and think ‘these people are still right here in these portraits.’ That's how good they are. You look at something like that and you think right, ok, that's what's happening here. There's some little piece of each person.
ARTGIRL: So is this something that you're saying scares or intimidates you?
SUSAN: Yes, from the end of being photographed, but also the responsibility of taking them. So anyway, that's maybe more than you wanted to know. (laughing)
ARTGIRL: I want to know it all! It sounds like there's a lot of thought and planning that goes into all of your pieces, like you have to visualize it before you ever take that photo.
SUSAN: I do. I'm very slow. There's no other way to put it. I think about it. I think about it for a very long time and in my thinking about it I mostly think about it not as a specific piece so much as what I want the overall… not final result to be, but how it will feel. I think about that for a very long time. I also think about the mechanics of it. What kind of camera I would use. What kind of film, all those things, and then when it's time to take the pictures it happens fast. But prior to that it's very thought out.
ARTGIRL: I understand that you are using a pinhole camera for this show, with discontinued film?
SUSAN: Yes, discontinued, expired monochromatic film for this show. The decision was based on what format I want and what I want that format to do. So that was an easy decision, but it meant buying film online.
ARTGIRL: Isn’t it hit and miss with that? You never know if the film will work out or not!
SUSAN: That's true. The main thing with expired Polaroid film is that you may not have peel apart film. You may not be able to peel the piece apart without removing some of the developer and you can get a white spot on the picture – but that's the biggest chance you're taking, that you're going to wreck them that way. But I know other possibilities and things that can go wrong. I've used expired film before and I know the chemicals and how it's going to turn and sometimes that’s a plus.
ARTGIRL: So what happens when you can't get that medium anymore?
SUSAN: I actually have an idea. It really made me ask myself what is the appeal of the Polaroid that I can't live without, and it occurred to me that it has something to do with there being a great democratization of photography. It was the second time that unique-positive photography was made widely available to ordinary people. The first was with tintype photography. So I'm actually learning wet plate collodion photography and hopefully my Polaroid film will hold out until I actually learn how to do that!
ARTGIRL: So you have a plan!
SUSAN: I do! It’s a crazy plan to go backward in time, not forward! I'm going to hope to be a tintype artist in my next incarnation.
ARTGIRL: Do you have any art on your walls?
SUSAN: I do. I really love art. I really do. I love paintings but I do not paint. It's like such a mystery, magical, and I have some paintings around and really believe in supporting living artists. For example, this year we bought two really great paintings – “untitled” by Denny Camino and “little girl from little rock” by Maggie Mailer. It's really important to me, so if I can put any money together, that's what I do. I also have photographs, a small collection that is in my waking spot. You know, the very first spot in the morning when you wake up that your eyes go.
ARTGIRL: I love that. "Waking spot."
SUSAN: I'm sure I didn't make that up, but I have Sally Mann’s “Last Light” in my waking spot that I bought so long ago, almost 20 years ago, and I have a couple of other artists' work including Paul Teeling, whose color work I love very much.
ARTGIRL: Are there any other places where you surround yourself with art?
SUSAN: Museums are my happy place when I'm feeling out of place. I go to see my favorite things in the galleries in New York. It's like visiting with friends. I love to be able to do that.
ARTGIRL: How has your shift been from the rural to urban environment?
SUSAN: That's been a big change for me. I think it has opened up my being and given me more, partly because the city is so rich in visuals and there's always something new, even if it's a paper bag blowing down the street. There might be some new fantastic thing that somebody's done. There’s street art in NY that the artists don't have any idea if anyone will see it – or they know for a fact that it will only be up until the street sweeper goes by. I really love that and I think I've gotten a lot out of that.
ARTGIRL: How sound proof is your home?
SUSAN: We're not very sound proof at all. We live near bars that close at 5 in the morning. I’m not used to it yet. That's still a work in progress.
ARTGIRL: Do you listen to music while you work?
SUSAN: I don't listen to music while I work. Music is just fun while I relax. I would not be able to focus.
ARTGIRL: What would you be listening to?
SUSAN: Rachel and I have similar musical tastes. Obviously no one is the same but we listen to lots of what I call kind of alternative mainstream. To me they're mainstream, because all my friends listen to them, but I know that it's not what you can hear on the radio most of the time. But we listen to Cat Power, that level of listening. We both like the music very much but I also like Billie Holiday. That's part of my own relaxing genre. Right now, on the CD player, we have Lucero, Deer Tick, Ella Fitzgerald, Thad Cockrell, Bob Dylan, Chet Baker... Do you know Erin McKeown's work?
ARTGIRL: Yes I do!
SUSAN: I like her stuff a lot too and think she's doing fantastic things. I really like that kind of music and her demeanor onstage in other things I've seen her do. She's fantastic, and that kind of work, that singer/songwriter work, I like very much.
ARTGIRL: This has been such a great look into who you are and how your artwork evolves.
SUSAN: The point for me, when I read interviews about artists, is that I'm happy to learn more about them to add to my experience of their work. It makes it fresh and I think it's nice for everyone. That's what I look for. I have favorite artists like everybody else, so it's nice for me to read something personal about them.
Pinhole orientation: Mikula’s dream-like abstracts are meant to be unsettling
PROVINCETOWN — Susan Mikula’s passion for photography began almost at birth. She hails from a family of photographers: her sister is a medical photographer in Boston; her parents both took pictures throughout Mikula’s growing up in New Jersey and later in New Hampshire.
“It is time-honored in my family and a big part of who we are,” she says.
But Mikula’s interest goes beyond visuals: her abstract images are inextricably connected to her keen interest in cameras and film, specifically equipment formerly made by Polaroid. Before she even begins to shoot, Mikula embarks on a long process of deciding which camera and film to use, and then explores the
“indescribable part” of her art: what the project means to her and what response she hopes to evoke.
“My whole art life changed when I discovered old Polaroid cameras and peel-apart film,” she says. Polaroid’s inexpensive and easy-to-use cameras and instant film made photography accessible to the amateur, and have long been used for practical purposes, from passport to police photos. Mikula says once she “got hooked on Polaroid, I read about it, tried different cameras, and talked with people who worked for Polaroid their whole life.”
Mikula’s first show in Provincetown runs Oct. 9 to Nov. 1 at T.J. Walton Gallery, 148 Commercial St. The opening reception takes place Saturday, Oct. 17, from 6 to 8 p.m.
Her show, titled “Bearings,” consists of photographs shot in Provincetown in June and July. Mikula chartered the Beth Ann fishing boat out of Nelson Bait & Tackle. She used a pinhole Polaroid camera and discontinued monochromatic Polaroid film in one of three colors — blue, brown or pale grey, and worked only with available light. The resulting images, she says, “are about finding your bearings, your location in the world.” Mikula admits that the work is intended to be disorienting, disquieting and even agitating.
“I wanted a sense of physical and mental location — for people to ask ‘where am I?’ — as they question what is interior and what is exterior, as they experience location and dislocation.”
Mikula’s large-, medium- and small-sized digital Fujiflex prints will be face-mounted to Plexiglas, which further diffuses the light, she explains. There will be one very large 64-by-49-inch print, and eight 9-by-7-inch mounted prints spread throughout the gallery space.
“Bearings” expands upon themes Mikula explored in her recent show at the CHC Gallery in New York. In that show, called “Sic Transit,” from the Latin phrase “sic transit gloria mundi” (which has particular resonance from Mikula’s Catholic girlhood), Mikula moved away from more recognizable objects to abstract, dreamlike images. Mikula’s next show will be in San Francisco in February of 2010 and will feature new photographs taken during July and August.
“The idea of two or three great shows has been beyond my wildest dreams,” says Mikula, whose first exhibition was in 1999 in Northampton.
A resident of western Massachusetts, Mikula’s affection for Provincetown dates back many years. The first trip she ever took with her partner, Rachel Maddow, host of MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” was a visit to Provincetown.
“I had an off-season rental on Atwood. Rachel had never been to Provincetown. I can remember what she looked like as we were driving in. She was very moved by the physical geography, the physicality of the buildings, and that’s saying a lot for a native of California, where the landscape is so beautiful,” says Mikula, adding that the couple has returned nearly every year since that first visit.
Dividing their time between their home in rural Massachusetts and a tiny apartment in New York City, Mikula says her 10-year relationship with political analyst Maddow works because their differences balance one another.
“Rachel’s work requires that she’s working, reading and thinking all the time. She’s far and away the smartest person I know,” she says. “This is coming from a filter of love, but she is true to herself. When
you see her on TV, she is saying exactly what she thinks.”
Mikula planned her Provincetown shoot even before Walton invited her to exhibit the work in her gallery.
“It could have ended up being shown in western Mass., or New York or anywhere. It was luck that T.J., whose work I love, love, love, asked me to show at her gallery,” Mikula says. “As an artist, it hooks you into a long chair of fabulous artists who’ve worked and shown here. It’s a coming back home.”