Review of Gretchen Wachs and Susan Sales


Douglas Fairfield/The Santa Fe New Mexican

Gretchen Wachs and Susan Sales share the spotlight — although not the same exhibition space — in concurrent solo shows that open on Friday, May 8, at Chiaroscuro Contemporary Art’s new location in Gypsy Alley and run through June 6. With more than 3,000 square feet in five separate rooms, director John Addison has some nice options in which to showcase his artists.

At This Point in Time is the title of Sales‘ show, as well as of a featured painting. “The title of this show simply refers to now, both in terms of what I am doing and what is going on in the world around me,” Sales said. “As an abstract painter, my paintings won’t necessarily offer any visual message or revelation. I get to give the works that substance through their titles” — among those titles are Common Bond, Maybe It’s Destiny, and The Life of an Idea.

“I love words and language,” the artist added. “Many times in the past, I have crafted all the titles of a show or series of paintings into a poem.” Sales, a former Santa Fean, was born in Connecticut and now lives in Dallas. “Santa Fe was a wonderful place for me as someone just getting started, and that may be largely because Santa Fe is an international art market,” she stated. “My own experience has shown that people from all over the world go to Santa Fe for the art. Having been represented in Dallas for 15 years, and having lived there for the past five years, I can say this is a more regional market; but nonetheless, Dallas has been very, very good to me — as was Santa Fe. My earliest artistic endeavors were in Los Angeles, and one thing I can say for sure is that no matter where one does it, if a career in art is what one wants, it’s mostly a matter of self-motivation, hard work, and a heavy dose of good luck.”

Such a dose of good fortune (along with the hard work) came in 1991 when Sales began exhibiting at Waxlander Gallery just a year after moving to Santa Fe from L.A., where she had worked in real-estate development. Subsequently, her work was represented by LewAllen Contemporary, where a representative from Dallas-based Craighead Green Gallery saw her work and invited her to join that gallery’s group of artists. Sales has not shown in Santa Fe in a number of years. “I worked with Susan at LewAllen,” stated Addison — this was prior to opening his own gallery and then becoming director at Chiaroscuro. “We became friends, and when she left town [for Dallas] I understood the what and the why but said to myself, ‘she’ll show again in Santa Fe with me.’ So every January since 2004, I’d call Susan to catch up and make an annual plea for her return.”

Apart from two art classes in high school — classes for which she didn’t have much enthusiasm (they were, after all, requisite for her diploma) — Sales is basically self-taught. “I entered the art world very much by accident when I painted some fabric and sewed it into pillows for a friend’s new home,” she said. “No formal [art] education, but lots and lots of reading and looking at pictures and, most important, just doing it. Even though I’d always been exposed to good classical art, the first piece of art that took my breath away was a huge abstract work by Helen Frankenthaler. I was in my early 20s and had no idea anyone did such things. Still, it was years later and via the painting of textiles that I found my way to making fine art.”

Those familiar with Frankenthaler’s nonobjective work can see the influence in Sales’ paintings, but the artist points to Abstract Expressionism as the defining inspiration — particularly the work of Mark Rothko. In a 2004 interview, Sales remarked: “Rothko and I have a similar approach to composition — a color field within a border of another color — however, my focus is not on spiritual transcendence. I am at least as interested in my medium, the paint itself.” Today, she reiterates that: “Ultimately, what really inspires me is the process. It’s the painting (verb), not the painting (noun).”

Common Bond (2009) clearly demonstrates Sales’ debt to Rothko with its dominant red color field and polychrome edges. The saturated reds that make up 90 percent of the composition draw the viewer in, but the fits and starts of other colors that surround the color field make it that much more interesting. Add to that Sales’ finishing layer of high-gloss lacquer. “High gloss always makes the colors uber-vibrant,” she stated. “Oddly enough, the highly reflective surface is not always desirable. I’ve had times when collectors could not hang my work where they first intended due to the reflection.”

But what lies beneath Sales’ lacquered surface makes you appreciate her work all the more. According to the artist, she “stumbled” onto her signature process. “In the early days, I often painted things that were ‘brilliant’ that night and ‘landfill’ the next morning. If I had a canvas that I wasn’t satisfied with, I decided to sand it a little before I painted on it more, to insure the additional layers would adhere. After doing this a number of times, I realized it was giving me this wonderful surface.” So Sales’ method of painting, sanding, and repainting many times over is labor-intensive — a component to her work that is not readily visible but key to the end result.

When confronted with the comment that her paintings might be viewed in various positions — vertically, horizontally, or inverted — Sales was gracious as well as candid. “I work the pieces from every angle and have found that very often they can be oriented any number of ways. [But] balance is critical; otherwise my work is too random and reckless.” Regardless, Sales’ work is compositionally sound.

A publicist describes Sales’ paintings as “reminiscent of bodies of water” and conveying “timelessness, destiny, and fate.” Indeed, one may relate her painting Destiny (2009) to Monet’s late lily-pond paintings; but in the end, Sales makes light of such descriptions. “Oh Lord, that’s all art speak, not anything I would say. I’m always amused at the way art is discussed and written about. I just paint. If someone can see something in my work, then I just let them run with it.”

Similarly, Wachs‘ art can be viewed in many ways. Working in two mediums — sculpting with cast glass and ceramics, and more recently, painting — her abstract aesthetic results in three-dimensional constructs and two-dimensional imagery that are open to interpretation.

When asked about working with sculptural forms versus the flat surface of the canvas, Wachs remarked, “When I begin a painting, I don’t know the destination, so I move very physically with the brush, at times lyrical, at times tentative or very committed, sometimes boldly unleashing my energy, hoping that something will occur leading me to some moment, some place in time, or some event ending in resolution. The sculpture, on the other hand — the clay and the glass – engages me differently. It’s all about form, how it moves in space (3-D space).

It feels like it comes from a different place, or maybe from the same place but by way of a different vehicle. Sometimes painting feels like mental gymnastics: decisions, navigating, circumventing, inventing, and eliminating. The sculpture, while it is incredibly demanding physically — especially the glass casting — is more fluid in its conception. I feel the form somewhere inside; it’s a very visceral thing. Not that the painting isn’t, but I arrive there so differently.” Wachs learned to work with glass under the tutelage of Australian glass artist Richard Whiteley in Portland, Oregon, and has continued to explore combining glass with ceramics at Santa Fe Community College.

Originally from Maryland, Wachs attended the Maryland Institute of Art and received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Alfred University in New York. She later spent time at the Santa Fe Art Institute and, in 1998, earned a masters degree in art therapy at Southwestern College in Santa Fe. Her work is represented in public and private collections, including those of Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri; the Canton Art Institute in Ohio; Texas Instruments in Colorado; Delta Airlines in Atlanta; and the Governor’s Gallery here in Santa Fe. Wachs lives and maintains a studio north of Tesuque.

Casting About, the name of Wachs’ new show, refers to her current mind-set. “It seems like that’s what I’ve been doing — casting about in my art making — both literally and figuratively,” she said. “I do vacillate between the objective and the nonobjective, and I have made paintings that are purely abstract. However, I do like the counterpoint that

happens in the intersection of object and figure with abstraction.”

Such can be seen in Wachs’ painting Above & Below (2009), where expressive mark making and abstract components surround a disembodied hand reaching out from a black void. Geometric shapes — loosely painted triangles, circles, a square, and rectangles — ground the image contextually, yet the meaning of the painting is unclear. “The marks are my handwriting, my gestures, my attempt at expressing the moment. [They] can be narrative or compositional decisions,” explained Wachs. The same compositional device is used for Low Tide (2009), in which Wachs incorporates snippets of reality-based imagery — seashells and a checkerboard motif — amid a series of expressively painted squares and rectangles.

Similar mark making graces her sculptural work. Wave (2009) is a multiglazed cast-glass and ceramic piece topped with a segment of green glass that follows the horizontal, curvilinear shape of the object. Done primarily in earth tones, the painterly application of the glazes gives Wachs’ tabletop slab a visual complexity that compels one to view it from all sides. In various lighting, the translucency of the glass allows for a changing persona that adds yet another dimension of visual interest. Comb (2008) is a vertical piece with a polychrome ceramic base and a cast glass top. While the utilitarian reference is clear, given its row of glass teeth — and looking every bit like an artistic curling iron — its abstract, totemic structure takes it beyond the realm of the domestic. Comb is both fun and contemplative.

“Gretchen and Susan are both very focused on surface,” states Addison. “In fact, the surface elements really define their individual work. The smoothness of Susan Sales’ uniform, polished surface is a direct opposite to the more organic, undulating surfaces of Gretchen Wachs. They both use very saturated gestural color with expressionistic markings, but the end result is so different.”