Restraining Order: Susan Collis

Michael Slenske


Before the recession made the art world’s bombastic styles and record-shattering prices seem excessive, restraint was almost a dirty word. Now, of course, that’s all changed. Look no further than the critical frenzy over the work of British artist Susan Collis: her deceptively simple pieces—lone screws in a blank white wall, derelict brooms and stray pieces of wood studded with nails—are often mistaken for the remains of an art show rather than for the art itself. But Collis’ work entails a level of craftsmanship that calls into question the nature of conceptual art. Those screws, for instance, are made from gold (with wall anchors handcrafted from coral), and her discarded brooms are intricately inlaid with precious stones. "Just to see [what] looks like an empty gallery—and that’s not what it is—seems so appropriate for these times," says Armory Show director Katelijne De Backer, who tapped Collis to create the visual identity for this year’s show. Over a phone conversation from her seaside home in Rye Harbor, on England’s southeast coast, the artist discussed her craft-heavy process, how she plans to slow Armory patrons down with her understated pieces and what she’s expecting from her first time at the show.

What made you want to take this commission?
  Susan Collis: I suppose that [the selection committee] thought the work would fit quite well. It sort of references the whole buying and selling that goes on. It refers to absences as well. Obviously, when there’s a piece I’ve made that has two black diamonds that are made to look like two little holes where a picture or painting has been taken away, you could just so easily walk by that.

What can we expect from you at The Armory Show?
I wanted to weave my work around the other artists being shown on the Seventeen booth [the gallery that represents Collis], because I think the gallery is going to bring about five artists. There will be some of the screws and the Rawlplugs. I wanted them to be quite invisible. There are also some pieces I’ve been making lately which are based on rotten bits of wood I’ve pulled out of dumpsters. But I remake those with very precious materials and specialty woods. Lots of craft techniques, lots of inlay, and if there are nails or screws in them, these have all been made in precious metals.

What about the work for the visual identity of the show?
I’ve made three editions that will be auctioned off for charity. The screw is one of those. I’ve also made what looks like a paint-stained rag, but it’s been woven on a Jacquard loom. Then there’s also a drawing on the pamphlet that looks like quite a dramatic ink splash. I made it so that if you put all of the pamphlets and catalogs together, the ink splash should make a continuous mark. I’m not quite sure if they were able to do that or not, but that was my idea: that you could make your own splash in a way.

Focusing on luxury detritus seems to echo the mood in the art world.
I’ve been making this work since before the recession, so I’m not commenting on [the global financial crisis]. But it does chime a bell. My starting point was wanting to raise up that which is usually ignored and not valued. But I think one of my interests with all these pieces of wood specifically is the fact that they all represent this continual change where something was yesterday’s really big news, like your fantastically luxury kitchen that you absolutely thought was the bee’s knees, and this sort of planned obsolescence that’s worked into everything. A lot of the titles refer to not loving someone anymore—like Look into My Eyes and Tell Me You Don’t Love Me Anymore.

In the chaos and the rush of The Armory Show you’re almost forcing people to slow down.
That’s one of the main things that appealed to me. I do like work that causes me to pause, stop and consider, so it does appeal to me to think I could make those sort of pauses in a really frenetic environment.

Have you ever been to the show?
No—this will be my first time. I do have a bit of a love–hate relationship with art fairs because I find it incredibly hard to take that much in one go. As a viewer I find that quite difficult. I’ve heard it’s absolutely huge and sort of impossible to see everything. But I’ll be finding out soon. I might be slightly overwhelmed, but I’m looking forward to it.

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