by Andy Brumer
"Skull and Other Symbols,"
"Night Ride," o/c, c. 1987.
Williamson Gallery, Scripps College, East Los Angeles County)
Spanish poet Antonio Machado, writing about a "physical
laborer, a thinker and a poet" attending the theatre, makes
the slightly odd observation that, "only the laborer isn't
bored." The poem continues by saying, "The one who
prefers what is alive/over what is made up/is the person who
writes, dreams or sings. . ." Of course Machado implies
one who paints as well. Not only does Machado's verse celebrate
the often overlooked fact that most artists are firmly rooted
in reality, it coincidentally summarizes the work of the late
Susan Hertel. Hertel herself said that "the everyday already
is the real miracle, the core of what life is about. Within that
repetitive framework, you're free . . .to experience another
level. . ."
In a sensitive and thorough essay that accompanies this retrospective, gallery director Mary Davis MacNaughton writes, "Susan Hertel's art embodies what is marvelous in the mundane experiences of life. . .Her art centers on the people, creatures and places she most intimately knows. . .In her paintings she gave dignity to these humble characters and places and transformed the prosaic activities of daily life into poetic images transfixed by memory. . ."
Hertel, who died of breast cancer at age 63 in 1993, blossomed as an artist while attending Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., which she entered in 1948. Originally from Illinois, she would marry, raise a family and live in Southern California before moving to a ranch in Cerrillos, New Mexico in 1980. Regardless of their place of origin, Hertel's paintings reveal a remarkable blending and transformation of a host of modernist influences. From Cezanne's rhythmic, geometrically organized canvases, to (as MacNaughton perceptively points out in her essay) Matisse's interest in decorative patterning and his ambiguous use of space, to Gaughin's psychologically charged use of color, as well as to Georgia O'Keeffe's ruggedly symbolic spiritualism, Hertel's work presents poetic portraits of her inner and outer worlds.
Hertel loved animals, and her cats, dogs and horses occupy center stage in many of her oil on canvas works. In one titled Artist Not Working, two cats sleep on a bed. Another shows dogs eating from their bowls. Even in a painting called Skulls and Other Symbols, where a very O'Keeffe-ian cow skull looms specter-like over the image of a dog squeezed between a water pitcher and a woman, the dog seems to squeamishly seek comfort and protection from its surrounding 'partners.'
In contrast, while horses do share some canvases with people and even other animals, their dramatic physical power and their dream-like authority mesmerize the viewer and command his or her full attention. In Night Ride, a woman prepares to place a blanket over the massive back of a white horse. The black night and the luminously painted white horse seem ready to escort the woman (presumably the artist) into the timeless realm of magic or art making. Like so many of Hertel's paintings, Night Ride reveals the artist's soul as simultaneously austere and fanciful.
Hertel also enjoyed a career as a public artist. She created mosaic murals for Home Savings of America throughout California and other parts of the United States, and the retrospective includes several of her designs for these murals. She gave up mural work in 1990 to concentrate on her own painting before sadly succumbing in 1993.