Artist statement 2017
I’m a dyslexic introvert who is queer. I’ve always felt as if I’ve been on the outside looking in. Growing up in a less than supportive environment, art was an escape for me. I would spend hours hidden away somewhere painting or drawing the world I wanted to live in. This was a masculine world filled with soldiers, cowboys, and adventure.
I grew up in a house full of women, my grandmother as matriarch. It was a big house that was filled with women and children, who were either divorced or separated from their fathers and husbands. I watched a lot of westerns and war movies fantasizing that the men in the family were off having these great adventures. My father was a career officer in the Air Force. I would visit him every other summer and seeing him in his uniform only confirmed these fantasies. Being a natural tomboy, I longed for the freedom and adventure I imagined was a natural born right to those lucky enough to be born male.
My family’s attempts to feminize me failed. I longed for the life I imagined the men having, so much so that I identified more with boys than girls. When I was made to wear a dress to school, I felt like I was in drag. I would run home after school and throw on my older brothers hand-me-downs. If I wasn’t playing with my action figures, then I was drawing cowboys and soldiers. I very seldom drew women. On the rare occasion I did they were usually tied up and something that the men were fighting over.
I clearly remember the day I was introduced to the idea that art could be porn and porn could be art. While I was attending Parsons at the tender age of 18, in 1983, I was working in the West Village. On my way to work one afternoon, I passed a card shop that sold gay-themed cards and whatnots. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a postcard that turned out to be Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Man in a Polyester Suit.” The image is of a light polyester clad torso with a huge black dick hanging out. This image is still seared into my brain. It’s like it went from my retinas directly to my nervous system. I began to hold a notion that I wanted my paintings to be timeless. I didn’t want them to have objects or props that would date them, or make them illustrations. I wanted to paint about what it is to be human in an emotional sense – in a way that transcended time. The postcard had triggered this idea and it haunted me. I don’t know if it was fear or shame, or maybe that it was considered porn – I wasn’t brave enough to know how important that image was yet. By 2002, I had moved to the west coast and my exploration through sex had become the place where I felt like part of the human race, the place where I’m part of something bigger than myself. I began to express this in my art. I painted a series of genitalia as portraits. I ended up doing 20 of them, half women and half men. They were well received at a show in San Francisco. My internal world started blossoming out into my external world.
As my consciousness of what and why I paint has matured and become more clear, gender and sexuality has become a focal point of my art. The line between male and female has become blurry. My subjects range from cis men, cis women, trans men, trans women and many others on the non-binary rainbow. I’ve painted women as fierce warriors, and men as objects of desire. I’ve painted a trans guy as a modern-day Bacchus with the fruits of his overindulgence between his thighs. I’ve painted a cis and trans woman together complementing and contrasting each other. I’ve done a portrait of my own midsection corseted and feminized and right after painted my midsection in black leather with a black dildo. I treat my subjects with respect and humanity without negating their differences and struggles.
I use art for self-exploration, hoping that the products of this exploration may reach others. I paint technically as well as I can, using my painting prowess to draw the viewer in. Once they’re in, then the subject of the painting may be considered.
Suzanne M. Shifflett