Suzanne Russell is an American painter who has lived in Denmark for the last ten years. She exhibits in major galleries there and has sold much of her work to international corporations. She began painting seriously during the eighties while attending law school at New York University and has continued to paint throughout her three-year career as a Wall Street lawyer.
For the past decade or so, Suzanne has made annual trips to galleries across Europe and the United States to view recent works and to raise interest in her own paintings. This year she
visited some San Francisco and Los Angeles galleries for the first time. I spoke with her in San Francisco about the business of art and about living as an expatriate painter in the age of the Internet.
John Tomasic (for Artwell):So what did you think of L.A.?
Suzanne Russell: L.A. is crazy in the best way, but it won't work for me because I guess I'm looking for something else at this point...
JT:What are you looking for?
SR: I guess I want to connect with the larger world of art; you know, break out. I think that's why L.A. people were telling me to concentrate my efforts in New York. Let me put it this way-- I can make a living as a painter in Copenhagen. I've learned how to do that. It's just that well, frankly, the cliches of the expatriate artist still apply. I'm desperate for
deeper levels of engagement. I mean, painting "American Impressions of Danish People" is just not that interesting--even though noting the curious way Danish people behave has kind of been my hobby for the last ten years. The thing is, I'll play with ideas, but they often get lost before I figure out what was interesting or where it was all going. I read a lot, I talk to friends in New York, but most of the time I just want to paint with interesting people, get into it with them, find out what others are doing.
JT: You mean there's none of that happening in Europe?
SR: No, of course there is--there's lots going on in Berlin and Cologne. It's just that after ten years, I still know
so much more about how it all works in New York. I feel I have perspective there. I know what to read, where to hang out, who to talk to about my various art crises. On the other hand, there's definitely a comic side to living in ignorance abroad. When I first went to Europe, for instance, I went to Paris to find a dealer. Paris--one of the major art capitals of the world, right? Of course not. I had this agent you wouldn't believe, a pokey schoolteacher peddling paintings during his summer vacations. The odd looks we gave each other. Horrible. What did I know?
JT: So how did you finally begin to sell your work?
SR: Somewhere along the line I registered the fact that large industries receive tax breaks to buy art. I started calling companies in Denmark and asking flat out, "How much do you put aside each year for art?" "Okay," I'd say, "here's a painting for your offices or for your cafeteria. It's three thousand dollars." I sent out slides and invited corporate representatives to my studio. I was showing my work to these people twice a month. I was painting like mad. I became a favorite (lowers her voice to sound serious); very consistent and productive. It was bad in all the ways you might imagine, but it was also extremely addictive. I still work at saying "no" to the corporate club scene.
JT: You became a corporate art junkie! Did your painting suffer? Did you surrender your loftiest artistic goals?
SR: Hell, yeah! I was a favorite because my paintings sold. I was a reliable supplier. One thing I learned is that corporations love blue. When in doubt, spread a little more sky on that canvas. Blue has market value, baby! You can bank on [it]. Actually, it was exhausting. There I was at the Butchers' Union Art Club meeting, nibbling ham and sausage sandwiches and listening to meat workers gripe about the boss. I eventually learned that the best way to approach the meetings was to speak briefly about the paintings and then to leave if there were no questions. I enjoyed that much more.
JT: Did people respond to your talks?
SR: Yeah, they often asked interesting questions. In fact, I briefly offered to create installations because I thought that day-to-day at a law office, an installation of, say, computers and file folders, might be more engaging than a painting. Employees could look for each other's names on the used keyboards, for instance, and talk to each other about what they thought was going on with this [piece] of art. But the firms, the butchers' unions they want products they can eventually sell or raffle off at the Christmas party. Paintings are such tangible products, so well established as consumer items. But what do you do with an installation?
JT: Install a camera and auction it off on the Internet, of course.
SR: Why not? I'd include a tape of me disassembling it, wrapping it up, and sending it off. You know, I have such high hopes for the Internet, but it's not there yet. I can browse and plan trips on the Web, which is great, but I still have to bring the slides along with me everywhere. I would love to be able to visit galleries and download my works on life-sized, high-density--very high-density--projection screens or something.
We'll probably all begin painting in ways that download really well. Who knows.
As far as keeping in touch with what's happening, I know it's square, but I still rely on the well-established magazines and journals, which are increasingly international in scope. You can't get around the fact that they still carry the--am I going to say this?--weight of authority. But it's just a matter of time. And hey, e-mail is great. It's a lifeline.