Once in a while an artist will hit upon a mode of production so deeply personal, idiosyncratic and hermetic that it verges upon the compulsive. Yayoi Kusama's multitudes of painted dots come to mind, as do Ginny Bishton's tonal collaged abstractions done in minute repetitive shapes cut from photographs. The most successful of these works have a paradoxical effect: They subvert the profoundly isolated circumstances of their creation by connecting us viscerally with the artists who made them.
North Carolina artist Leigh Suggs appears to have joined the ranks of such heavyweight aesthetic solitarians. Her current show, Red White Black and Blue, at Light Art+Design in Chapel Hill, provides a survey of more than 50 works that represent a prolific and meticulous art practice. At the heart of Suggs' project is the memory of a childhood visual experience. The artist describes closing her eyes and seeing an infinity of circles and dots that formed patterns. While the visions of her childhood have left her, Suggs now creates works based on singular, pattern-producing strategies, repetitive mark-making gestures that she perpetuates until a composition is complete. These strategies include the use of ink, paint, thread, puncturing tools and folded paper to generate a range of geometric and organic patterns.
According to text accompanying the show's four largest works, Suggs devoted between 75 to 100 hours per piece. They are titled "Something Happened To Me That Day," numbered I and II, and "Something Happened To Me That Night," also numbered I and II. Her production strategy is precise but simple. Suggs uses gel pens with archival ink to draw small circles of roughly the same dimension over and over until the surface of a 45 x 45-inch sheet of thick Japanese paper is filled. The gradations of tone in the ink are determined solely by shifts in the pressure asserted by the artist's hand and by the pens as they run out. The result is a subtle proliferation of marks that refuse a static read but rather churn out cycling visual associations to camouflage, cellular structures, dense foliage, cloud formations, smoke and fungus. The implicit drama of the works' titles ("something happened to me...") suggests that they serve as a visual autobiography, diagrammatic evidence of long hours in the studio and obsessive mark making.
Suggs' work is deceptively simple and subtle. It won't scream at you from across the room. It's the kind of work that, if you're in a hurry, you might not notice at all. But it will wait patiently for you to come back when you have more time. And so the notion of time seems to crop up throughout Red White Black and Blue in works such as "Quarter To Four," a single sheet of graph paper that the artist has, with astonishing patience, cut into, creating small square voids within each module of the grid. Taking time with this work, one becomes aware of the staggering level of care that was required to produce it; a single mistake and the integrity of the piece would be violated. The work is floated in its frame so that light passes through the holes and creates a second grid of shadows. In this way, the work needs to be read as a subtle sculptural statement.
Indeed, most of Suggs' works on view are ostensibly two-dimensional, but they quietly demand to be seen as sculptures. Even the flattest works remind us of their dimensionality, sparking the idea that the thinnest sheet of paper constitutes a molecular degree of thickness, so that when the artist cuts into it, she produces a depth, and when the thinnest stroke of ink is drawn upon it, it produces a new physical layer. The process begins to feel infinite—a universe of nominal voids and micro-distances.
The show includes two large circular wall constructions, one red, one white, of sheer rounds of vellum hand-stitched onto a linen backing; they communicate a sense of burgeoning and expansion. This quality recurs throughout Red White Black and Blue, seen in hand-rendered grids and clusters that keep the eye moving. It is rare to see this many works by a single artist in one place, and this multiplicity serves Suggs well. We are given the opportunity to wander throughout the gallery space and ping between the works, forging circuitries, noticing patterns, appreciating subtle divergences—the dominant narrative being Suggs at work.
Also on view at Light are richly textured ceramic abstractions by Jessica Dupuis and a series of wind-blown ink works on paper by Mark Warren, along with his sensitively crafted molded porcelain works.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dots and loops."