Flying Without a Net

Susan Else’s ambiguous narratives
For the past 20 years, I have made sculpture with a collaged and quilted cloth surface.  Figurative, with a surrealistic overlay, the work has a humorous undertone. Each piece tells a story---though the narrative is often ambiguous. I like to make work that merges conflicting emotions and experiences in a single image. In Wrong Universe, for example, an aerialist leaps from his trapeze, only to discover that instead of a partner waiting to catch him, an oversized parrot gazes from the other trapeze. The viewer can decide the outcome. In my skeleton series, sweet and tender life moments are enacted by the dead---and the bones have a vibrant, festive surface. My aim is to keep the viewer a little off-balance, but engaged. I want the surface of the work to be beautiful in the way that only a textile can, and (when the narrative warrants) I add  lighting, motors, and audio.
 
As the times have darkened, some of my my work has morphed from wry social commentary to overt political statement. I call this "stealth art," where the safe domestic ambience of sewn cloth pulls the viewer in to examine difficult issues of contemporary life. In Crossing Points, a diorama of war and refugees, lush velvet creates a cracked-earth surface under the struggling figures. The bright colors and doll-like quality of the people can momentarily make viewers think they're looking at something more benign than it is.
 
"Without A Net," a ten-piece installation that examines the dualities of the old-fashioned circus and sideshow, debuted this spring at San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. The circus has always been a fantasy where gritty life lurked: at once a festival of human prowess and an exploitation of human oddity and difference. In my circus, this duality is brought to life with moving parts, flashing lights, and the sounds of barkers and calliope music. 
 
The Human Spectacle works like an old-fashioned Chinese lantern. The tent is covered with silhouettes from the spectacular "big top," but from inside, a rotating parade of "freaks" casts shadows among the horse dancers, jugglers, and acrobats. In Step Right Up, a ringmaster revolves around a flaming circus ring, twirling his whip. Look closely, though, and you'll see that the rotating floor of the ring is a map of the earth, and under his top hat the ringmaster has a swoosh of yellow hair. This is whimsy with a dark side.
 
I treasure the unexpected in my process. If I could I would never plan anything, working instead from a wisp of an idea until it fleshed itself out into a finished sculpture. Working larger and incorporating technology, however, have made me turn to collaborators who provide engineering and armature-fabrication skills I don't possess. This in turn has meant that I must plan more, but I try to make room for surprises. In Absolutely Amazing, an elephant on a unicycle uses a balancing pole (made of tusks) to negotiate a tightrope. To strengthen the performance ambience, I outfitted the piece with a spotlight that changed colors---and this unexpectedly cast a huge shadow with dramatic prismatic outlines. I love that magic moment when serendipity rears its head.
 
For more information, visit www.susanelse.com.
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