The Magnificent Obsessive

Valley artist Sue Chenoweth finds inspiration in obsessive-compulsive disorder

To look at her, Phoenix painter Sue Chenoweth -- an indefatigably cheerful 47-year-old married mother of two teenagers -- doesn't strike you as a stereotypically introspective, visionary artist type.

But the frenzied mixed-media paintings of this Valley artist, now on exhibit through February 27 at Modified in central Phoenix, underscore the old adage that looks can often be very deceiving.

Executed on large panels of birch plywood, repeatedly scraped of layer upon layer of paint and penciled drawings, Chenoweth's paintings are the antithesis of the mild-mannered, suburban-homemaker image the artist outwardly projects. Torturously labyrinthine in appearance, as well as in meaning, frequently saddled with titles alluding to literary sources, Chenoweth's most recent offerings (which she maintains are actually prayers) are multilayered mental mazes in which the viewer can easily get trapped -- with no visible routes of escape or relief in sight.

Overlay: House, Home, Everyday Place (2000), acrylic, graphite, marking paint, wax, miniature house, wood knob and plastic disks on birch panel, 48" x 48".
Overlay: House, Home, Everyday Place (2000), acrylic, graphite, marking paint, wax, miniature house, wood knob and plastic disks on birch panel, 48" x 48".


Recent paintings by Sue Chenoweth, as well as work by Sergio Aguirre, are on display until February 27. Call 602-252-7664.

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Modified, 407 East Roosevelt

Take, for example, I Should Go With Him in the Gloom, a large piece in Modifed's exhibition that has, as its starting point, lines from British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy's "The Oxen," a well-known poem about the Nativity that Chenoweth can recite by heart: "In the lonely barton by yonder coomb/Our childhood used to know/I should go with him in the gloom/Hoping it might be so."

Chenoweth's anxious take on the lines is far from a sappy, Christmas card Nativity scene. Instead, slashes of nails-on-chalkboard neon orange -- made with the kind of fluorescent paint utilities use to mark subterranean wires and pipes -- drip over pentimento images of a sketchy, transparent Madonna and worshiping magi, who gaze into what looks like a frothing baby carriage bubbling like a caldron. Shards from a shattered ceramic tiger made by the artist, representing evil to her, litter a part of the painting's surface. Through this disquieting scene float powder blue amoeboid shapes, which make guest appearances in several other paintings in Chenoweth's show.

According to the artist, the meaning of these forms changes in every painting, though they often denote bits of floating information. "In this particular piece," she says, "these blue amoeba things are the Holy Spirit and are telling the story of the Mother Mary and Baby Jesus. . . . They are goodness bubbles. But if you tell people this, they think you're crazy."

Chenoweth is on intimate terms with craziness. The articulate painter, who currently teaches drawing and introduction to art classes at both Glendale Community College and Phoenix College, is quite open about the fact that, for years, she suffered from untreated obsessive-compulsive disorder. A person trapped in the nightmare of OCD, a painfully debilitating anxiety disorder caused by neurochemical imbalances, can be plagued by anxious or disturbing thoughts. In many cases, its victims are prisoners of senseless but uncontrollable rituals, like repetitive hand washing, list making and checking. OCD sufferers engage in such illogical ceremonial acts as a way of relieving the pain of their unrelenting, biochemically induced obsessions.

Chenoweth's form of the illness, medically untreatable before the 1980s, was so severe, it prevented her from attending California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) in Valencia, California. Though she was accepted at cutting-edge CalArts in 1971 after studying with painter Marlyne Jones in high school ("At this time, I was making up a world of little udder people; they were udder people because they looked like cow udders"), the theory-driven art school was too much for Chenoweth to handle psychologically. Quickly taken over by the conceptual art trinity of John Baldessari, Michael Asher and Douglas Huebler, the place became a veritable art world star-making machine that has churned out the likes of David Salle, Eric Fischl and Mike Kelley.

"After high school, I went to ASU and hated it," says Chenoweth, whose parents moved to the Valley from Plainview, Texas, when she was 4 because of a skin condition she had developed. "I dropped out and didn't go back for years.

"I became phobic about it. All I did for three years after I dropped out was think about Lord of the Flies [William Golding's gruesome, highly symbolic novel about a group of island-stranded children escaping a nuclear holocaust who, with time, turn from socialized civility to murderous savagery] -- and draw. I still have all the drawings I've ever done."

Chenoweth admits to a long, disabling gap in her life between the ages of 18 and 30, "when I was in terrible pain and not able to go outside. I was in so much pain from OCD that I would just take handfuls of pills. For 12 years, they had me on lithium, and I'm not manic-depressive," the painter points out. "I was in and out of hospitals and underwent 'cult therapy.' They kept labeling me whatever was popular at the time -- they would label me bipolar, then schizophrenic for a while. They had me on Stelazine and Mellaril."

Even at her worst point, Chenoweth was able to depict, or at least deal with, her pain through drawing and writing, which she now characterizes more as ranting and raving. "That's what kept me alive through that time," Chenoweth claims. "Even then, I knew that I had something. I knew that I understood something that hardly anybody understands."

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