The Magnificent Obsessive

Valley artist Sue Chenoweth finds inspiration in obsessive-compulsive disorder

After years of medical misdiagnosis and treatment -- during which time Chenoweth somehow doggedly continued to make art and get married -- her problem was finally pinpointed and successfully treated. She was then able to return to ASU and earn both her bachelor of fine arts and master of fine arts degrees. "I'm a recovering person because of being put on the wrong medicine. I guess those experiences are a part of my work," Chenoweth adds philosophically.

Though still quite edgy and at times visually strident, Sue Chenoweth's present painterly output reflects a considerable measure of joy, born from rediscovering what a relatively normal life is like. These paintings are celebrations of the good, the bad and the ugly -- informed by her happiness with just being alive, having children and attaining a modicum of normality.

But be forewarned: Despite everything, there is nothing languorous or smug about these paintings. Battered, scrubbed, repeatedly overworked with feverish graphite drawings, rabid mark making, garish fluorescent paint, drilled holes and the occasional stray object (clear plastic disks are a new favorite), these works strive for -- and usually attain -- an unvarnished emotional honesty that can be anxiety-provoking to the viewer.

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

In Prayer Shawl, which features two figures imprisoned in a bulbous form, Chenoweth pays homage to her husband and their relationship. As if x-rayed, the huge ball, flanked by otherworldly trees, reveals two crudely drawn shapes that remind one of some root vegetable violently ripped from the earth.

Overlay: House, Home, Everyday Place, a piece that began as the painter envisioned her parents' A-frame cabin, focuses on a large triangular shape being engulfed by a brilliant vermilion cloud with undulating tentacles against a sketchy background of blue, copper and green wallpaper-like tendrils. Within the pyramidal form, rough holes have been drilled into the plywood surface, all connected by orange lines like a Chinese checkerboard. At the top of the panel, a wooden knob, a miniature silver two-story house affixed to it, suggests that the painting's surface can be opened to reveal something hidden.

"It's a picture of the air around me as I paint that became a celebration of home or place," explains the artist. "Coming down from the house are pathways in an octopussy shape, and bubbles are falling and traveling. In this painting, I actually traveled with it as I painted it."

Chenoweth admits to often intentionally messing up a painting in order to save it. If she begins to feel too comfortable with a work, she sands it off, allowing the remnants to signal a new starting point. "Transgression and redemption -- that becomes the whole thing," says the painter, "of taking it out there so far that you get that feeling of panic. It's a horrible feeling. I hate that feeling, but I've gotten used to it in painting because it's necessary."

Chenoweth's hard-won mental well-being now allows her to concentrate on seeking the inherently mystical nature of the creative process. It is her self-stated search for the ineffable, her quest to manifest the unknowable and inconceivable, that evokes in the serious viewer a sense that her paintings -- strange, viscerally obsessive and stylistically unmistakable -- are akin to the writing of artist-poet William Blake or work by untutored outsider artists. From the paintings, it is also clear that Chenoweth, like such artists, makes this art because she must.

"Going through the experience of getting well, I've really had to touch into God," says Chenoweth. "I let go so God takes over; it sounds so silly, but that's what I do. I naturally go into this religious place of the unknown -- it's not the New Age thing and it's not the Christian thing. It's like embracing the wonder of what things could be."

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