Visual Arts

The Magnificent Obsessive

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.

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."

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.

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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Kathleen Vanesian