C0NSTRUCTIONS OF CONSCIENCE:
THE SOCIAL ART OF SUSAN GRABEL
By Robert Sievert
ONCE UPON A TIME (1989) clay, wood, burlap, 63 in. x 48 in. x 14 in.
Susan Grabel has amassed a formidable body of work
over the past 40 years. I never understood it as
an ongoing singularity until I viewed her work in
a retrospective now being shown at the Staten Island
Museum (January 29 through May 28, 2012). Susan is a
figurative sculptor of great ability. She can model
a figure with remarkable accuracy achieving form that
is definitely understandably human. Mostly female and
now mature females that detail the sagging and mark of
time on the human body. Grabel has taken that talent
and honed an impressive body of work that touches on
more than skills in representation
Her work has always had a deeply human component
that shows a concern and feeling for the human
condition. She aligns herself with the humanistic
tradition of artists. Her admiration for Kathe
Kollwitz, Honore Daumier, Rembrandt is clearly felt.
She is a social critic as well as a witness to life's
injustices. Her themes take on the family, cycle of
life, alienation from society, and homelessness.
After seeing Grabel's retrospective (in which the
"homeless" are pictured) February 2012 I had to take a
trip from Staten Island into Manhattan to accomplish
several errands I became aware of the fact that the
"homeless" were for the most part gone. A few men
bumming cigarettes at the St. George terminal and one
chap in Whitehall terminal leaning against the wall
who might fill the definition. But for the most part
they were gone. They who were such a strong presence
in the late 20th century were for the most part swept
away by Bloomberg's policies and acknowledgement
that they were a population that must be served.
they were here for 30 or 40 years and now gone.
Maybe it was the weather. But they were gone
City Environment #1 Overview
As early as 1980 she was making constructions
on political themes. FACE OF THE ENEMY (1980)
is a ceramic essay on the disasters of war. In it
she begins to create a formula for her work. Using
slabs of clay she creates broken walls that surround
a family that has been bombed out. Broken furniture
and injured people swirl through construction showing
the devastation of a bombing. Her thoughts are clear:
This is wrong. Something in the human values has been
broken that such devastation can be put on fellow
human beings. Or is it that that the instruments of
war have been sharpened. and what has existed for
the ages of man, WAR, has continued.
These clay pieces were heavy, cumbersome and
eventually gave way to ceramic figures in wooden
structures, a lighter more efficient solution. 1985
CityStreets #1 with man in sleeping bag showing a
homeless man encamped in a stairwell. Living on
Staten Island Grabel worked in the city and passed
a new presence on the Streets, the homeless, in her
daily commute to work. A 1989 signature piece ADDRESS
UNKNOWN shows a woman sitting on a bench surrounded by
her bags of belongings. The bags are all separately
created with clay and glazed. Now in 2012 I realize
that this iconic figure of of a homeless woman is less
and less seen with the new Bloomberg policies intact.
But in the 1980s it was quite common to see the
homeless encamped around the city. In a 1989 piece
ONCE UPON A TIME Grabel creates another homeless woman
using a ceramic head and colored burlap attests to
Grabel's ability to create a figure through suggested
volume. The inspiration for this piece came from
a conversation with a homeless woman in which the
woman imparted that as a girl she took piano lessons.
Grabel's interest how a young girl becomes a alienated
homeless person is essayed in this piece.
1990 brought a new phase of her work. Grabel began
volunteering in project Hospitality. An organization
devoted to the care of the homeless. She became aware
of the reactions of people to the homeless. She began
a series of heads imprisoned in wooden boxes. Faces
insensitive to the homeless and misery of our lives
thus alienating themselves from their feelings and
humaness. Imprisoned in boxes of non-feeling. The
heads are sensitive portraits she gleaned from the
Her next concern became the female body, not as seen
in pop culture but the reality of woman marked by
the passage of time.
EARTH VENUS, collograph monoprint, 14 in. x 19 in.
She began sculpting the female form -- torsos of
mature woman using women in her life as models. She
created clay figures. She made paper casts of these
figures to keep up with her direction of lighter more
manageable art. These paper casts took on a variety
of embodiments. She began to cut them up and assemble
them into unfolding flowers.
Around this time she began to talk to master
printmaker Herman Zaage. Zaage informed her of a
printing technique 'collography". This is using
paper plates to create prints. Zaage came up with the
idea that if she crushed her paper casts of figures
she could then use them as plates and print them.
What ensued was a long line of elegant prints using
the bodies of mature woman, sometimes overlapping
sometimes singular but using seveal colors rubbed
into the plates to produce images of surface depth.
This exhibit traces 40 years of her work and gives
a clear estimation of Grabel's artistic and human