Artist, educator, and arts administrator who has lived and worked in Chicago since 1979. She is a professor emerita in the School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Chicago.
I cut out about 800 images from a 1936 volume of Grey’s Anatomy according to body part and collaged them to 30 ink drawings from 2005. For example, parts of the ear seemed to echo the curves of a drawing of a chandelier. I glued illustrations of lungs to a drawing of the dried interior of a saguaro cactus, urological parts to costume jewelry, the bones of the pelvis to a drawing of glitter-covered crowns and the musculature of the arm to feathers. At the bottom of each collage is an excerpt of a poem that pertained to the drawing from my collection, Consorting with Nathaniel Hawthorne. (see Poetry Project) Collages are 22” × 30”
These collages are amalgams of cut pieces from books on Japanese and Chinese ceramics, orchids and other flowers, jade and gems, sea shells, insects, and forested landscape. I have arranged the component parts by registering various images into an organic flow from one subject to another with punctuations of color and texture to guide the eye of the viewer as though within one window to another.
Ikebana is a disciplined art form that brings together the symbolic representation of nature and the meditative and silent state of the practitioner. Flowers are used as part of the living plant material along with branches, seashells, roots, and leaves in various types of containers that relate to the concept. It is a discipline of the inner spirit for the purification of the mind.
12” × 9” cut paper
Ikebana 1 Description
I cut fragments from books on jellyfish, anemone, and coral to fabricate hyperbolized eco-environments.
In making 600 or so collages, I investigated the depiction of women in print materials from 1892 to the present. They included bibles, medical text books, illustrations in fiction and poetry books, magazines, and post cards. I excised them from those contexts and juxtaposed them with each other in images that shifted content them from subservience and civility to disruption and pleasure.
Cut print materials
9” × 6” and larger
Various succulents and cactus are as other-worldly as spines and orbs can be. Euphorbias, eceheveria, mammillaria, echinopsis, crassula and star-shaped stampeliads are earthly oddities that adapt to conserve water in dry habitats. They remind us that moisture matters as well as the beauty of difference.
Prismacolor on paper
44” × 30” and smaller
The Buddhist visualization of interconnection and interdependence of all things makes for emptiness and form.
Acrylic ink on paper
180” × 48” and smaller
Inclusion in an exhibition called “Night-Sky” generated drawings of stars, some of which have fallen while some have lined up as if to proclaim “luck.”
Acrylic ink on paper
44” × 30” and smaller
Even-handed repetition and skewed grids are as out-of-kilter as life.
Acrylic ink on paper
72” × 72” and smaller
In search of reconciliation, I drew a heart, brain, white roses, a faithful hound, a wing of tears, and a sky of swollen orbs.
Oil pastel on paper
204” × 48^rdquo; and smaller
A dark and gothic narrative includes underwater life, sea creatures, gnarled tree branches and other misbegotten beauties.
Acrylic ink on paper
49” × 38”
A body of thirty or so paintings in egg-tempera on wood panels, watercolor on paper, and gouache on paper varied in size and intent. Some were “portraits” of family and friends, others were re-imaginings of lace patterns as baroque adornments hiding the face of Gloria Swanson and other aging beauties.
Inks and acrylic ink on paper
17” × 30” and larger
Various bodies of drawings detail plants that are dense, fecund, and unforgiving. The aroma of the suffocating intensity draws me back every few years.
Oil pastel and spray enamel on paper, oil pastel, ink, graphite
44” × 30” and smaller
I began these pieces with broad swaths of ink on paper, turned the dried paper over, and articulated each drip and drop with gouache as an “enhancement” of what was suggested by chance.
Ink, gouache on paper
36” × 26” and smaller
The Buddhist representation of interconnectedness depicts all things as equal, non-hierarchical, and holistic.
Acrylic ink on canvas
72” × 60” and smaller
Subject matter is as different as Salome’s pearls are to Magdalen’s tears.
Some of the images refer to constellations while others are a memorial to fallen heroines of both noble and dishonorable repute.
Acrylic ink on paper or aluminum
Primordial ooze is the subject of close focus representations of 1 x 1” sections of other paintings as a regenerative process – lost but never forgotten.
The abstract forms were derived from cut out fragments of images from National Geographic magazine such as Tina Turner’s legs, a chandelier, and cloth covering a dead child’s head. As the series progressed into more than twenty works, the forms dissolved into thin air.
A previous series of sixteen small gouache on paper paintings were “portraits” of friends and family devised by selecting a pattern of a vintage necktie and adjusting colors as a representation of their character traits. A later “Lace” series, egg-tempera on wood panels and oil on canvas, was exhibited in an installation of steel chairs and stacks of books with titles that described the content of the paintings.
Oil on canvas and upholstery fabric, gouache and watercolor on paper, egg-tempera on panel
48” × 64”, 9” × 9” and varied sizes
While listening to the senate hearings on the probability of a war, I made diptychs and triptychs that referred to gunsights and targets. The paintings varied when illuminated with a raking light – highly structured from the side and atmospheric from the front. The second series was based on Renaissance depictions of torture and war.
Oil on canvas
72” × 60” and smaller
I borrowed structure from annunciation images by pre-Renaissance painters such as Giotto, Fra Angelico, Duccio, and Lorenzetti. Gabriel flies into the cloister as Mary recognizes her future and casts her book aside.
Oil on canvas
72” × 65” and smaller
A recent series of plant paintings depicts tears as dew on freshly picked artificial flowers within a hyperbolic narrative of self-pity and vertigo, vice and virtue as described in “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I have photographed various kinds of tropical plants in gardens and conservatories as references for early Macondo paintings that were like the fecund jungles in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novels. I used a Renaissance glaze technique to build the complex overlays of fronds and leaves.
Architectonic and evocative spaces bridged Tuscany with Chicago and Nara, Japan. The oil paintings are titled for goddesses: Benten, Fugen, Kwan Yin and other strong and agitated women (now, call us “nasty”). All pieces have a mysterious, dark green space that is a harbinger of the inexplicable – light and shadow, control and chaos, discipline and lawlessness.
Human beings are complicated creatures. We have bodies that are discreet, bounded, and relatively fixed in their identity; yet yoked inextricably to them are inner selves that are amorphous, fluid, and frequently uncertain of their limits. Negotiating between the two is a difficult task. Masks, costumes, fashion, and even surgery are means by which we attempt to transform the truculent materiality of the body. But the more fluid our inner beings and the more intense our quest to see ourself in multiple guises, the more frustrating it is to drag our bodies along behind.
Children explore the boundary between the inner self and the body by dressing up. Putting on her mother’s dresses, jewelry, and makeup allows a girl to imagine herself as an adult. The belief that she can take on the attributes of an older person, perhaps one recognized for her allure or charm, is a form of empowerment for a young girl who assumes that the fluidity of her inner desires can actually after her identity. Generally, children dress up within conventional norms. They emulate movie stars, soldiers, policemen, or rock musicians. But dressing up can be transgressive when children put on the clothing of the other sex or garb themselves as antisocial beings.
Through the work of Cindy Sherman, Joel Peter Witkin, and other photographers for whom dressing up is central to their practice, we have come to recognize theatricality as a distinct genre of contemporary photography. However, this form of representation is still little understood. What is particularly unresolved is whether to read theatrical photographs as representations of artifice in which the identity of the performer disappears behind the façade of a theatrical tableaux or whether to see the photograph as a self-representation that reveals to us the photographer’s negotiation between a fluid inner self and the limitations of the body. In the first instance, the performer is clearly separated from the tableaux, concealed, as it were, behind it; in the second, he or she is part of the tableaux, which becomes a mirror to disclose and unforeseen aspect of the artist’s identity.
For Susan Sensemann, photography is an act of disclosure rather than concealment. Her pictures summon references to disguise, dressing up, and masking, but she does not try to pass as a garden gnome or a marble bust. Instead, she wants to engage with those images, to explore them as signs of self. What she brings to this project is her own countenance. We see her face in different moods and positions; eyes open and eyes closed, full face and profile. Each example reveals a distinct aspect of her being and as Alexander Rodchenko argued in his essay against the photographic portrait and in favor of the snap-shot, we know someone better through multiple representations than through a single composite image.
The photographs which Sensemann superimposes on her face wre all taken by her during twenty five years of travels. She is captivated by the most diverse subjects – prickly cacti and seaweed, sculpted Thai vegetables, marble busts of historic figures, Roman wall murals, a statue of the Buddha, delicate lace, and a fiercely male countenance of Bacchus on an Italian serving plate. In some of these pictures, we see the shape of her face particularly clearly; in others, the overlay of the joined image is so seamless that it appears to be a new skin with its own contours.
The mood of these photographs is rich and sensuous. Color, texture, and shape reach into the chasms of our psyches to evoke primal responses. There is much at stake in these pictures. They are intended to be deeply felt rather than surveyed in a shallow manner. For they are less about seeing than being. They probe into that realm of the imagination where each of us investigates the limits of our own identity. What would it be like to be a plant? Or a garden gnome, or someone of the other sex? This can be transgressive territory if we attempt to act it out in social situations. But art allows the freedom to ignore conventions.
These photographs of Susan Sensemann’s are liberating both for her and us. She courageously exposes the trajectory of her own psyche as it seeks out its counterparts in the material world. Some of these pictures strike us with special force because of the uncanny alignments of one image with another. Consider, in particular, the plate with the head of Bacchus on it. Instead of donning the head as a mask, Sensemann actually unites her face with it so that the two affect each other reciprocally. We not only see the artist as an intensely masculine Bacchus but we also encounter Bacchus with a feminine side. The same might be said of the photograph of a serene Buddha, which the artist maps onto her face. Whereas a mask by itself is a weak object until animated by a living being, the images of Bacchus and Buddha are powerful in their own right and Sensemann’s relation to them becomes anexchange of qualities rather than the inhabiting of an otherwise inanimate object.
Sensemann creates her pictures through photomontage. She aligns one image with another, working with micro measurements of contiguity. Her eye is as sure as that of John Heartfield or Hannah Hoch, an artist she greatly admires, and her pictures are no less memorable than Hoch’s, particularly those of the German artist’s later ethnography series. Hoch, however, relied on photographs extracted from the mass media to compose her private visions while Sensemann works exclusively with pictures she has taken herself.
Her expansive imagination far outstrips the possibility of using her own body as the locus of its relavation. She needs the more ethereal realm of photography to convey the fervent and ongoing impulse of her inner self to seek aspects of its identity in the world around her. As viewers, we are invited to share that adventure and to contemplate how we ourselves might look as a Roman wall, a tangle of seaweed, or a garden gnome.
To impersonate is to mimic, to don another’s character. The multiplicity of states found in Susan Sensemann’s photographs act out an intimate self-portrait that thematically suggests waves of regression and regeneration. Each montage is a unique representation of the artist merged with organic matter, architectural elements, mosaic surfaces, classical statuary or kitsch lawn ornaments. The masks, grotesques and specters that evolve through serendipitous matching and overlay of photographic material emerge from swarthy, lush backgrounds; as if drawn from the depths of the unconscious. Sensemann creates a reflection or conceptual record of the true self, brimming with repressed appetites and tendencies, often literally rearing its ugly head.
Skin. The soft, pliable material which covers the human body; dividing the inside form outside. A visible measure of youth and beauty. The largest sensory organ. Sensemann plays with skin, transforms it, allows its decay. She becomes a chameleon, absorbing tactile moss, seaweed, and cacti into her flesh. Her eyes enliven the milky, marbleized features of a 17th century statue or the flaking plaster pout of a common garden gnome. This sampling or masquerading of other is a fertile ground for autobiographical expression. The artist describes herself as, “an unapologetic narcissist…my merge with other subjects is my internal drive made visible.” Sensemann’s skin is in a sense turned inside out, revealing the internal psychological and biological battleground of a woman entering middle age. With dark humor, she investigates and questions gender, the aging process and perceived truths of what it means to be human.
“As the author of my own disguise, I become the man, the maiden, and the monster, an embodiment of vertiginous excess. Borrowing the Gothic narrative structure with its hypersaturated color and hyperbolic story line, this series focuses on the monster as a hybrid of fear and desire, perversion and excessive generativity. Half finished, disruptive, and uncanny, the monster eludes capture.” — Sensemann
The latent horror in Sensemann’s photographs feeds upon the violation of boundaries, a disregard for the natural laws associated with gender, plant/human, animal/human, and inanimate object/human divisions. Her images are strangely sensual, yet disturbing. Could it be that in this postmodern era we are keenly aware that Sensemann’s hybrids foretell of the future? Tomorrow’s technology promises the merging of foreign bodies/materials with the human body; consider current day advances in implants, faux skin, and cloning. Progress tests more than just our aesthetic view and knowledge, it also pushes limits of moral acceptance. Sensemann reminds us that unnatural hybridization and composite bodies (monsters more refined than Shelley’s Frankenstein), are already in our midst. What miracles and terrors are to come?
Disturbing too is the dichotomy of attraction (beauty) and repulsion simultaneously employed by Sensemann. This sensibility in her work stems from a critical interest in the 19th century Gothic literary tradition. In particular, Sensemann cites the contemporary revisionist author, Judith Halberstam whose description of the term Gothic includes, “the disruption of realism and of all generic purity, Gothic style is designed to produce fear and desire at the same time.” (Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Duke University Press, 1995) Sensemann draws inspiration from Halberstam’s theories, in particular her concept of monstrosity as a “changing historically and culturally conditioned set of fears.” These fears include prejudice against “race, class, gender, and sexuality.” Depending upon our own background and experience, Sensemann’s shapeshifting may appear magical, threatening or both. We imprint her photography with our own associations allowing her imagery to become a site which presents fluid, multiple interpretations. Identity is not fixed. The artist pretends in order to construct an ever-changing understanding of self.
I made a tableaux vivant to read my erotic poetry to passersby as part of an installation of photographs.
The stranger recollected remarkable beauty.
“Do you love a garden
fruitful and potent as a charm?”
Moisture bore richness,
like a gem with hue and perfume.
The possibility of reality instilled
a subtle madness.
the inevitable appearance
of sweetness whispered enchantment.
The impulse was as potent as a gaze
into streams of sympathy.
Just outside the Porto del Popolo
enjoyment excited the poet’s mind.
A strange idea to construct illusions required
a piercing, thrilling, delicious kind of fever.
The woodland fragrance
was intermingled with heavy incense
and women drank in the sudden rapture.
Some nooks of ancient pleasure
lit up the beauty of her face.
An impulse of peril revealed great mischief
and her soul glimpsed sin before sanctity.
The hour had come – humiliation.
An ominous perception should bear testimony
that the woman had fallen into decay.
The past had been betrayed.
What had once been a reality
was now a faded memory.
Disguise in the affairs was the labor of a mistress.
In mildewed brocades, she stood before
the blurred mirror to admire
her own fantasies
and the household friends of memory.
Lily was a fragile and pale like brightness
wrapped in black velvet.
A tinge of insanity pleased the gentle Lily.
All sorts of anticipated pleasure were sport
of fantasy and made for murder.
The pale Lily – the inscrutable smile –
finished the simple rite.
The strange thrill of fear
faded with a shadow.
Insanity stalked the darkest riddle.
Emptiness excited a subterranean betrayal –
intimacy glistened upon unlimited wickedness.
She was aware of tempting horror
and unspeakable evil.
She beheld herself an actor,
and the deed inspired a frenzy.
The scene was wild –
passion turned blood-stained, criminal.
No calm would carry her forward from betrayal.
She had been transported by crime.
The vibrations returned, prolonged
as she entered the gorgeous
crimson brocade –
more like a picture than real perversity.
A whisper communicated unconscious
The wild gleam seemed to melt pale lips.
Frenzy wrought a long, deep gush of feeling
and the rite was finished – hand in hand.
A nervous tremor was the sign
of an odd messenger.
Gliding after her through the narrow staircase
climbing to her studio
this man, or demon, or Man-Demon
stole the sacred impulse.
The Spectre allowed refuge in the subterranean
Her moody passion in the atmosphere of Rome
was the heart of instinctive trouble.
“Come in, Wild Faun,” she said.
The cones of pine had brightened the room –
fresh, simple, nothing unusual.
But the life-blood of internal throbbing
was heard to welcoming the
The nature of yearning
had been transformed to hope –
hope had become certainty.
A woman who lived an honest nature
with an open wish to sing and laugh
had a gift of feeling other people’s secrets.
That is the mystery of a wide and nameless
Incidents in the legend may be an allegory
of unfamiliar boundaries.
The red-hot wind of an Arabian desert had
passed through the young woman.
She uttered a cry, articulated without pausing.
Peering to discover her own premises
a hand of flame
bid welcome to the invisible.
Smiling at the conceit
she beheld every crook.
She had somebody to love.
“I watch the beginning of certain flight.”
Gradually, the spirit of her mother’s familiar visage
gleamed like stars or violets in May.
The outward sky welcomed her
and the lullaby is slow and sure.
The intervening space is distinct
like a ghost in mid-air.
Violets by the handful, such fantasies,
have made a layer across the bare ground.
And, taking farewell with airy wings
my spirit has been cheered.
The kiss thrust her head to the wind
like pink ribbons.
A lone woman parted her skirts in haste,
it was dusk in the forest,
the woods of rumor and wickedness.
She was drunk with secrets and amazement.
No rules for a simple tremble.
A cut through the forest
left the woman with softly stolen juice.
The moment touched a hollow –
that particular spot
was wet with evening dew.
A stronger swell of wildness
swept away the silent moment.
Howling with pines and smoke,
the dark-veiled woman gleamed.
Look upon yourself.
Your nature is a liquid flame.
Since 1997, I have expressed “an urge to merge” with mermaids, garden gnomes, cacti, lily pads, Czech glass, marble portrait busts and bodhisattvas. As the author of my own disguise, I can become the sinner, saint, maiden, monster, temptress and clown. In these non-digitally fabricated works the woman (myself) and the subject with which I am conflated are never a perfect fit. They are unfinished and uncanny, but possible enough to suggest that internal secrets can be made visible.
Susan Sensemann is an artist, educator, and arts administrator who has lived and worked in Chicago since 1979. She is a professor emerita in the School of Art and Design, University of Illinois at Chicago. Sensemann received her MFA in painting from Tyler School of Art, Temple University and a BFA in printmaking from Syracuse University Throughout her career, she has had many opportunities to exhibit work, teach, and lecture at art schools and universities abroad. She has lectured on contemporary women in the arts and the development of her work at institutions in China, South Korea, Italy, and Germany. She has been a visiting artist at numerous schools including the University of Notre Dame, West Virginia University and Bradley University where she also produced prints, the University of Iowa, Cranbrook Academy of Art, and Texas Women’s University among many others.
In 1997, she began an extensive body of photographic works that represent an investigation of a gothic narrative structure within a tradition of feminist self-portraiture. Recent installations combine poetry that she has based on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories with her photography. As a painter, Sensemann has worked in oil, watercolor, and egg tempera in addition to all drawing media. For many years her work was focused on the structure and psychological implications depicted in works by Italian pre-Renaissance artists such as Duccio, Fra Angelico, and Piero della Francesca.
She has had work in solo and group exhibitions in galleries and museums throughout the United States including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Indianapolis Art Center; Roy Boyd Gallery in Chicago; the Ukrainian Museum and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago; A.I.R., New York; Fay Gold Gallery, Atlanta; Locus Gallery, St. Louis; the Art Institute of Boston. Works have been viewed internationally at Titanik Gallery, Turku, Finland; Gallery Woong, Seoul, S. Korea; The Living Art Museum, Reykjavik, Iceland; Jilin Province, Changchun, PR China; the Kunstmuseum, Torshazn, Faroe Islands, and ARCO 99, Madrid, Spain among others. Her paintings, drawings, and photographs are held in many private, university, and corporate collections throughout the country.
Curatorial endeavors have extended her research. Shows titled “Skew: the Unruly Grid,” “Heat,” “Libidinal,” “Touch,” “Brain/Body,” “Once Upon a Time and Now,” “More is More,” “Physiotasmagorical,” and “Obsessions” have featured works by well-established and emerging artists from Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. She has written catalogue essays to accompany the exhibitions.