Focus: Suzanne Paul: “Low Down Showdown” and Artist Susan Plum

Often has been the case, while working with this archive, that I have found myself investigating the life and art of deceased artists. Of course, that’s true of Suzanne Paul herself. These days, however, I seem to find myself more and more often reaching out to artists still living.

Recently I sat down with Houston artist Susan Plum, who was a close personal friend of Suzanne Paul’s, to dig up some info on some very timely images I’ve come across while scanning.

Artist Susan Plum during installation for Low Down Showdown, a group exhibition in Tribeca, New York City, 1983
Artist Susan Plum during installation for Low Down Showdown, a group exhibition in Tribeca, New York City, 1983

These images, though taken in 1983, speak to me of the present and seem to reflect the political climate we’re experiencing so close to home these days. I detect in the images an inherent, almost natural, irreverence and rebelliousness — the markers of youth and artistry that demonstrate an uninhibited reaction to one’s place in time. Quite obviously, we see an artist throwing tortillas at an American flag. There’s much that can be made by way of commentary here… but take from it what you will.

A gap in an exhibition left opportunity for an impromptu installation and Plum was up for the challenge. “It was a statement about America,” she says, and it’s still relevant — it still fits. Susan got a good laugh at looking the photos. “I don’t remember it being that, THAT much fun…”

Artist Susan Plum during installation for Low Down Showdown, a group exhibtion in Tribeca, New York City, 1983
Artist Susan Plum during installation for Low Down Showdown, a group exhibtion in Tribeca, New York City, 1983

These documentary photos show some behind-the-scenes action related to a dual-venue presentation, which together created Low Down Showdown. The group pop-up exhibition invited an active group of Houston artists to present their works at The Alternative Museum in Tribeca (Showdown) as well as in a less-pristine venue across the street from the museum (Low Down). In the high-end / low-end juxtaposition, curation for the project was a collaborative effort between Houston’s Anne Harithas and the Alternative Museum’s co-founder Geno Rodriguez. At the time Susan was not living in Houston, but was posted in Seattle and met the Houston pack in New York City for the pop-up.

Co-founder and co-director of The Alternative Museum, Janice Rooney, 1983
Co-founder and co-director of The Alternative Museum, Janice Rooney, 1983

Art critic Kay Larsen mentioned Showdown in his New York Magazine editorial “Uncommon Visions”and his text is invaluable as far as research goes. From his writing we gather the following:

‘Showdown’ was “a five-part series focusing on artists from the Southwest, sponsored by the Alternative Museum in TriBeCa… [executed with] the best of intentions… to give a glimpse of artists from parts of the country little known in New York. [The show]  sprawls all over the Texas map, at least in this first version, curated by Anne Harithas, a former Houston gallery director and artists’ advocate. The apocalyptic tone of the title is matched by the size of the show’s ambitions: It will have five curators and three locations in four months. Harithas’s section closed on May 7…

The showdown, presumably, is with New York. As musical anthem to the show, California artist Terry Allen provided a twanging cowboy lament — played throughout the galleries — about a truckload of art sent out from the big city ‘to chide, cajole, humble and humiliate the Golden Bear.’ The truck overturns, catches fire, ‘and what the critics have cheered is now shattered and queered and their noble reviews have been stewed on the road.’ …

Rowdiness is a basic condition in this show. It turns up in John Alexander and Bert Long’s outrageous video satire on the Ku Klux Klan, whose members are shown gleefully sticking knives in watermelons and chewing on the pieces. It turns up again in Mel Casas’s banner of bullshit (literally, a painting of a bull’s head and a pile of turds). After such sophisticated bombast, I was drawn to the understated poetry of Nancy O’Connor’s photo-murals, which allow black cowboys to tell the story of their lives as outsiders caught up in a great myth. And I was especially taken with the ambivalent exuberance in paintings by Robert Wade…  [in which he] has taken an old trove of Texas photographs, enlarged them, and transferred the images onto sensitized linen. The result is a true photo-realism in which cowgirls at a rodeo, or rattlesnake hunters with blank eyes and big guns, become archetypes of wilderness.”

The forthcoming sections of Showdown will include a number of artists who’ve become practically synonymous with a southwestern viewpoint — Luis Jiminez, James Surls —as well as others less familiar but equally caught up in the mythology of desert and mountain… ‘Showdown’ is as unruly as such exhibitions out to be.”

Art critic Kay Larson's review of Showdown at The Alternative Museum in New York Magazine, May 16, 1983
Art critic Kay Larson’s review of Showdown at The Alternative Museum in New York Magazine, May 16, 1983

For Low Down Bert Long traveled to NYC with several suitcases of freshly made flour and corn tortillas to complete an installation. They started to foster mold about a week after the show opened. Suzanne and Susan decided to repurpose the decaying tortillas and feed the ducks at the Hudson River, which may have been illegal at the time.

Artist Frank Fajardo during installation for Low Down Showdown, a group exhibition in Tribeca, New York City, 1983
Artist Frank Fajardo during installation for Low Down Showdown, a group exhibition in Tribeca, New York City, 1983

As it goes, the museum’s co-director Geno Rodriguez was in jail the night before the show opened. There’s a good story there, I’m told. Artist Frank Fajardo had an installation in the pop-up and Clifton Chanier, a beloved Houston musician, played at the exhibition’s opening party in the basement of the space, where Tacy Tajun also executed a mural of cowboy silhouettes.

“We all were pretty comfortable around each other,’ Susan noted during our conversation. “It was the era,” she says…. “I think there was a connectedness that was lost when so many artists later moved [to Houston].. you could really almost count [everyone] on two hands, maybe four hands…”

Susan Plum lived in Houston from 1975 – 1980 and Suzanne was among the first that she met here — a next door neighbor. They bonded over time spent in California and art-making, among other shared interests, and developed a close friendship. When asked about the experience of being photographed by Suzanne, Susan paused and said “I didn’t even notice.. it was just something she was doing all the time.”

Suzanne Paul's contact proof print of documentation for Low Down Showdown
Suzanne Paul’s contact proof print of documentation for Low Down Showdown

Susan got a kick out of seeing these images, which reinforces to me that our next phase, which focuses on identifying more characters in the photographs (as we are nearing the end of the digitizing phase), will be lively learning and so much fun, hopefully for everyone involved.

Fun times aside, this group of images reinforces an inquiry into themes that have come up time and again during this project. For example:

  • The inclusion of live music and perfomance as a decided intent of the immersive art experiences that Jim and Anne Harithas created, curated, and directed.
  • Aspects that supported the super close social and collaborative connections between artists living in Houston at the time.

Susan believes firmly that a well-established library system should be the guardians of Suzanne’s collection, and that such a close friend of Suzanne’s is supportive of our teams’ approach is meaningful to me and an yet another indicator that we are on the right track.

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Susan Plum was born in Houston, however she spent her early and formative years in Mexico City. Plum embraced Surrealism and Magical Realism, the leading art and literary styles of the time. Magical Realism became the vehicle for which to explore and transcend cultural and spiritual boundaries. In this context, she envisioned a world that was inclusive, culturally diverse, and aesthetically vital, and has cultivated a language between the mythic imagined world and the real. Plum is a mixed media artist, but glass has been a primary material in her work and investigation of light in what she calls “weaving glass” or “weaving filaments of light.”
She originally trained as a painter but began working with glass after an extended trip to India, Nepal, and Thailand. Living in Seattle, the mecca for glass, she discovered the technique of “flame working,” using a torch and scientific glass (pyrex) rods, to build her pieces. After several sessions at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, she began to teach there, as well as the Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina; the Corning Museum of Glass Studio, in Corning, New York; and Urban Glass, Brooklyn. This “flameworking” technique allows Plum to “draw” spatially. Plum also creates installation and performance art in addition to functional and sculptural work.
Her work is in the collections of the Corning Museum of Glass, New York; Hunter Art Museum, Chattanooga, Tennessee; University Art Museum, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona; World Bank; Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.; Mobile Museum of Art, Mobile, Alabama; the American Embassy in Belize; the Museum of Arts and Design, New York; and the Tacoma Museum of Art, Tacoma, Washington. Most recently Plum has shown at Deborah Colton Gallery and at the University Art Center Contemporary Art Gallery at Houston Baptist University, Houston. She has also exhibited at the Station Museum, Project Row Houses, both in Houston, as well as the celebrated Field Museum of Science and the Chicago Cultural Center, both in Chicago. Additional prestigious exhibition venues include the School of Visual Arts, New York; Fowler UCLA, Los Angeles; the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art, New York; Museo Universitario del Chopo at the University of Mexico; El Cubo, Tijuana, Mexico; The Frost Art Museum, Florida International University, Miami; the Museo de la Ciudad, Queretaro, Mexico; the National Museum of Wellington, New Zealand; and at the National Museum of Lima, Lima, Peru.

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Content originally published by Theresa Escobedo, here, on 2.25.17

Focus: Suzanne Paul: “Low Down Showdown” and Artist Susan Plum

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