I met Suzan Shutan while we were in graduate school at Rutgers University in 1986. When I moved to Omaha in 1993, she was already here, as a resident at The Bemis Center for Contemporary Art. A few months ago, she announced her collaborative exhibition "Watered Down" at the Norfolk, Nebraska, Arts Center. I wanted to review the show. However, since I'm publishing on the JAE blog, I asked her, "I don't suppose you're Jewish?"
To my surprise, Suzan's answer was "yes," and she explained to me how her paternal grandmother spoke to her throughout her childhood about Kabbalah. Suzan infuses her sculpture with the idea of dualities or opposites, which reflects her vision of this ancient text.
Focusing on the subject of water as an essentially nurturing yet potentially destructive part of life on Earth, Suzan references the third day of creation, when God divided dry, fertile land and the sea. She explains, "Water is significant for me because, in the Kabbalah, it is a metaphor for wisdom (a divine source), and for abundance or deficiency. Water is still used for ritualistic purposes in Judaism. It also makes our planet unique because it supports life."
Suzan's most recent sculptures, the "Tar Paper" series, reflect upon the interconnectedness of water, earth, and life, a concern for the environment, and her social activism. In "Porosity," 2012, Suzan connects strips of tar paper and colorful Japanese handmade paper into organic shapes, gluing them together into what looks like a waterfall. Yes, this is paper saturated with tar, used for waterproofing roofs.
However, the shapes represent globules of oil or pollutants sinking through "undulating underground terrain, … illustrating the groundwater reservoir and its porous contents." The shapes attract and repel each other at the same time, pulled together by a chemical bond, but pushed away because water and oil don't mix. Suzan's sculpture reveals the shape of what is hidden below the surface of the Earth in the land and the seas.
Depicting what is hidden in the pores of the Earth, "Porosity" visualizes Suzan's understanding of Kabbalah. While not outwardly showing Suzan's Jewish roots, her interest in the interconnectedness of opposites, and making works of art out of recycled objects, shows the principle of "hiddur mitzvah," making ordinary, everyday things beautiful.
Norfolk Arts Center, Norfolk, Nebraska
www.norfolkartscenter.org, and on Facebook
May 31-July 3, 2012
Sponsors: Alter Metal Recycling, The Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District, Karla Huse Visual Arts Endowment, Western Office Technologies
M'Dor L'Dor video directly relates to Shutan's Jewish roots: