Generously sponsored by:
Susanna Heller’s Ghost Tower is a major acquisition for Oakville Galleries’s permanent collection and is being premiered in this exhibition together with eight other notable works on loan from very generous collectors.
Ghost Tower is a colossal painting (almost 4 metres high) by this artist, depicting the chaos following the events of 9/11. When the planes hit the Twin Towers in New York City, architecture gained a new significance in the eyes of the world, and the international public at large became suddenly aware of the symbolic, political, economic and social importance of architecture. This acquisition goes hand in hand with Oakville Galleries’s 2005 exhibition programme that explores the physical and psychic territory of architecture.
In the late 1990s, Heller was awarded a 15-month residency to draw and paint in a studio on the 91st floor of Tower One. From this dizzying bird’s-eye view she was able to look north along the Hudson River, as well as down the length of the Tower onto the streets of Manhattan. This was a view she was to explore many times and in different ways, investigating the flux and energy of the city and its relationships of space and time, motion and light.
Following the events of 9/11 there was a hole in Heller’s landscape as she walked to work, as well as an emptiness in her heart. She walked to Manhattan every day from her home in Brooklyn. Prior to the destruction of the Towers, they had always been her beacon and the focus of her journey into the city centre. And even after their destruction, she still saw them. In her mind’s eye they were there like spectres in the cityscape; ghosts that refused to be laid to rest.
Ghost Tower is a painting that is about the heightened fragility of the world after 9/11. In many ways it can be considered as traditional history painting, and thus takes on an even broader cultural context. In 1771, Sir Joshua Reynolds defined in his Discourses what he meant by “the grand style” in historical painting:
It [the subject] ought to be either some eminent instance of heroick action or heroick suffering. There must be something either in the action, or in the object, in which men are universally concerned, and which powerfully strikes upon the public sympathy... Strictly speaking, indeed, no subject can be of universal, hardly can be it be of general, concern; but there are events and characters so popularly known...(Discourse IV, 117).
While there are no “characters” in Heller’s painting, it is at once deeply moving and terrifying, and its subject a concern to many. It is on a grand scale — a maelstrom of colour and line — that manages to convey the feeling of intense loss and horror felt that September day.
Ghost Tower is an energetic tour de force in which we are also presented with multiple perspectives that appear to connect different moments in time. Are we looking down at the grids of streets, or are we looking across at scaffolding trying to hold aloft an object of almost animistic energy? It demands simultaneously an elevated gaze and one that sweeps down to a tiny New York skyline, and then, again, across the entire field of the painting.
The bright sky in this composition has many shades of blue, recalling that reality of that day. A third of the way down on the left is a red circular object, which the artist says is a personal icon symbolizing a small red ball that, as a child, she would toss up into the clear sky over and over again. It has appeared before in her work; it is something to hold onto and represents innocence, a time in which one never imagined that such tragedy could occur.
The final act in creating this work (when the artist knew for certain it was finished), was to throw black paint onto its surface. The impact of her paint “throw” mimics that fierce moment when the plane struck the tower. The resulting drips “spider” down the canvas like smoldering debris. For Heller this act was a terrifying experience, since she had “only one chance to get it right.”
There is something magnificent in this “damaged” painting and the artist assuredly did get the raw reality of that day disturbingly right.
Marnie Fleming, Curator of Contemporary Art
We are pleased to reprint Eric Gelber’s article “Studio Visit: Susanna Heller in Conversation” in our bi-monthly newsletter. This article was first posted at artcritical.com in September 2004 and is reprinted with their kind permission. Please visit artcritical.com for this essay.