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Resident artist Susan Hickman holds solo show at Hygienic

May 25, 2018

In today’s ever-changing, politically-centric world, creating art that offers more than just a pretty picture seems like a necessity — especially among artists of a younger generation. A painting should be more than just a painting. It should also offer a form of modern commentary. At least that’s the sentiment that longtime Hygienic Galleries resident artist Susan Hickman is putting forth in her solo exhibition, “Bearing Witness,” which will be held at the gallery until June 9.

The show, which features 43 pieces, offers a wide display of mediums, from face masks reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” to large-scale mixed-media paintings and collage, probing a plethora of societal issues, including women’s rights, the opioid epidemic, homelessness and the environment. Aside from those larger issues, Hickman also satirizes today’s fast-paced, instantaneous internet culture, while encompassing a nostalgia for times long past.

Though explanatory text isn’t included in the show, imagery contained in the works (think: prescription pills, manmade computer script, and wildfires), as well as specific titles (”#theresanappforthat” and “Hobo Symbols #googleit”), help the viewer to contemplate and extrapolate interpretations as they see fit.

“I definitely have my opinions, but I think there is a way to make my own statements without completely shoving it down people’s throats,” Hickman says. “I’m only touching upon those opinions and hinting at them.”

To help transmit these messages, though, Hickman has incorporated carnival imagery throughout much of her work, including depictions of contortionists, trapeze artists and tight-rope walkers. The underlying theme to all this seems to ride on the idea that life, as we know it, is on the brink of collapsing.

An adorable, sad-looking elephant, for example, teeters on a red-and-white circus ball above a spikey abyss in “Living on a Prayer.” A trapeze performer, in “High America,” swings over a scattering of prescription pills. Hot-pink spikes threaten the safety of two ring performers in “You Should Smile More.” The performers seem, then, to represent a darker undercurrent flowing throughout today’s America or are caricatures of everyday people wavering above a dangerous void.

“The (performers) can be that person, or the viewer, who is in that balancing act of day-to-day life, or it can be someone performing through a chaotic real life … just doing everything they can to get by,” Hickman says. “It’s based on people I know, people who are working hard, seven days a week and crying, just to get by. And all they are doing is working hard. That’s a normal American.”

Hickman, who is required to put on a solo show as part of her residency at Hygienic, conceived “Bearing Witness” while talking with a friend about the plethora of societal injustices she saw happening throughout the country and world.

“We came to the realization that nothing in this world really matters because we are killing our planet,” Hickman says. “Ultimately, women’s rights won’t matter, black lives won’t matter, immigration won’t matter, health care won’t matter if we don’t have a planet to live on.”

Humans’ effect on the environment, then, is one of the overriding themes in the show, a subject that is perhaps most prominently displayed in a piece titled “Critical Condition” — an image of doctors performing surgery in a hospital room while a raging forest fire looms in the background.

“I made this painting when all those fires were going on in California, so it made sense that I lay that image on in the background,” she says, explaining that the painting is tying together two issues plaguing American citizens — forest fires and the state of the environment, as well as a lack of access to health care. “Originally, I was trying to experiment with health care as a luxury with how horrible it is for people not to be able to afford health care. It’s ridiculous. People cannot get the care that they need.”

In an installation of gold-glittered, pollution face masks “Super Delux Luxury Industrial Air Quality Control Center,” Hickman continues with that sentiment. She says that the piece was inspired after she saw a commercial for the masks being advertised “as effortlessly as if they were Nikes,” and priced the piece with ”$Your Insurance Won’t Cover It.”

“It was like this realization that, ‘Oh, my God, this is a real commercial. We literally can’t breathe the air anymore.’”

Originally from Ohio, Hickman, born a twin, describes her heartland childhood as a wonderfully dreamy and sheltered time in her life. She never aspired to be an artist growing up, though she always felt inclined to create signs or paintings. It wasn’t until she was attending Ohio University and struggling through her science classes while contemplating a dietary-studies major that she started to gravitate towards creative endeavors. As a sophomore, she switched to a major in graphic design, later adding another major in photography.

A week after graduating in 2001, Hickman packed up her things to try out life as an artist in New York City. It was there where she started to experiment as a painter, working with whatever materials she could scrounge together. Having only lived there for a year, Hickman then moved to southeastern Connecticut, where her twin sister was living, first moving to Groton, then Norwich and Stonington before settling in New London.

In 2009, she was invited to be a resident artist at the Hygienic, where she has continued to work and live. Besides working a full-time job at Mike’s Harley Davidson as a Riding Academy and marketing coordinator, Hickman is actively involved in the New London art scene. Before starting her residency, she owned a small gallery on Green Street in 2007 called Takeout. There, she made friends with artists such a Denny Rivera and his wife, Cristin Gallagher, among other New London-based artists. In the time since, Hickman has participated in several shows throughout New London and New England. Besides her current show at the Hygienic, her work will also be displayed in Credabal Coral Gallery’s newest group show, “Glow Motion ii,” which is currently on view, and recently showed in a group exhibition at the Guilford Art Center.

The last nine years as a resident artist at the Hygienic, she explains, has been a time for her to establish her artistic aesthetic — one that hinges on abstracted and layered backgrounds set under a singular image. Much of that style is on view in “Bearing Witness,” where layers of stencils, spray paint and transferred images offer unexpected depth.

“A lot of my pieces take months. This one took nearly a year,” Hickman says, pointing to “You Should Smile More.”

“The background is always something I have to work with for some time and make mistakes with. I like that process. I kind of feel that way about people, too. The more you learn through trial and error, experimenting, doing whatever you want, without inhibitions ... the more depth there will be. I feel like that sort of approach has the richest outcome to a painting.”

m.biekert@theday.com