Susan Lenz began the Personal Grounds series with a portrait of her younger sister Wanda titled “Twenty-Five Years Sober: One Day at a Time.” Presented by the Office of Cultural Affairs as part of the MOJA Festival, this solo exhibit includes more than 100 “Decision Portraits,” mixed-media installations, and 45 hanging banners. Lenz didn’t begin making art until she was in her 40s, and she’s included a self portrait that reads, “I quit my job to make art.”
Lenz says the inspiration for her series began when her son ran away from home.
“He’ll be 20 years old next week,” she says. “He’s an uninsured high school drop-out. He lives somewhere in Columbia, but I don’t know the address. Mentally, I beat myself up about this, until I had to realize that I was not responsible for his decisions.
“I don’t have to approve of his decisions in order to love him,” she adds. “Each person in the Decision Portrait Series is loved by someone. I kept this in mind.”
Entering the wide-open space of the City Gallery, you literally run into the hanging chiffon banners, so light they graze your shoulders like summer sheets hung out to dry. The banners contain free-motion machine-embroidered “decisions” like, “Should I quit this miserable job?” and “Is my skirt too short?” A work belt containing a pair of binoculars hangs from the railing on the second floor next to a sign explaining the decisions as “silent thoughts one might find in cartoon bubbles, floating above the minds of ordinary people below.”
The series of black and white portraits range from ordinary people and ordinary decisions to the extraordinary, including prisoners, convicted drunk drivers, cancer survivors, home-schoolers, and hitchhikers.
“I knew of a few friends who had made significant, life-altering decisions and asked them to participate,” Lenz says. “While stitching these first pieces, I thought of all sorts of other decisions that would augment the series. In order to find people who had made these decisions, I created a blog and posted a ‘Wish List.’ So all the portraits represent real people and the real choices they made.”
The portraits are created using high-resolution photographs that were often e-mailed to the artist, then Photoshopped and printed in black and white. Tea-stained muslin is taped to a mat sheet, and the ink is then transferred to fabric. Recycled felt is used as the middle layer of the portrait, and the final layer is stucco paper. The layers are all stitched together creating an “Art Quilt.” Lenz uses tracing paper to write the words onto the portraits and then stitches them with yarn. This time-consuming process results in a grainy, newspaper-like series of images that feel worn, the kind of photographs you’d find tucked away in a trunk of someone’s attic, or hanging on the wall of your grandmother’s house.
Instead of the tortured expression we would expect to find on someone who is “Behind on the Mortgage” or who has “No Fixed Address, Homeless,” we see smiles, as if the subjects are unaware of the truth written below. A woman grins in front of the words: “I let drugs nearly ruin my LIFE, prisoner 1” as if Lenz is blurring the lines between our exterior and interior selves and the faces we present to the world. The weighty statements combined with the smiling faces are disconcerting, suggesting a disparity between the people we see and their hidden truths.
On the second floor of the gallery, a mixed media installation called “Wall of Keys” contains old, rusted keys arranged on the wall, each key containing a phrase like happiness, the dark side, and knowledge. “Doors,” another mixed media installation, is made of two chipped doors decorated with frames of keys, thread, and rusted nails. The wall of keys and the chipped doors is interesting, but in a passing way. The effort that went into collecting and creating the installations is obvious; however, there are so many decisions and so many keys to read, it can feel overwhelming.
Personal Grounds is very much an intellectual exhibit. But if the words are all provided for us, what is left to say? The repetition of the portraits, while compelling, feels over the top and message-heavy. The rusted keys, the chipped paint, the unfinished frames, and the gray portraits feel intrusive and a bit uncomfortable, as if someone is revealing too much information, as if you are seeing someone with their clothes off. In Personal Grounds, Lenz has created a compelling body of work that reflects the diversity of the “ordinary” people among us and makes us wonder what secrets they’re hiding behind their smiles.