Beneath the Surface

Q&A with Susan Meyer

Once you’ve seen Susan Meyer’s work, you never forget it. Stratified sculptures of color and earth pull you into strange worlds of tiny, complex human interactions. Whether wood or colored Plexiglas, and now concrete, her work is a consistently enthralling display that’s part diorama, part architectural commentary, part distilled landscape. It offers highly intentional reflections of optimistic movements in America’s past that aspired to fly, but mostly flopped. Since 2005 she has submitted a view of the world that may be more relevant to us than we even know. This October 19th at Plus Gallery, Susan presents us with her newest work that pushes these concepts to the breaking point. Modern In Denver got our foot in the studio door to peek at the crowning work in her upcoming show, Plato’s Retreat. Here’s a snapshot of our conversation with the artist in her natural environment.

Modern In Denver: So here it is, wow. How long have you been working on this piece?

Susan Meyer: I’ve been conceptualizing it for years, because I was thinking I’d like to create a ruin at some point. I’ve been working on it since last summer, trying to figure out what works. It’s still in progress.

MID: It’s wonderful. How did your concept take root?

SM: It’s inspired somewhat by utopian communities in the mid-1800s in the United States, and also by the 1970s communities in Colorado. Drop City and all of that. It’s also motivated by architecture and landscape, and how we sort of put our potential and hopes in those things. I’m interested in the way human frailty and human potential come up against each other, which happened a lot in these utopian communities.

MID: Tell me about these succulents sprouting from the piece.

SM: I wanted it to seem overgrown and falling back. Like how you see the pictures of Detroit’s buildings where the kudzu is melting them back into the earth. The piece references Brutalist Architecture with its concrete-based angular geometric forms. I put things on the exterior of the buildings that would have normally been more in the interior. So there’s no real interior but there are suggestions of one. But it’s crumbling.

MID: Have you titled it yet?

SM: I’m considering calling it Palenque in reference to Robert Smithson’s slide lecture, and also the palace. Robert Smithson, who did Spiral Jetty, gave a slide lecture to the architecture faculty at this university after he had gone to see the Mayan ruins of Palenque. While he was there he stayed at this crazy ruin of a hotel that was being renovated, and instead of talking about the famous Mayan ruin, as expected, he gave a slide lecture on the hotel. I was trying to emulate that in this piece. It’ll have plants, spray paint and a little graffiti. One area will get kind of cleaned up like somebody is taking a section of it and inhabiting it. There will be little shadows of humans here and there. And instead of these collectives, this is broken down into groups of individuals. It’s a ruin but seems like it’s still being built. It’s oddly complicated and follyish as a structure. And a globe light will hang in the gallery so it has a planet feel.

MID: What’s the title of the show regarding?

SM: Plato’s Retreat references the idea of Plato the philosopher and a retreat—the idea of it being both a physical retreat but also a “retreat.” There was also a naughty club in New York the 70s called Plato’s Retreat, because there is a funny sexuality sometimes in the pieces with the figures. It kind of references that as well and that idea of nightclubs as they filter into the more anarchic utopian idealism.

References

Drop City
An artistic community formed near Trinidad, Colorado in 1965 whose members built and lived in geodesic structures. Originally developed as a commune centralized on the concept of art as life, it depleted by 1973 due to overcrowding.

Palenque
Located in the Mexican state of Chiapas, this monumental, ancient ruin is a prime example of Mayan architecture with it’s tiered pyramidal style. Built around 400AD, the structures were largely overtaken by vegetation throughout the centuries and not excavated until the 1940s.

Brutalist Architecture
This modernist movement spanned two decades, beginning in the early 50s with architect Le Corbusier’s raw concrete structures. It aimed to focus on the value of common culture over high culture, and emphasized community welfare through accessible living spaces, resulting in an often repetitively blocky aesthetic.

Robert Smithson
Internationally acclaimed artist for his drawings, sculpture, films, critical writings and formation of the art form known as earthworks. His most celebrated creation was Spiral Jetty in 1970—a swirling structure built into the earth that expands from the land and swirls to a center in the Great Salt Lake, Utah.

Plato’s Retreat
A popular 1970s swingers club situated in the basement of the Astonia Hotel in New York City. A 2009 documentary “American Swing” elaborates on the culture and clientele of one of the country’s most notorious sex clubs.

Oneida Community
This religious Perfectionist Community flourished for three decades under the leadership of John Humphrey Noyes starting in 1861. With radical views on property ownership, gender roles, child-rearing, labor and monogamous marriage, they set out to change the world, but never left Oneida, New York. They did, however, leave behind a huge mansion.

Plato’s Retreat opens at Plus Gallery on Friday, October 19th. The opening reception is from 7:00pm – 10:00pm.