It is testament to the popularity of Susan Sutton’s lively, realistic paintings that over 200 people attended the opening of her latest exhibition By Night][By Day. And with little red dots appearing next to many of the paintings, the exhibition is clearly a great success.
Thirty oil paintings grace the walls of the Metropolis Gallery exhibition in which Sutton explores a variety of subject matter. The social interactions that take place at public gatherings are her main focus. The Surfcoast images for which Sutton is most well known feature prominently: wetsuit-clad people waiting for a swimming competition to start, life savers limbering up for a surf carnival and families enjoying the cool water on a hot summer evening. But Sutton has directed her keen observations of people to other areas as well: footy fans milling around before the game and shoppers bustling along the city mall.
“I enjoy the atmosphere and I like watching the crowd. There’s a tribal feeling of belonging,” Sutton says. “All my paintings have people or human involvement in them and the people tell a story. It’s the narrative. I like to bring a human element to everything I paint.”
The apparently casual arrangements of figures are actually carefully balanced compositions that Sutton develops from her pencil sketches and photos. While she relies on photos for authenticity in portraying equipment or costumes, much of her work is derived from her preliminary drawings. She never travels anywhere without her sketchbook and pencils, always alert to the possibility of an interesting composition or intriguing patterns of light. Sutton started dabbling in watercolours in the 1990s, inspired by the work of Alvaro Castagnet, a South American artist who was based in Melbourne at the time. But she gradually moved to oils where she could express herself more strongly. For the past six years Sutton has been painting full time, up to eight hours a day, six days a week.
In contrast to the broad, expansive people scenes, Sutton has also developed a series of paintings offering a magnified view of the beach’s natural world – close-up views of seaweed and driftwood caught in the rocks. Built up in layers over many weeks, these paintings are rendered in exquisite detail and lush warm colours showing an extraordinary luminosity of light. The diptych Tidal Tangle with Feathers is a stunning centrepiece of the exhibition.
Evoking the ambience and mood of a particular place or situation is at the heart of Sutton’s paintings. “I look out for reflections, light and shadow,” she says. “I feel really satisfied when I capture the glow of the light. Shafts of lights can create interesting patterns.”
Sutton also trains her sharp eye on the urban landscape indicating a departure from her usual subject matter. In these urban landscape works, the atmosphere is dark, mysterious and intriguing. Sutton has been inspired by the paintings of Jeffrey Smart and Rick Amor both of whom are masters of the disquieting urban scene. Her paintings Encounter, Railway Underpass and The Attendant seem to hide more than they reveal with objects bathed in half light and shadows. Lone figures inhabit the vast emptiness of a vaguely ominous urban world.
Sutton is an accomplished figurative artist and this exhibition shows that she is not afraid to try new directions and push her work into new territory.
By Day][By Night is on at Metropolis Gallery, 64 Ryrie St, Geelong, until 20 November.