In recent years, Becky Suss has painted the domestic spaces and personal effects of her late relatives from memory, guesswork, and fantasy, meditating on the mind’s revisionist tendencies while crafting pictorial elegies to familial and cultural histories. For her new series of interiors and object studies, Suss turned her psychological gaze to the material legacy of the celebrated American modernist artist, architect, and designer Wharton Esherick (1887–1970). During a residency at the Wharton Esherick Museum in Chester County, near Philadelphia, she rendered his historic home and studio from life and from photographic documentation. “Becky Suss/Wharton Esherick”—a collaboration between the artist and the museum—placed Suss’s paintings in physical relation to items Suss selected, including furniture, maquettes, and drawings made by Esherick as well as his possessions, such as shirts and books.
Three large-scale oil-on-canvas paintings were the linchpins of the show, offering the viewer glimpses into some of Esherick’s conserved rooms. These rooms were shown devoid of figures and in uncomfortably flattened or expanded spatial perspectives that work in uneasy tension with Suss’s harmonious palette of soothing blues, rich browns, and slices of red and orange drawn from Esherick’s artifacts. The floor and ceiling of Dining Room (Wharton Esherick) (all works cited, 2018) receded at impossibly steep angles. Squeezed almost entirely into the painting’s center third were a slim wooden table and chairs, a delicate lamp, a blue-and-brown floor mat, and a window looking onto a copse. While the textures of the wood grain, woven fabric, and smooth ceramic plates were tantalizingly described with tiny, careful brushstrokes, the perspective in this period room refused the viewer’s imagined entry—just as some of Esherick’s furniture was protected by barriers and signs in the gallery. In Drop Leaf Desk (Wharton Esherick), which depicts part of his studio, the massive, thickly engraved furniture loomed ominously, poised to topple over the receding red-stained floor at any moment.
Books were a motif in the show. In the larger paintings, such as Bedroom (Wharton Esherick), they appeared without text on cover or spine, and thus were able to be read as mere design elements or as metonyms for the act of reading. Suss’s smaller paintings presented more intimate views that invited close looking: Rhymes of Early Jungle Folk by Mary E. Marcy (Wharton Esherick) depicted in full the cover of a book that teaches children the theory of evolution through poems and Esherick’s woodcut illustrations.
A curved, dark-wood couch with a deep-teal seat pad made by Esherick was installed in a rear corner of the gallery. Two of Suss’s modestly sized, intricate paintings of textiles hung above it: June Groff Pillow (Wharton Esherick) showed a cushion whimsically decorated with olive-green trees and hedges, and Letty Esherick Pillow (Wharton Esherick) rendered another with a coarse black-and-white weave. These pillows, made by Esherick’s friend and wife, respectively, were placed on a similar couch in the museum. Suss’s decision to elevate them to the status of paintings was perhaps an attempt to collapse the gendered boundaries of what was considered craft in Esherick’s time. Nearby, a small collection of his watercolors in a display case and four well-worn shirts in muted greens, blues, and browns, folded on a shelf, reminded us of the hand and body that once moved with and through the objects of Suss’s gaze.