The dark side of the light fantastic | Susan Waitt

Seasoned artist Susan Waitt speaks to Teodor Reljic about her upcoming exhibition of paintings, Night Gallery: The Uncanny and The Sublime, which sets out to do what it says on the tin… and then some

Susan Wiatt
Susan Wiatt

Could you tell us a little bit about your background as an artist? What would you say were some of the key highlights of your career? 

As far back as I can remember I was drawing and painting. As an adult I produced commercial book illustrations for both Disney and Fisher Price through Langley Studios in Massachusetts, USA as well as freelance work for Grolier and Gordon Fraser. Too, I executed fine art trompe l’oeil murals and special effects for private clients for many years. I also created theatre scrims and sets for television, theatre and exhibitions in US and Malta. My influences extend from Disney to Hieronymus Bosch, R. Crumb to William Blake, Mark Ryden to Gustave Moreau. The works of Visionary, Surrealist, Shamanic, Symbolist and Fantastic Realist artists have all had a potent effect on my iconography and choice of subject matter. In the foot-Alps of Liguria, Northern Italy, I also had the great pleasure of meeting and painting with Salvador Dali’s and Max Ernst’s good friend, phantastical-realist/visionary painter Ernst Fuchs. 

What led you to decide on the overarching themes for this particular exhibition? Were you always interested in the aesthetics of the occult... or at least, the Gothic? 

My solo exhibition Night Gallery: The Uncanny and The Sublime seemed to emerge as a way to present both the attractive and repulsive aspects of the unnamable and ungraspable in art. The unnamable and ungraspable are such by virtue of the fact that that which frightens us cannot be pinpointed. This theme of the “mysterium” that lurks back behind apparent reality is one I had wanted to tackle for a long time, but I hadn’t necessarily settled on the best way to do it until this year. I didn’t want to succumb to full-on Lovecraftian “cosmic horror” – although I guess I could have. I hoped to retain the preeminence of the human subject. Sublimity is an aesthetic category that not only gives us gooseflesh (highlighting what is vast, immense, or otherwise awesome and beyond our ken) but also champions the divide between good and evil or reason and madness. These would perish in the amoral soil of straight-up cosmic horror. And the idea of the uncanny also preserves the primacy of experiences that are human-centered, since the uncanny is, as described by Sigmund Freud, “that class of the frightening which yet leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.”

For the purposes of this solo exhibition, I spent nearly a year lingering at the liminal places hoping to lift the edges of reality first by personally practicing engineering. I am also lifting that edge by channelling stuff directly onto my canvas from the universe next door.  Since I left the world of commercial art my work has become looser and much less representational. But, not enough to please me. I paint very quickly – in an almost automatic fashion with practically no planning, in an effort to get even closer to my ideal. So, suffice it to say that I am often surprised myself to see what emerges on the canvas or paper – whence all these darkling astral types, which, truth be told, are not exactly a jolly bunch. 

The imps and monsters, ghosts, tulpi, incubi and succubi, mediums lodged in their spirit cabinets, and ectoplasmic displays in my paintings are meant to convey – in both creepy and sometimes comedic ways – the fact that obscurity may have a more powerful effect on the imagination than clarity.  

Detail from one of the paintings forming part of Susan Waitt’s Night Gallery
Detail from one of the paintings forming part of Susan Waitt’s Night Gallery

What do you make of the local arts scene? What would you change about it? 

There are many terrific artists in Malta – and many of them are my friends! In fact, I personally collect their works of art! However, I’d love to see the scene diversify even more than it has done in recent years. Specifically, I’d like to see it employ a less orthodox and proscribed treatment of both subject matter and how art is displayed – emphasizing, rather, the same iconoclastic tendencies seen in outsider, festival and street art. I abhor hackneyed visual clichés. If artists are going to produce exciting, original art they need to develop better thoughts and not fall prey to the excessively played-out tropes that are delivered to us by the default culture. So – conformity is not good in my estimation. Neither is shallow thinking. Go read a book, for goodness sake! Originality and accessing better quality , higher order thoughts is key.  After all, good art is supposed to make you go “Hmmmm…”  Well , you asked. 

What’s next for you?

Well, what’s next is a complete departure from all this intriguingly spooky stuff! For the entire month of September in 2017 the Cittadella Cultural Centre in Victoria, Gozo will be hosting my Knights in White Satin exhibition loosely inspired by the Knights of Malta as well as the knights and maidens of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and Sisterhood.   

Night Gallery: The Uncanny and The Sublime will be on display at The Fortress Builders, St Mark Street, Valletta from October 29 to November 25