The Intuitive Histories of Susan Toplikar’s Horse Paintings

By Greg Lindquist

Horses and humans have shared an inextricable link throughout history. As tool of warfare and work, a vehicle of trade and transportation, a symbol of wealth and status and a key player in sports, the horse has shaped and been shaped by human endeavor. While once a more vital partner in these fields, the horse has more become a contemporary symbol for our taming of the wild.

Although Susan Toplikar’s painting series depict horses in domestic repose, these paintings are not simply about horses. Resisting superficial comparisons to the imagery of Susan Rothenberg and Deborah Butterfield, these paintings enmesh a tapestry of seeming disparate materials and diverse meaning. Combining equal elements of painting, sculpture and design, Toplikar makes unlikely connections between public and personal histories of human and horse, associations of both aesthetic and function. These paintings also engage an evolving dialog between creator and viewer. While Toplikar is emphatically intuitive and unself-conscious about her aesthetic decisions while painting, she actively seeks the interpretation of others alongside her own.

Although the compositions of each six are noticeably similar (and all roughly five and half by seven feet, oil on linen and wood), the color and sharpness of focus gradually shift from one painting to the next. These equine portraits are comprised of washed layers of oil paint, an application that is echoed in the stained harlequin patterned frames enclosing the canvases. Awash in atmospheric warmth from a rear stable window, these horses’ restful poise evokes an unsettling stillness that is as meditative as subservient. Toplikar’s color palette, which includes umbers, sienna and rust-like hues, calls to mind the deserts, canyons and earthen tones of the West, in which, for the American mythology, horses played a large role. On the floor of the stable, diagonal planes resemble desert mesa, also recalling the character of abstract shapes in the landscapes of Milton Avery and Fairfield Porter.

Found wood assemblages that are painted are sewn on the paintings and frames, materially linking the image of the horse to the patterned frame. As symbols, the assemblages connect with historical, anatomical or functional associations of the horse, while also encapsulating Toplikar’s personal histories. In Arc (2003) the allover scattering of the sticks overtly conjure the prehistoric language of cave painting. That she traveled in 1996 to several caves in France, including Lascaux, whose subjects included horses, makes the observation all the more salient. One might also consider such multiple interpretations, for example, in Ol’ Paint (Bird) (1998), which positioned on the lowered neck of the horse calls to mind an array of banderilla, decorative barbed darts lodged in a bull during a Spanish bullfight. However, it is equally significant to know that Toplikar spent the years of 1988 through 1989 drawing birds from inside her home while recovering from a major surgery. Indeed, just as the activity of drawing birds connected her inner and outer environments, the bird assemblage relates the three dimensional space established by sculpture with the illusionistic space within the painting.

Toplikar’s titles offer additional interpretations of sculptural elements and horse imagery, which are often at odds with those suggested by their placement. Although the sticks positioned on the horse’s back suggest ribs, the title Chevron, broken (2003) evokes the eponymous military uniform insignia, imagined “broken” in the center as the sticks are arranged. The title also connotes the character of an old workhorse, whose broken back is suggested by the assemblage. Her method of titling, like her use of color, is an intuitive exploration of associations.

The diamond patterning in the frame, inspired by Toplikar’s visit to Palais des Papes in Avignon, is an integral part of these paintings, whose relationship to the horse image becomes clearer throughout course of the series. While the diagonal grids refer to Toplikar’s love for patterning and design, they also conceptually suggest the orderly pixels of a digital camera, in contrast to the painting of the horses, whose blurry character was derived from reference images recorded on a 35mm film negative. This relationship is clearest in Measure (2005) where the lights and darks on the paintings’ edges magically dissolve into floating squares, as if the frame has become mechanically magnified pixels of the image within. The continuation of the painting into the frame calls to mind the paintings of Georges Seurat, whose painting Evening, Honfluer, for example, extends the colors and tones of the sky and ground into the frame, thus questioning a distinct transition between the world of painting and reality.

For Susan Toplikar, painting is a meditative, non-verbal, visually driven process. An active engagement with the media’s limitless possibilities reveals painting as a process of learning and problem solving. The pleasure in her work is the sense of discovery through the associations of her visual language. As creator, Toplikar is continually revisiting the paintings, seeking new interpretations, new semantic pathways into the work, and welcoming the fresh perspectives of others.

Greg Lindquist is a New York-based painter who writes about art.