Walking into the studio of Deirdre Sullivan-Beeman is like walking into a life-size version of her dream journals. A firm believer in Jung’s collective unconscious, Sullivan-Beeman has been keeping records of her dreams for years. In her studio she pins up sketches, photographs and other musings on the walls. Her thought process is spread throughout the space, and in spilling everything out, Sullivan-Beeman surrounds herself with surreal visions.
Falling headfirst into her own imagination, Sullivan-Beeman recently created her largest body of work to date for her new solo show, “Girls Girls Girls,” at La Luz de Jesus Gallery. But before she brings each painting to life, a process must take place: The artist makes a sketch, holds photo shoots, tweaks her original composition and lets the story unfold.
And that’s only the conceptual phase. The technical phase takes even more time and is the most laborious part of her practice — one that dates back centuries to the Old Masters.
Sullivan-Beeman uses egg tempera and oil paint to create pieces that seem to glow. She first got her inspiration from Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs before finding the writings of artist-author Brigid Marlin, who wrote From East to West: Awakening to a Spiritual Search. Sullivan-Beeman's process requires multiple layers, and for “Girls Girls Girls” she expanded her color palette (she previously favored the Zorn palette of four colors: yellow ochre, crimson, black, titanium white). More colors mean more patience, though. It means mixing layers in the right order, with the right amount of time between each so that the egg tempera doesn’t flake off. There’s a satisfaction in taking each purposeful step.
“Egg tempera is sort of like climbing a goat hill — it’s so complicated and frustrating,” Sullivan-Beeman says. “Someone joked that if there is a nice smooth path to go to the beach with like daisies and it’s all beautiful or like a goat hill to get to the beach, Deirdre would climb the goat hill. The harder the better for me. It makes it more fun.”
For the show, Sullivan-Beeman worked on multiple pieces simultaneously in order to let her female figures “talk to each other.” There were themes to be found in each scene and each imaginative character, passed from one to another like a game of telephone: sexuality, femininity, female power, free speech.
“I’ve always been very pro the female and I felt more than ever it started to come out of my work,” she says. “I wasn’t even trying for it to come out. I feel like in a weird way when the work is done and I sit back, I’m always sort of interested in what I’ve come up with myself. I looked back at the work and it’s really all about empowerment for women.”
That’s not to say her paintings veer toward the literal: They often represent parts of her psyche. For every female figure depicted, there’s an animal accompanying her. In some instances, the female figure seems as if she's caught in a strange situation.
Sullivan-Beeman leaves the viewer clues that might not seem obvious on a first glance. The artist recently showed one piece to friends, who seemed shocked by its subject matter. The painting shows a female figure wearing a veil, her hands tied up and a ball gag in her mouth. Behind her, dogs hold various musical instruments.
“She’s actually holding the rope so she can untie herself,” Sullivan-Beeman says. “And she has a [ball gag] in her mouth, which I think is upsetting to some people, but that also represents that once she unties her hands, her voice will come back because she can untie the [ball gag] and she’ll have the freedom of speech.”
The dogs represent a peanut gallery, of sorts, making noise and invading the space the woman needs to fully express herself.
“As women we have the right to voice our own opinions and be strong and be sexual and be proud,” Sullivan-Beeman says.
Yet it all comes back to the dream journals. As much as her figures seem to be characters in their own stories, they ultimately reflect much more personal themes than might meet the eye.
“There is a side to me that when people see this I start to blush and I feel uncomfortable, because they’re different angles of me,” Sullivan-Beeman says. “It’s just, you know, sometimes almost painful for me to show the work.”
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No matter the subject, Sullivan-Beeman always has one way to know when a painting is done on a technical level.
“When you have the egg tempera and then you do glazes of oil paint, the way the light hits the egg tempera and bounces back into the eye almost makes it looks like you’re looking into water,” she says. “It gives this reflective, refractive light that goes back into the eye and it can be really, really beautiful when it's done right. That’s always my aim, is to get the paintings to glow.”
That glow seems to lie on the surface but it's also in every layer of the painting, each one suffused with colors and meanings waiting to be discovered.
"Girls, Girls, Girls," La Luz de Jesus Gallery, 4633 Hollywood Blvd., Los Feliz; opening reception Fri., Nov. 3, 8-11 p.m. (runs through Nov. 26). laluzdejesus.com.