Why Not Her?

By Cristina Schreil

Dominik poses in front of the backdrop of her 2015 installation Beatrice —To Hell and Back.(Margo Moritz)

Suzy Kellems Dominik’s new movement-based performance work thrusts the former scaffolding of her art to a more vulnerable center.

Suzy Kellems Dominik is chic in all black but glides about her Cow Hollow studio in Adidas. A small riot of charms dances from long chains around her neck. On a north-facing terrace, she gestures at the fog bank tumbling into the Bay, swallowing the late August afternoon. The back terrace, however, still swims in sunlight. Dominik’s lush garden, featuring a fleet of mini citrus trees, fringes a sweeping view of Pacific Heights.

The real magic is inside. The multidisciplinary conceptual artist works in the former top-floor ballroom of a home where she splits time between New York and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Works abound. One screen features Dangerous Dance, a soundless film wherein Dominik strikes poses following an eight count. Downstairs is her photography series Feminine Found, capturing yonic rock formations and similarly suggestive natural cavities. In one corner, some of Invisible, surreal 11-foot totemic sock puppet sculptures with lumps evoking female forms, stand like cotton sentinels. Two surrender on the floor, half their insides excavated.

While Dominik’s artistic career launched in 2014, one senses she’s manifesting long-simmering ideas. “I had a full life,” she says of her pre-artist years in Belvedere, putting family first. (Earlier, she was an All-American gymnast.) “I was always making, but I wasn’t showing work.” Her 50th birthday was pivotal. She asked, “Why not me?”

From there, she says she gradually kicked open the art world’s side door. You might know her beguiling 12-foot neon sculpture of a fireworks-flanked vulva, I Can Feel, which makes its New York debut this September. First, it caused a sensation — literally — at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2017. A 27.68-second light show, a fantasy orgasm, drew many Instagrammers. Themes of reclaiming independence harmonized with the nascent #MeToo movement. She’s humbled that I Can Feel forged a connection, but insists it emerged entirely from within. “A lot of people got to take it as a jumping-off point for them, but I was very firm to what it was for me personally,” Dominik says.

What anything is for her personally occupies the heart of her work. Dominik declares herself an emotional autobiographer, most concerned with plumbing and dissecting her experiences, especially those most potent and ephemeral. “I try to be really honest with myself, which we know is not always easy,” she explains. She embraces the term self-teaching artist, hiring experts like welders and filmmakers to supplement her knowledge. “I’m willing to put myself out there, to both succeed and fail. … I’m not limited by my imagination; my imagination is vast.”

Dominik unwinds in her Cow Hollow studio, surrounded by her surreal 11-foot totemic sock puppet sculptures with lumps evoking female forms. (Margo Moritz)

One work in progress evinces her big thinking. Titled You Are Dead to Me, it’s a site-specific, time-based work in a dry riverbed on her Wyoming ranch: She’s numbered and assembled 7,368 stones — one for each day of a relationship — in the shape of a tomb. A “literal manifestation of my grief,” she says. As the seasons change through 2020, this work — and her mourning — will diminish, she hypothesizes. Archive is vital here. She’s documented through drone footage, time-lapse photography and iPhone confessions, planning a documentary. She hints things haven’t gone as planned, but that the results are poignant. “I don’t want to give away the twist,” she remarks, surreptitiously. 

“I love Suzy’s description of her work: Emotional autobiography is a phrase that sits on a page like a shipping container, ready to be opened and inspected or just waved through customs like somebody else’s problem,” describes artist and friend Stephen Powers, whose exhibition Daymaker is at SFMOMA. “Suzy doesn’t hesitate, she unpacks her trials and troubles and lays them out in triumph.”

Dominik’s new body of work sprouts from the very nucleus of her process: her Badassery poems. Badassery means “to utterly astound with one’s badass attitude,” she explains. In most cases, before beginning a new work, Dominik — drawing upon robust notes and research — writes a poem, or Badassery, as a foundation and genesis for her art. Previously, Badasseries were more montage, displayed across grids of plexiglass prints. “The problem was, that’s the heart and soul and the skeleton of each full-scale installation, but it hadn’t come to me yet how to find a way to elevate that to the place that it really should be, which is centered in my work,” she says.

Now they’re center stage. Spanning two new multichannel video-based works, her Badassery performances marry spoken word and movement, captured with a gang of cameras, including a Red, handhelds, a GoPro 360 and drones. They’re to be synchronized channels exhibited as a whole. One is based on Invisible (those totemic sock puppets) and We the People — Stoned, a film exploring mob mentality. The films, shot in a white box, at first feel different from their associated works. Invisible features highly choreographed rectilinear movement that evokes underlying societal structures and the totems’ literal rigidity. In it, she’s alone, wearing 1950s-style underwear and a T-shirt. “It was important for me to be covered but exposed,” she says. “The more vulnerable I am, the more I can share.” In We the People, four dancers wear costumes that Dominik dyed with Japanese mud. There’s choreography and spontaneous gesture as they react to her words.

Dominik has always poetically objectified herself; the vulva in I Can Feel is her height. Another piece, Beatrice — To Hell and Back features her alter ego, a golden goat. However, now her physical body is, intimately, front and center.

The idea in its current form struck during a performance at The Laundry, where a selection of works was shown in February. She simply stood and spoke, “activating” dancers with her voice. “It was like heaven,” she recalls, beaming. “My chest literally exploded in real time.”

Katie Cooper, director of The Laundry, remembers Dominik speaking powerfully, “with a fierce vulnerability while every syllable created impulses for the dancers to follow. As Suzy’s voice filled the gallery with sound waves rippling through the dancers’ bodies, I shivered because I could feel it too.”

In April, she programmed an exclusive behind-the-scenes performance for the SFMOMA Modern Art Council. The side door is wide open.

“I don’t believe it happens magically,” she says of artistic success. She speaks, ironically, beneath a mural of astrological bodies enchanting her library’s ceiling. Then, quoting one of her Badasseries, she declares: “I believe, though, that you do earn your luck.”

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