Miami artist Patty Suau is doing work that’s as provocative as it is diminutive. In this interview, she explains the ideas and inspiration behind her series of tiny drawings of intimate — mostly sexual — moments.
DADE: You make this amazing work that I saw at the Aqua Art Fair. It’s a series of large blank canvasses, each with a very small, tiny couple fornicating. Where did the inspiration for this come from?
Patty: Well, the idea is to capture intimacy as much as possible. Intimacy isn’t always fornication. It could be something as soft as a look, a touch, an embrace, or something much more graphic.
The idea of the scale is to capture the immensity of that moment of intimacy. So they’re teeny tiny because you have to get really close. And as soon as you get really close, the rest of that negative space, the rest of the paper, takes over your field of vision. So you’re sucked into this sucker. The only thing that you see is that universe — that blank moment where this very intense moment is happening, be it an embrace, be it a kiss, be it intercourse. But there’s so much concentration, and so much focus on genitalia, on fucking, on having sex, just the mechanical version of it, and … I don’t know. There’s so much more to that that we don’t see that often.
The concept isn’t just the piece. The concept as a whole is the framing, the presentation of the work. So none of the pieces are any larger than 3 inches by 3 inches. However, the framing is substantially bigger than the actual pieces. So, very much like how we go through the process of intimacy with a person, we have to go through the process of intimacy with these pieces. Let’s say you’re in a crowded place and you see somebody you’re interested in, somebody you’re attracted to. You have to cross the room, you have to go through the crowd to talk to this person. That’s a way of discovering this person. So, with these pieces, what people see is a really big frame and some kind of speck, and the first inclination is to think, “What’s wrong here? Why is there such a big frame for such a small speck? What’s going on?” So you have to approach the piece, and that curiosity has that unintentional discovery, which is the spark that is created when two people find some kind of interest in each other, whether it’s sexual or not.
So as soon as someone discovers what’s going on in these pieces, it’s intriguing because it is kind of sexy. You get closer and closer, because they are technical pieces. The drawings take me a really long time to do. So then when the viewer has their nose pressed against the glass, in essence, they’re really capturing that moment, and it’s so small that they really have to focus. Then there’s nothing else that exists. It’s this blank field of vision that takes over the peripheral view, so the only distraction that’s there is that intimate moment.
I’m really interested in the way that this is the opposite of pornographic, because as you were mentioning before (the interview), pornography is so much about the action shot of the cock going into the pussy and all that bullshit. When I first saw it in this tiny room at the Aqua Art Fair, this was different because there was a philosophical argument that was going on here. And it was that your intimacy with another person is a part of a vast array of other experiences, but when you’re with another person you really can’t feel that.
Right. Because the world just kind of stops. And the only thing that’s going on is that present moment, which is really powerful because we always hear that, “You’ve got to be present. You’ve got to be present.” And, you know, we try. We focus on what’s really going on. But there are so many other things going at the same time. But I feel like, in intimacy, when it’s powerful and the connection is there, everything stops.
Your brain is nowhere but there. And you’ve done a really incredible job of taking that emotional moment and taking that experience that we all hopefully have had and enacting it through plastic art, which is tough to do, period.
But a hell of a lot of fun to do.
Yeah, I imagine. Where do you get the sex positions from?
All sorts of places. I mean, it varies from porn to art books with figure drawings from master drawers to pictures of my family and friends hanging out. I’m very interested in yoga, because it’s the discovery of how far the body can contort. So I have a good collection.
There’s a certain drama in some of them that involves that contortion of passion and that transmits really deep emotion, so I can totally see that.
And obviously, it’s a visual piece and it’s very much the classic definition of two-dimensional artwork. This is definitely a drawing, no question about it. The conceptual portion of it is how it’s presented, but I really like how it’s simple. And it’s in its simplicity that it has its drama.
You’re from Miami. A lot of people think that it’s just a vacation place or that we’re a place to come to for Basel. But there’s a unique way of looking at the world that comes from South Florida.
Agreed. I’m a total Miami girl. Born and raised in Miami. Left Miami for college and came right back.
Where’d you go to school?
I went to Maryland Institute College of Art. It was great until I missed home.
Yeah. Like the fourth or fifth winter.
No, it wasn’t that much for me. It was a second. As soon as it hit 17 degrees, I thought, “I’m so out of here.” But there was such a striking difference. I always thought I was pretty cosmopolitan, and as a kid I had the opportunity to leave Miami a couple of times. So in my 18-year-old mind, I thought that, “Oh yeah, I’m totally globetrotting.” That was not the case.
I felt like, when I left for college, that’s when I really learned English, and that’s when I really discovered American culture. Johnny Cash died when I was in college, and I had no idea who he was. I was like, “Why is everybody hooting and hollering about this guy named Johnny Cash? It’s a great name, but who is this guy?” So I was sat down and given many a history and cultural lesson. Probably on a daily basis. Not only was I learning academically and technically, but also culturally, all of these things that supposedly I grew up with but I had zero clue about.
So it was acculturation to American culture, because Miami isn’t American culture.
No, it’s not at all. I found myself speaking Spanglish and not being understood, which was confusing because I didn’t realize that I didn’t know how to communicate, and that’s when I say that I went off to college to learn English.
But what I love about Miami… When I came back, I missed that sexiness, that sultriness. I miss our cultural necessity for looking nice. It sounds really superficial, and it absolutely is. But it’s nice to look good and feel good and dress well and all that. Whereas in the winter (up north), obviously you put on a couple of pounds because you need the heat.
And in school, it’s like “Yeah, I’m not gonna take a shower. It doesn’t really matter.”
So coming back home, it was like, “Oh wow. I want to stare at everybody. This is great.” So there was always that in the back burner, where Miami is always this superficial place with beautiful people. And that’s really important in these pieces because I have a lot of international friends who look at my art or I explain to them about the concept, and they say, “Yeah, it’s beautiful, it’s great, but of course, you’re back in Miami.” I like that component, where it’s sexy and cool, but it’s not just fucking.
The artwork, however, is not necessarily connected to the sexiness of Miami. The artwork is connected to intimacy, period. It started off as a one-off thing. A gallery owner and a curator, who is now a very good friend, Miguel Rodez, was having an erotic art show. I’ve always made art, but I’ve always made figurative art. I really like the nude body. I like the way weight falls, I like the composition, I like the drama of the backbone, of the skeleton. Just the way the body functions. I think it’s marvelous.
So he invited me to participate in the erotic art show. I told him that I would, but that I needed to have a concept for it, because he wanted me to do something I’d never done before. Every time we connected, he would tell me about this new piece he was thinking about exhibiting. They were all large-scale, graphic, in-your-face, and they were all amazing. They all held their own weight. But I thought, “I have to do something different. I have to do something cool. I’m going to address a part of eroticism that’s not usually addressed.” And that’s the quieter, softer moments.
So I made these really teeny tiny pieces. And it was like, “These teeny tiny pieces are great, but they’re going to get lost in the space. I need to do something to present them so people know what’s going on.” That’s where the idea of the big frame came up, and it satisfied everything that I was thinking about. How to get the attention, how to capture the audience so they’re drawn to the pieces, and how to give each piece the space it needs to create its own little universe.
When I confirmed to Miguel that I wanted to participate and I had pieces for him, he said, “Well, I didn’t know if you were going to participate or not, so I don’t have a space for you except for in the dead-end hallway that I use as storage.”
But that’s perfect.
It was brilliant. And the whole gallery audience was crammed in that small hallway.
I remember at Aqua they had you in a closet and it was a wonderful choice because you walk in and you’re like, “Wait, this is just… oh!”
So, by design now, I try to keep the spaces as small as possible, so that people can have that magical moment of discovery.
So that (Miguel Rodez show) is what started the idea. At the time I was dating this great man. We became engaged. We moved in together and very quickly realized things weren’t going to work out. I revisited the relationship and the things that were missing. That’s where I decided to revisit the concept of that intimacy and sensuality, of the tenderness of that really powerful moment. And they’re not all tender; most of them are not tender at all, but it’s that really powerful moment, that safety, that little universe, that kind of resonating quiet that was so powerful. It was an important piece of that relationship that was missing. So I started developing these, and when I had a few more, I thought, “How wonderful. I’m going to make this as an homage to us women and the power of our sensuality and our sexuality. Because we don’t have to ask permission and we don’t have to feel bad about these physiological functions. They’re made for us to enjoy, but to some degree, even the most freed kind of need that little bit of permission or a push.
It’s the big other telling you…
Exactly. “Go ahead. Pursue your pleasure.” But the ironic part is that now that I have them and I have them framed and I have them presented and people come and see it, it’s not the women who see it and think, “OK. I get it.” It’s the men who linger, ask questions, they’re intrigued, they’re the ones that buy it. They’re the ones who feel like they’re given permission by seeing these to be the pleasing partner.
That’s interesting because one of the ways that masculinity functions is by commodifying encounters. Men relate to other men by talking about women, and they establish status and hierarchy by talking about encounters with women. And they’re habituated to do so. So it means that when they have their moment of intimacy with somebody, it is really that much more alone. So I definitely reacted to it on that level where it spoke to my experiences with masculinity.
How many are in the series?
I’ve lost count, but I’ve been doing it for about 18 months now.
I very much believe that people should have original artwork in their house. It’s enriching for them and their children. And it’s funny because I get the question, “Hey, this is sexy stuff. I can’t have this in my house. How do you deal with this in public?” And I think, you know, the reason we all exist is because somebody had sex.
They’re presented as — I feel — a healthier approach than porn. And everyone looks at porn. I mean, even kids have access to porn, and that’s unfortunate, but the presentation of this is like a really loud whisper that says “this exists” and that’s it. I learned this when I was 17. If every 17-year-old boy were to see these works and then move on about their lives with this kind of influence, every 19-year-old would be in a much better situation.
You’ve come up with the arts scene in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood as it’s become more established. And the New York Times can write as many poopoo columns as it wants about how Miami isn’t really a cultural city and all that bullshit, but we do have our own sui generis artists here in the city and you’re one of them. If you could just speak to the process of growing up with and seeing the arts scene develop here…
Yeah, absolutely, I mean… When I was little, my parents liked art, but didn’t love art. They didn’t know where to go. It wasn’t accessible to the regular poor immigrant family.
As the immigrant generation becomes more Americanized, we now fall into the pocket of deeper cultural roots here in Miami rather than the absolute necessity to have shelter and food and not be able to concentrate on anything else. I also feel like the immigrant base overall has been here long enough to have that cultural need where, as a whole, we’re already over trying to figure out where we’re going to live, how we’re going to live, how we’re going to get our food. We got that. We already have some kind of network, even if it’s basic. But now we have that space to go to a show, whether it’s free or not, but…
You have the surplus capital, the surplus time, the surplus money.
Exactly. This is true. And as we progress as a city and a more and more people come in, we have more cultural influences from all over Latin America and all over the world. As Miami grows, I feel like that cultural aspect grows as well, with venues all over the county that weren’t available 10, 20, even 5 years ago.
The one thing with Miami I see that’s magical, but kind of wavering, is that it’s still struggling to find that core. New York has SoHo, for example. There’s not that center here. So oftentimes if you have friends that are artists or you live in a place that will allow it, people get together and they do their creative projects and they have this magical experience for a night, two nights, a week maximum. Because that funding isn’t there, the organization isn’t necessarily there. And then it disappears.
Right. There isn’t necessarily like a literary, cultural, arts district.
Exactly. I feel like we’re organizing really quickly and we’re growing quickly and everything will eventually get there, but we still see these pockets of isolation where magic happens, nobody hears about it, it was great that one time it happened, and then… done.
I’m excited for the growth.
Mario is a Dominican immigrant and a Michener Fellow in poetry at the University of Miami’s Master in Fine Arts program. He holds a Master’s degree in Hispanic Cultural Studies from Columbia University. His poetry can be found in places like The Cincinnati Review, Gulf Coast, and The Raleigh Review, and his journalism appears in The Atlantic and The Miami New Times. His current project focuses on sea level rise and Miami.