Aliza Nisenbaum, Susanna Paints, 2022. Oil on canvas, 64 × 57 inches (162.6 × 144.8 cm). Promised gift of Glenn and Amanda Fuhrman © Aliza Nisenbaum
New York-based Aliza Nisenbaum endeavors to translate the humanity of her subjects through her colorful painted portraits of people she encounters or knows personally. An important figurative painter of her generation, Nisenbaum first gained attention in 2012 for her paintings of undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America living in New York, and, in subsequent series, she depicted women who work in the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, security guards at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, subway and health-care workers, and salsa dancers. “I’m interested in the politics of visibility—who and why someone is depicted,” writes Nisenbaum. Susanna Paints is a portrait of Nisenbaum’s longtime mentor and teacher Susanna Coffey, who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago. Building on the artist’s desire to honor her subjects through painting, this portrait pays tribute to an influential teacher and figurative painter who is depicted absorbed in the act of painting. Nisenbaum portrays the tools of painting with great attention and care, from the colorful palette with its swirl of mixing colors to the cups and brushes arrayed on the adjacent white crate. Positioned centrally in a domestic space, the subject and environment appear to take on the brilliant hues of her palette; Susanna’s face and the surrounding walls are tinged green, orange, and purple. Such exaggerations of color and form speak to Nisenbaum’s combination of observed and imagined details, consciously integrating figuration and abstraction, observation and projection, into each painting. Susanna Paints captures the humanity, expressiveness, and individuality of Nisenbaum’s approach to figurative painting, while shining a light on the important relationship between student and teacher.