An Artist Who Faces Up to Fears : Susan Hornbeak-Ortiz's work, which will be on view in Newport and Fullerton, is not all goodness and light. And neither is her life.


Outside the ocean-view house where Susan Hornbeak-Ortizgrew up, the street is peaceful on a sunny afternoon. Inside, the dishwasher hums softly as she asks the housekeeper when her infant and toddler began their naps.

In an airy studio a few steps away, she shares a thriving interior design business with her sister and devises the large, often mechanically powered sculptures that are being shown at several Orange County venues this fall and winter.

It looks like the picture of suburban bliss. But the 31-year-old artist tells a different story.

For months, she says, her children have been watched and followed by two strangers. So far, the police have not made any arrests.

Meanwhile, she has moments of panic about the children's welfare. One night, when her husband was out of town, she packed a huge earthquake kit in a diaper bag--an echo of her "Apocalyptic Figures" series, which includes canvas storage bags for foodstuffs and a 15-foot-tall "Supply Apron" outfitted with vials filled with various materials for post-apocalyptic survival.

Hornbeak-Ortiz, a tall, slender woman with long, golden hair, appears calm and purposeful despite her worries. As she shows a visitor the workmanlike drawings for her new sculptures (several of which already have been constructed), she carefully weighs down each large sheet of curling paper with an office calculator.

But her fears and obsessions have taken root in this series, which she calls "The Restoration of Virtue." The phrase was something she heard in passing, on TV.

"It stuck in my brain for months and months," she says. "I started doing some research on the traditional virtues and then started making up my own virtues that were things I thought were missing or lacking . . . in my own life."

A few of the works in the series--such as "Self-Discipline" (a huge strap-on kite) or "Perseverance" (a large Neoprene raft that probably will slowly inflate and deflate)--are somewhat related to the traditional cardinal virtues (justice, prudence, fortitude and temperance).

But the titles of most of the works elude such categorization. "Sleep," for example, is a deer's head mounted between two widely separated speakers. Walking from one to the other, the viewer must strain to hear the whispered voices of two women reading bedtime stories.

Hornbeak-Ortiz says the piece is "really about fear." At night, she used to listen to her children's breathing through the room monitor "because I was always afraid they would never wake up." The deer, she says, is a metaphor for the "beauty and innocence" of children.

Her image of "Fear" is a headless bear (a taxidermist's mold, with visible seams) that stands on two legs on a large-wheeled cart. An old life vest resembling a horse's yoke lies on the floor, attached to the cart with a metal harness.

"I started to think of a child's pull toy and the idea of making it on an enlarged scale," she says. "Because, you know, bears can be frightening. Also, this bear is sort of turned inside out. That began to symbolize for me what fear was. It was a lack of control."

In the psychological scenario she envisions for the piece, the bear pursues the wearer of the life vest until she finally decides to rid herself of fear. Unclasping the harness, she feels "the fear just roll away and become a distant memory."

"Fear" will be part of a group exhibition, "From Behind the Orange Curtain," at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton through Dec. 31. Hornbeak-Ortiz says she is particularly happy that the artists in that show include Chris Burden and George Herms, two of her former instructors in the UCLA master's degree program.

After grad school, Hornbeak-Ortiz experienced the newcomer's frustration of sending out slides of work to galleries that never respond. But her luck turned at the 1991 LACE Annuale in Los Angeles. Two Santa Monica dealers--Marti Koplin of Koplin Gallery and Ruth Bloom of Meyers/Bloom Gallery--saw her work there, she says, and both made overtures. She wound up at Koplin, where she had two solo shows before an amicable parting earlier this year.

Meanwhile, to pay the bills, she learned interior designing from her mother, the former owner of Saddleback Interiors on East Coast Highway. She tries to work on art and design projects on alternate days, though she often puts in a 50- or 60-hour week, returning to her sculptures in the evenings.

Ideally, she says, she'd like to devote three days to art, two to the children and none to the business. In the meantime, however, she manages to find time to keep up her contacts and circulate copies of the attractive spiral-bound book she has had printed up to illustrate her work.

Bruce Guenther, chief curator at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, had put her "Body Packs" (sack-like canvas garments that hang on the wall) into a show at John Wayne Airport three years ago. Several months ago, she sent him an update on the new pieces. When he expressed interest in making a studio visit, she says, "I just followed through on it."

As a result, "Wisdom"--a pair of hand-carved wooden eyelids that snap open loudly to reveal glass eyeballs when someone approaches--will be in "Machine," a group show at Newport Harbor Art Museum that opens Oct. 21.

Hornbeak-Ortiz says the piece has to do with the notion of the eye as a window to the soul, Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings and the enigmatic nature of invention.

"It's funny," she adds. "When I'm working on a piece and people ask directly what it means, it's really hard [to say] until I get some space from it. I think six months from now I'll be able to talk about it a little more intelligently."

By the time Maggie Owens, curator of Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, first saw slides of Hornbeak-Ortiz's work, she and co-curator Jeannie Denholm had already finished choosing work for "Confronting Nature: Silenced Voices," which closed last week at Chapman and Cal State Fullerton.

But the slides intrigued the two curators sufficiently to lure them to her studio. They made space in their show for "Beauty," a harp with attached turkey wings that flap while a rod strikes the strings, producing an unearthly sound.

"Ironically, it has received more attention than some of the other pieces," Owens said recently. "The craftsmanship and the content were there. It was much more mature than what I would have expected for someone of her age--a cross between [Los Angeles artists] Tim Hawkinson and Rebecca Horn, yet she has her own" style.

Owens offered Hornbeak-Ortiz a solo show at Chapman in February, and the artist admits to a feeling of panic when she contemplates finishing the 16-piece series in less than four months.

But, she adds, "I know I'm more centered when I'm making things. . . . I'm so busy doing these pieces that I don't get so obsessive" about the safety of her children.

Another strong lifeline is her "very supportive" relationship with her New York dealer, Catherine Spencer, who frequently writes and calls to talk about the work.

"Last year I did not make any art," Hornbeak-Ortiz says. "I had no ideas. I felt completely empty. It was a really scary feeling. And then I went back to New York to see [Spencer] and we started talking . . . and things just started to happen."

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