"I would rather retreat into silence than spill the beans," says Suvan Geer, articulating the quiet way she's explored profound ideas over the past two decades.
Ironically, the Santa Ana artist's message seems louder than ever--figuratively and literally--in the first in-depth survey of her work, currently at the Huntington Beach Art Center.
Geer, 50, uses common materials such as salt, powdered milk, rice and ground corn in works that murmur of memory, loss, self-sacrifice, environmental destruction and humans as masters of all they survey.
She animates these ephemeral installations with recorded sounds of breathing, whispers and moving fluids--cascading water or dripping milk--that allude to the passage of time and the tidal flow of life and death that subtly underlie much of what she creates.
Because her works are normally shown one at a time, grouping 15 together that were created over 10 years raised the volume.
"Repetition allows you to take things that aren't noticeable," Geer said, "and gradually they sort of wear at you, and you find yourself saying, 'What the hell is that?' "
"Suvan Geer: Inaudible Whispers (1989-1999)" showcases one of Orange County's most critically lauded contemporary artists, who also has helped build the county's visual-art scene.
The Alabama native, an art instructor and critic (including, formerly, for The Times), was a founder of the 19-year-old Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, an artist-run cooperative. In the early '90s, she ran Artists Contributing to the Solution (ACTS), an environmental activists' group with members nationwide.
Huntington Beach Art Center curator Tyler Stallings organized the exhibition, his last before leaving for a similar post at the Laguna Art Museum, where he hopes to continue organizing solo shows.
"You can better see the richness and depth of the ideas in an artist's work," Stallings said, "by focusing on just one artist."
Geer discussed some of her ideas and her background during a recent stroll through the center's galleries. Like many of her works, her demeanor is a mix of fragility and strength, or power. There's almost a breathiness to her voice, yet she talks passionately, holds firm opinions and gestures assertively.
In "Milk & Soot: Wet Milk Hare" (1997), a wild hare made of newspaper and wax hangs from a cord binding its feet. It refers to humans' sense of entitlement, Geer said, as in "the landowner is entitled to hunt on his land" and slay helpless prey.
"We don't think about any of the repercussions of that," she said, "which is this sense of privilege--this idea that the world is set up for me and I don't need to think about it."
Revival Another Theme Explored
Unlike other animals, however, humans feel regret, Geer said, pointing to a clear tube through which milk slowly drips into a bucket beneath the hare.
"It looks like an IV, so for me the piece also has this sense of trying to revive something. So frequently, we go in and bomb the hell out of some place, then we feel sorry later, and take the victim and put him in the hospital."
Revival also is one of the themes explored in "Nocturnal Emissions" (1999), which builds on the earlier "Drying Whispers."
That piece, incorporating salt-encrusted white bed pillows and a dry, raspy recorded voice, was primarily about sleep and death. But Geer, feeling more expansive than that, added a video of a woman's moving lips, rushing water and sounds to match.
"I was thinking about language, which a lot of my pieces use, and how spoken language is such a living thing. When we write something down, it gets fossilized." The French, she added, call sleep "a little death." "Yet it's also a revival."
Geer raises questions of self-sacrifice with "Corn Hare Offering/Abnegado," which she first constructed last year as part of a cultural festival in San Jose, Costa Rica. This time, her snared, dangling hare is outlined on the gallery floor in fine golden cornmeal. A sewing machine, covered with the stuff, stands close by.
Abnegado means self-sacrifice, she said, which refers to the way many Costa Rican women put their families' needs before their own.
"What's more important are the men, the children, anybody but themselves, and I wanted to address that. But I didn't want to exclude men, because they are also made to work constantly, to put themselves on the line for their country, for their job. That's how they support their family."
Geer, whose family moved from the South to Los Angeles when she was 4, said she drove them "nuts" with the endless questions she asked as a kid. But, though she came to art late in life, the inquisitiveness persisted, and it defines her working method.
"Art has allowed me to do my own research," she said, though "I think it just helps me find other questions. It's always an exploration."
The serious digging began at Cal State Fullerton after a stint in a convent (where she found she didn't have the calling but enjoyed spending time with strong women who were working to change the world).
Raised by a "working-class mom" who had no interest in art, she had no art instruction until college. But that's where she rediscovered the intellectual stimulation she'd first encountered through her stepfather, who loved the arts and literature.
She helped found OCCCA after receiving bachelor's and master's degrees from CSUF in 1981. The idea was to create an informal venue, isolated from marketplace pressures, for emerging artists to experiment with new work.
"It was a place where I could do the same thing I'd done in grad school," said Geer, who also took her early work outdoors to focus on time and things temporal. For "Dew Walk Ritual," she stomped a design into a grassy meadow covered with frost, which shortly thereafter evaporated, as did the design.
Zest of Early '80s Failed to Enter the '90s
Looking back over the years--she went on to solo and group shows in L.A. and Orange counties and beyond--Geer isn't so sanguine about the local scene.
The sense of momentum and support for contemporary art she felt in the early '80s has disappeared, she said. She's also well aware of the possibility that a reorganization plan may do away with the adventuresome, avant-garde approach of the Huntington Beach Art Center.
Two decades ago, the Newport Harbor Art Museum had just opened, "and the exhibits they were doing were really stirring," Geer said "and we were doing something; we were bringing in a new way of thinking about art--art that was more about concepts than images, art that had social consciousness instead of just a nice view.
"See, I love art. I frankly don't care if someone's doing china painting or landscapes; I just love art. But the kind of art that I make, it's not welcome here the way it was welcomed years ago."
So why stay? For starters, living here hasn't precluded her from exhibiting outside of the county, and the sort of art she likes to see is only a few miles north, in Los Angeles. Also, she's not a city girl.
"Los Angeles is a sound city," Geer said. "Even if you're up in the foothills, you're hearing sound. I couldn't live there. I need what Orange County offers in that way. At least it offers it now. I don't know, in 15 years, what it's going to be like."
* "Suvan Geer: Inaudible Whispers (1989-1999)," Huntington Beach Art Center, 538 Main St., Huntington Beach. Hours: Noon-6 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; noon-8 p.m. Thursday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. $2-$3. Through June 27. (714) 374-1650.