Stronger than fiction
“I’m a little bit of a cynic,” said Sue Latta.
The sculptures she makes in her Boise studio are sumptuously colorful. Her materials—photographs, plastic resin, cast aluminum, cut bronze and wood—are so different from each other they almost shouldn’t work together, yet they’re combined into compact wall pieces in fully resolved harmony. Her presentation is slick and glossy, and her craftsmanship is absolutely flawless.
But she’s not kidding about the cynicism. Latta’s images, while indulgently beautiful, are laden with ominous signals: rust, rubble, faded surfaces, locked doors, lost hopes, and a general sense of entropy.
She started her career as a photographer and later switched to steel sculpture. Now, her work combines photos and sculptures. “I like to think of them as works of fiction,” she said. “They have content built into them. We read the world in a certain way. Some of that is a little universal, and some of that is a little personal.”
“I went to grad school and I told all these autobiographical stories, this one about this terrible thing that happened to me, that one about that terrible thing that happened to me,” she said.
By the time she finished grad school, in 2007, she was tired of telling the same stories. She wanted to hold onto some of her thoughts about navigating through the difficult parts of life, but she didn’t want her output to be intensely revealing.
“I decided, ’authors get to use fiction,’” she said. She decided to use it, too. Instead of using characters and plots as her narrative building blocks, she uses thick layers of clear resin with nostalgic pictures of abandoned places adhered to them. She uses titles and phrases that confirm a sense of regret and despair: “Worst Case Scenarios,” “The mathematics of regret,” “When I said I loved you it was a slip of the tongue.” And her attention to the details of each material—cast aluminum rendered amorphous as fabric, for example—convey a strong sense of wonder and optimism.
“I think of myself as a problem solver,” she said. She constantly chips away at the technical problems each medium presents and the aesthetic problems of how things fit together, say, a cast bronze thorn and a handwritten letter in the same piece, or a photograph on a flimsy sheet of transparency film with a thick slab of cut bronze. She also works a lot on conquering what she calls “story assembly problems: How do they work together? How do they look together? How do I build it?”
Hence the flawless craftsmanship. “I’m very particular about the way things go together,” she said. “I’m of the belief that if there’s a flaw that’s the one thing people are going to see, and that’s not what I want to get across. If I read a typo, that’s the thing I remember. I think of myself as a writer, and the viewer as a reader. This is my version of spell check, that slick, well-crafted surface.”
“I work very hard at those surfaces, and sometimes they fail,” she said. “Most things I push to completion.”
Latta’s work is labor intensive. Of the couple of dozen or so pieces on exhibit at the Truckee Meadows Community College main gallery, she said, “That’s about six years worth of work.” She aims for 30 to 40 hours a week in her studio, teaches art as an adjunct at Boise State University and the College of Western Idaho, and runs The Sculpture Studio, where she offers workshops.