Muchness is Ms. Bocanegra’s métier. She thrives on immersive research, she accumulates odd facts with a hoarder’s zeal, and she relishes the unexpected discoveries that arise through repetitions. “Whenever I make a piece of art, it’s all hunt and peck — I ask myself, ‘Does this work with that?’,” she said during an amiable conversation in which she threw out her own questions almost as often as she answered a reporter’s.
Starting with a whimsical notion, she can systematically spin an obsessive web. Fifteen years ago, her passion for the flower paintings of the 17th-century Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder led her to reproduce every petal in a Brueghel painting. Marshaling gouache paints and sable brushes, and supplementing them with beeswax and fabric, she made seven of these paint-by-Brueghel pictures. At the time, she was the mother of young children (two boys and a girl, who are now grown), and she took comfort in the meditative iteration. She was soothed even further by the audiotapes of Barbara Pym’s tart and sweet novels of English village life, to which she listened as she worked.
As with many of her artistic transitions, she stumbled into performance seemingly by chance. Learning of a Danish grant that required a collaboration between a pair of artists from New York City and Denmark, she decided to team up with the only Danish artist she knew — an avant-garde accordionist. During this period, she was collecting books on weaving, learning how to measure the warp threads and tie up the treadles on a loom. “For each weaving, it had the loom tie-up, which is on a staff just like music,” she said. She wondered if the notation that specifies a loom weave could be read as musical notes.
And she knew just the person to ask. Ms. Bocanegra is married to David Lang, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer for “The Little Match Girl Passion” and the co-founder of the contemporary music collective, Bang on a Can. (They met when they were both fellows at the American Academy in Rome, from 1990 to 1991.) “I said to David, ‘Can you sing this?’” she recalled. “He said, ‘Yeah, there’s a repetition and pattern like Minimalist music.’”
She won the Denmark fellowship. Traveling there for research, she discovered in a house museum outside Copenhagen a traditional Olmerdug weaving pattern of alternating stripes that she adored. For the finished performance piece, which she called “Rerememberer,” she engaged an artisan to weave the pattern on a loom that she had amplified by sound technicians. The accordionist played the tie-up notation, while 50 of her nonmusician friends, with an hour’s instruction, performed another piece of weaving notation, the thread count, on violins that Ms. Bocanegra rented for the occasion. “Rerememberer” was presented at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village in 2009. “I had no idea it would work,” she said. “We lucked out.”
“Drawing, weaving, monologue on stage — these are traditional forms, but in Suzanne’s hands, they are anything but,” said Ian Berry, director of the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, who curated her solo exhibition there in 2010. She examines the sort of everyday things that are right in front of all of us, “but with a surreal twist that holds our attention,” Mr. Berry said. “There is a lot to discover. Something that appears to be one thing, on further looking appears as something else.”
Ms. Bocanegra is organizing a solo exhibition that will open at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia in Sept. 2018. Occupying all three floors of the museum, it will be divided among opera, ballet and film: “Dialogue of the Carmelites,” a Francis Poulenc opera set in a convent during the French Revolution; “La Fille Mal Gardée,” an 18th-century ballet based on a painting of a weeping young woman berated by an older one, as her lover scampers up to a hayloft; and “Valley of the Dolls,” the camp classic film of the Jacqueline Susann novel that follows three young women who struggle with careers, men and pills in New York and Hollywood. “Each of these original sources deals with a kind of voyeuristic observation of women in trouble — romantic trouble, spiritual trouble, emotional trouble,” she explained.
She will employ videos, installations, music, photographs, drawings, costumes and furniture to translate the source material into her own voice. “It’s going to be her mediating the performance side of her work and the gallery side of her work,” said Susan L. Talbott, executive director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum.
The discovery of the strangeness in the ordinary and the ordinary in the strange, through juxtaposition, repetition and translation: that is Ms. Bocanegra’s continuing artistic quest.