Visual Scientific Poetry: Susan Bee’s Photograms
Susan Bee: Photograms and Altered Photos from the 1970s at Southfirst
January 10 through February 22, 2015
60 N 6th Street (between Wythe and Kent streets)
Brooklyn, 718 599 4884
In the event that it ever becomes possible to X-ray the human imagination, the results will presumably look a lot like Susan Bee’s “Photograms and Altered Photos from the 1970s.” The dozens of small, unframed works included in this exhibition feature hand-drawn squiggles, primal daubs, imperfect patterns, and bleached silhouettes of found materials that reach out of darkness like weeds or the dreamy remnants of a half-formed thought. All rendered within a dense yet fluid spectrum of surprisingly nuanced (if yellow-tinged) grayscale, the images could also just as easily be isolated stills from a tenderfoot animated film or snapshots beamed from some corner of the Universe where the earpiece of a rotary telephone or pair of scissors float amid other random bits of cosmic detritus. A number of pieces are also whimsically hand tinted, embellished by thin pastels and near-neon hues that scrape and bundle their way through an eerie not-quite black-and-white world. Overall, the collection is inquisitive and crisp, containing something of the prime quality W Somerset Maugham once ascribed to rum punch: it has “the vagueness of music and the precision of mathematics.”
The works are presented in clusters of series, each marked by its own thematic and aesthetic parameters. One sequence, shown on the gallery’s north wall, is reminiscent of the gangling, angular microbes one might find under a microscope and the patchy cultures grown in a Petri dish; others, on the south wall, evoke Anna Atkins’s botanical impressions of plant life and the Impressionists’ proclivity for employing thick upward strokes to capture the bloom and sway of a vertiginous sweep of lawn. Untitled (ca. 1979) is especially energetic, its many blurred, fern-shaped cross-sections flushed with soft cerise, peony pink, rheumy chartreuse and cornflower blue. Another series, this one pinned to the east wall, is more formal and austere, containing only a few colorless overlapping triangles of various weights and sizes. Here, each photogram focuses intently on the interaction of forms and subtle shifts in tone, not unlike Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series. This attention to relationships between items anticipates the careful relationships Bee now establishes between figures in her current painting practice. One can see the connection, but also the distance travelled. Who knew that addressing how one triangle converses with another, or how two equilaterals act when forced to lean into each other and share a single space, could be so tender, or so telling?
Despite their many differences, these works all have one thing in common: they are, first and foremost, exploratory. Created during and after the time Bee was writing her graduate thesis on the photograms of László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, many of the images feel like direct echoes of those she studied so intently, made using whatever objects she found lying around her studio. The process has the effect of making even the most mundane office supplies appear ghostly and phenomenal, giving everything from nuts and bolts to tape dispensers and unruly tangles of wire a second life, or perhaps only the shade of a life. Yet their mimicry is not a flaw, but rather the key to their distinction. These works designate one phase in the career of a deeply curious artist who makes in order to understand, producing works that feel kinesthetic and engage in a pedagogic dialogue with their source material. They are tests — then for the artist to make, and now for the viewer to observe. They are a game, an exercise, a puzzle that not only challenges you to ask, “What is that thing?” but then dares you to go ahead and fill in the blank.
In this critic’s opinion, the photogram is a dramatic but inherently limited medium, very much in the line of “you’ve see one, you’ve seen them all.” But here, the singular experience of viewing and time traveling with the artist slices right through the material’s potential shortcomings. These works are the unassuming glimpses of a younger, more uncertain self, the apt pupil who holds the camera and looks right past us and into the future in Untitled (1977). We don’t know what she sees, but perhaps we can begin to imagine.