January 20, 2011
Elizabeth Schwyzer, “The American Landscape, Altered”
January 20, 2011
During the brushfires of 2008-09, when anyone who could stayed indoors, Youngsuk Suh (or “Young” as he is known among colleagues) was outside with a 4 x 5 film camera, recording images of places throughout the West that were engulfed in flames. Through the smoky haze, he photographed not only the visible features of the landscape, but also people in various pursuits of leisure and labor: bathing, hiking, boating, rafting and firefighting.
Contrary to appearances, these pictures are not part of an explicit environmental treatise. Rather, they are an attempt to get us to question received notions of landscape. Using the visual conceit of smoke, Young attempts to re-frame a variety of ideas about nature and culture that have run throughout American history. These range from the romantic impulse of Hudson River School painters to the socially engaged WPA-era pictures of Walker Evans, and from the fiercely polemical works of Robert Adams to the more open-ended existential studies of Richard Misrach. It’s also safe to say, given the preponderance of smoky vistas, that the artist’s Korean heritage and the traditions of Asian landscape painting play an equally strong role in this project.
As such, Wildfires is a conversation across history that, without asserting a singular viewpoint, touches on the ways American landscape is used, abused, perceived and enjoyed. Irony, alienation, majesty and an inverted sense of the sublime infuse the dozen medium-sized (36 x 46”) photos on view. Their most distinguishing feature, apart from a persistent scrim, is the peculiar quality of the foliage: it has a fuzzy, almost pointillist texture that lends the images a physical presence that would otherwise be absent. As for people, you really have to look to find them, and in the screen views you see here, they are difficult to locate. Nevertheless, they and their surrogates (animals and signs) are the content bearers in these images.
Squirrel, shot from a deserted vista point, shows the animal staring back at the camera with a “What, me worry?” expression, mocking Edward Abbey’s warning about the dangers of what he called “industrial tourism”. Gas Station, which has one of those machine-powered inflatable figures cowering in the background, feels like a scene created by extraterrestrials with a taste for clever graphics. The lone gas pump in the picture carries one of those colorful “eco-friendly” logos that corporate polluters use in magazine ads to assure us they’re the good guys. Taken two years ago, before the BP fiasco, it feels prescient.
Others, like Cigarette and Coffee employ the kind of simple ironies that have been staples of American street photography since Walker Evans. The first shows a firefighter in the midst of a smoke-filled scene dragging on a cigarette; the second is of a small roadside billboard for coffee. The heat of the beverage is represented by orange flames, a case of advertising foretelling real-life disaster.
All of this falls squarely into the New Topographics mode, a style of image making that originated the ‘70s and focused on the impact of development. Conversation is a photo of a parched desert landscape with three people walking along a sandy, tree-lined trail. At the top right of the picture we see a series of sprawling, low-slung concrete buildings, one of which is a Costco. Seeing these elements in the same frame feels slightly surreal and yet they stand as resolute facts — one of the hallmarks the New Topographics movement.
Elsewhere, Young explores the notion of the sublime as it was conceived by Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick Church and the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. Their impulse was to glorify nature by presenting it as something we could conquer and bask in. Later, photographers adopted similar techniques to promote tourism. But there was also a spiritual aspect, which Young, through the pictorial scrim of smoke, evokes to question the equation of nature and godliness. He does this by shooting nearly all of his people scenes (Bathers and a Dog, Bathers under a Bridge and Rafting) from high angles so that they are dwarfed by their surroundings. The result is an upending of a historic dynamic: Where the romantic painters made nature the object of an omnipotent gaze, Young, in the manner of Misrach, puts his attentuated subjects inside the picture, asserting that nature holds the upper hand.
Scale and camera angle are not the only things that draw us into these pictures. Given the toxicity of the air, one wonders if the people in Young’s pictures are real or whether the photographer inserted them after-the-fact. (The artist assures that the pictures are, in fact, “straight”; the only exceptions are instances where he overlaid multiple negatives to add more people to scenes than actually appeared in any single frame.)
Young doesn’t reinvent New Topographics, but he does give it a fresh spin. By showing people operating in the face of disaster as if nothing unusual were occurring, he gives us a psychological portrait of the American West that is both unsettling and true to life.
YOUNGSUK SUH’S CURRENT EXHIBITION REVIEWED IN
by Michele Carlson, 07/21/10
Youngsuk Suh at Haines Gallery
Youngsuk Suh’s solo exhibition, “Wildfires,” features photographs of the California landscape during the brushfires of 2008–09. The dozen wide-format photographs feature monumental landscapes where his subjects often gather to work, swim, boat, and socialize in the shadow of an escalating and nearing catastrophe.
Evidence of the fires, or any palpable sense of danger, is not immediately obvious. In fact, the images appear pleasantly casual, with a lackadaisical opaque surface. In Cigarette (2009), a man stands on the side of a desolate and parched road, dwarfed by the hazy landscape around him. There is a sense of peace about the image, but looking closely one recognizes his uniform as that of a fireman. There’s a strange and private irony that he seems to be taking a smoke break. Like a vein, a deep red fire hose runs alongside the road, cutting across the bottom portion of the photograph. In many of Suh’s images, it’s banal elements that create composition.
Quirky humor flavors the show. In Coffee (2009), a very designer hand-painted highway sign illustrates a mug going in flames. Of course, the image urges us, it’s not as hot as what you’re driving us into. In other photographs a chipmunk takes pause or a large inflatable tube man rocks in the wind near a deserted gas station. This deadpan entails a mismatch of magnitudes-seemingly trivial or even oddities that prevail even amidst a looming natural disaster. Knowing as we do that the images were occasioned by catastrophic fires,Bathers at Sunset (2009) and a number of other follies that occur around California rivers, seem impossible under their circumstances, but the artist also truly cherishes the activity. The challenge, and the reward, is appreciating the parts of the images not dictated by the series’ premise.
With straightforward titles and current events as content, Suh inhabits the idiom of photojournalism. The images’ warm colors and crisp composition suggest magazine or lifestyle photography, and immediately undermine any association with objectivity. The real intention here is emotive, an invocation of the sublime in the American landscape and the Shakespearean gravity of the artist’s dramatic irony. Such pathos is part of a photographic practice whose reality is as mutable as it is routine.
Find This Article Online: http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/reviews/youngsuk-suh/
Haines Gallery is pleased to present Wildfires, a seasonably salient exhibition of photographs by Youngsuk Suh. In his first solo exhibition in San Francisco, Suh continues his exploration of the myths of the American wilderness, a subject previously explored in his Instant Traveler series on national parks. Photographed during the California brushfires of 2008 and 2009, and now exhibited during a time of anticipated defense against the fire season, Wildfires explores mankind’s desire to “tame the untamable” and the mediation of natural imagery resulting in our subsequent alienation from natural processes and disasters.
Suh’s photographs depict sweeping landscapes blanketed in smoke from nearby fires, while his human subjects engage in pursuits of both labor and leisure, despite the smoky conditions. Often shot from a high vantage point, these individuals are often dwarfed by the majestic landscapes surrounding them. In Bather at Sunset, a distant male figure stands shin-deep in a placid lake, a pink haze illuminating the sky and hills around him. Similarly in Rafting, a lone rafter paddles downstream, her red canoe in stark contrast with the smoky gray air around her. One imagines the canoe disappearing into the haze, engulfed by smoke. This sublimely romantic portrayal of the “heroic individual conquering nature alone” calls to mind 19th Century American Painting from the Hudson River School or the allegorical landscapes of German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich. Indeed, Suh notes that the luminous tones and colors of the photographs reference these earlier masters – but with a hint of irony, for these picturesque sunsets are enhanced by the haze of smoke from nearby fires, and these heroes are simply tourists, more oblivious than brave.
Conversely, Suh chooses to depict firefighters – the actual heroes of these disasters – not engaged in fiery battle, but on their breaks from the job. In Cigarette, a firefighter immersed in thick gray smoke takes a drag from his cigarette. The irony and mundanity inherent in many of Suh’s work, for him denotes “…a characteristic aspect of modern fire management and disaster management at large. It is the result of sophisticated social engineering that is aimed at total control of the public psyche, which is achieved by careful control of the visibility of any disastrous events. Individuals are often ‘protected’ from having direct contact and left with mediated images seen on TV and newspapers. One’s own sense of threat is replaced by the color-coded ratings determined by the authorities. Once this process is established, the wildfires are no longer a threat in a real sense. The thick smoke seems to transform the real event into a remote memory.” Indeed, these images of people going about their business in the midst of a natural disaster offer a poignant commentary on the psychological state of the U.S. at large.
Suh received his BFA in Photography from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn in 1998, and went on to receive his MFA in Studio Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2001, where he taught large format photography and digital printing. His work is included in several public and corporate collections, and he has exhibited internationally, most recently at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Center for Contemporary Art in Sacramento. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at UC Davis. A percentage of sales will be donated to our friends at San Francisco Camerawork in recognition of their role in bringing Youngsuk Suh’s work to light.
IMAGES AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST
July 3 – September 19, 2010
SANTA BARBARA MUSEUM OF ART
1130 State Street, Santa Barbara CA 93101
The exhibition Chaotic Harmony was necessarily limited to one work by each of the forty artists due to space and budget considerations. However, the SBMA has been activelycollecting works by artists from the Pacific Rim and additional space to showcase recent acquisitions of Korean art expands and enhances the understanding of these vibrant young artists. In conjunction with Chaotic Harmony, Santa Barbara Museum of Art is proud to present ‘Everyday Realities’.
This accompanying exhibition focuses on newly acquired works at the SBMA made by several young, dynamic photographers who live in the Republic of Korea (known in the West as South Korea). The astonishing transformation, and to some extent dislocation, that has taken place in South Korea over the past two decades is reflected in many of these images as photographers strive to give visual expression to the realities of contemporary life. While many of the displayed works reflect the seismic shifts of a changing nation, others are inspired by the extraordinary and timeless beauty of the Korean landscape.
The chosen artists, taken from a large field of promising young talent, represent the unique visual voices being formed in the dynamic climate of South Korea.
Seung Woo Back
Hyo Jin In
Suk Kuhn Oh
Lee Gap Chul
Won Seoung Won
‘Everyday Realities’ will be on view at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in Emmons and Von Romberg galleries from July 3rd to September 19, 2010.