Monday, April 20, 2009
Susan Bee’s Eye of the Storm @ A.I.R. Gallery, Brooklyn, New York
Drowsy, uncertain memories form the substrate of Susan Bee’s luminous dream-dramas, where hellfire nightmares interrupt the amorous gestures of courtly paramours, and prim little girls shoot guns at fairies. She evokes the half-waking state when the body grasps for situation in the real world in order to leave behind the strange figures of night-time reverie.
An image from the title sequence of Hitchcock’s Vertigo haunts Bee’s work. In the film, a dark eye and a spiraling light initiate a web of ocular desire focused on the numinous beauty of the heroine. Eye of the Storm directs that watchful eye on the wispy Hollywood bombshell and the coy and corseted Victorian damsel, imagining the feminine in idealized forms clipped from dime-store paperbacks and antique postcard illustrations, all caught in a gaze that radiates insatiable fantasy.
In The Flood (2006), demure lovers clad in starched linen and crinoline stand perched on a tree amid turbulent waters, the calamity below bearing little effect on what looks like an otherwise placid Sunday picnic. A bikini-clad sex kitten is suspended in an action movie pose, lusty and unfazed while painted figures rendered in simple, flat, folk-art colors clamber up trees or flail in the rising waters. The appropriated images, as familiar cultural signifiers, embody in various forms the conceptual language of the status quo; the pervasive visual vocabulary to which we agree by acceptance or recognition. As clichés they have little to do with either the palpable and singular effect of the painted artwork—where the mottled and vigorous waves of color are no more and no less than the choppy deluge that they indicate—or the very real tragedy of human suffering which Bee invokes in referencing the September 11 attacks, the Asian Tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. She renders the bleeding wounds of a broken nation as the turbid and undifferentiated stuff of lived experience, dotted with the images that give form to memory—lifeboats bobbing in the waves—or the historical signifiers that govern and organize the inner life.
The Eye of the Storm trains our gaze onto the very phenomenon of looking. And it is the blindness of unmediated experience that gropes in the rising waters for the images visible at the horizon promising salvation. What we see in her work is the impossibility of reconciliation, which we as viewers and distinctly constituted selves stand to reckon with.