JTF (just the facts): An installation consisting of paper prints, vinyl images, and vitrines, set along the back wall of the bookstore and in the side room. The paper prints are installed in two dense groups of 25 images each, affixed directly to the walls and unframed, while 5 large vinyl images provide a backdrop to other areas of the show. 15 vitrines are filled with the artist’s various publications, with representative samples, spreads, and images, as well as clusters of plastic coffee lids, images of snakes with striped socks, electrical subject matter books with black covers, and other ephemera. (Installation shots below.)
The photobook Cloud Service was published by Printed Matter (here)/Roma Publications (here) in conjunction with the exhibition. Staple-bound paperback on newsprint paper, 104 pages, with 96 color/black and white images. There are no texts of essays included, aside from an index of sources. In an edition of 1200 copies. Design by Batia Suter and Roger Willems. (Cover and spread shots below.)
A special edition of Cloud Service, consisting of 20 double-sided posters and 2 different covers, in an edition of 10, can be found here.
Comments/Context: Given that every man, woman, and child on this Earth has at one point or another looked up into the sky to marvel at the wonder of the clouds passing by overhead, it is not entirely surprising that clouds have been a consistent subject for photographers of all kinds, basically since the invention of the medium. Alfred Stieglitz is perhaps the most famous of the cloud photographers, at least in the artistic sense, his Equivalents finding abstract harmony in the patterns in the skies. But pictures of clouds are hardly limited to the realm of fine art – they can be found in encyclopedias, histories of aviation, meteorological studies, and so many other types of books and publications, the thought of making a tally of every place they might appear seems altogether ridiculous.
Part of what makes clouds so entrancing is how visually malleable they are. A glance to the sky finds clouds in an astonishing variety of forms and shapes, with the drifting changes from moment to moment often creating fleeting patterns that our minds recognize as a face, or a bunny rabbit, or a mountain range. Our brains are constantly matching the images they receive from our eyes with the images stored in our memories, so if we look long enough, some formal echo is bound to appear that we seem to “identify” out of thin air.
Batia Suter’s new show (and photobook) takes this simple exercise several conceptual steps further. In the last two decades, Suter’s artistic practice has been rooted in the taxonomic gathering of images, using formal similarity as a way to bring together unlike pictures to see what new relationships develop. Her work has often manifested itself in book form, and this show offers a number of examples from these books, from her expansive Parallel Encyclopedia #1 and #2 to her recent Radial Grammar (reviewed here), which collected a dizzying array of images of circular and radially organized things. Here in Cloud Service, she has taken clouds as her central visual motif, and then encouraged that theme to evolve in dozens of different directions.
Drawing from a seemingly vast archive of printed materials, Suter has of course unearthed lots of photographs of clouds. And while her images cover the cloud types we all studied in school (cirrus, cumulus, stratus, and others) and range from low to high in the sky, her purpose isn’t really rudimentary (or remedial) scientific education. Instead, she uses the cotton ball puffiness, wavy undulations, and wispy flatness of different clouds as jumping off points for expansive visual associations.
Installed as two large clusters of overlapped prints, the images quickly morph and expand, following one visual breadcrumb to the next. Various cloud types and skyward views extend first to their near relations: contrails cutting across emptiness, massive storms swirling across oceans, volcanic eruptions sending smoke into the sky, and man-made mushroom clouds billowing out with lethal force. Suter then makes connections to all kinds of flying things – fighter jets, blimps, balloons, and test machines, and then divers, jumping horses, birds, gods, and mythical beasts. She follows detours to things that look like clouds – sheep, coral, sand dunes, ocean waves, hanging moss, arctic snow fields, and microscopic views of who knows what – and then gets even more arcane, pulling us into machine diagrams, dot matrix computer printouts, and the swirled decoration on fancy guitars. The process itself is both intellectual and improvisational, the associations and resonances intuitive and clever.
Suter’s systematic approach to investigating and creating visual conversations runs contrary to the idea of the singular image that resonates through much of photography. In her artistic world, what matters are the groups, connections, themes, and motifs that connect pictures, not any one standout masterpiece that must be treasured or revered. This small survey of her work, and the new cloud project at its center, forces us to step back and see patterns, and to celebrate the immensity of the trove of imagery that is available all around us, if we can only figure out how to organize it. We might call what she does curating, editing, gathering, ordering, sifting, sorting, or even hoarding, and it is all of those things and more. Mostly, it is applying rigorous intelligence to the sea of imagery that passes by each and every day, creating networks of visual links between individual nodes, finding meaning and significance in the visual chatter.
Collector’s POV: Aside from the Cloud Service photobook and a selection of the artist’s previous publications, the works on view did not have prices. Batia Suter does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).