Batia Suter, Radial Grammar

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Roma Publications (here). Softcover, 296 pages, with approximately 275 black and white reproductions. Includes a 1968 text by Henri Michaux in English/French and a fold out poster. In an edition of 1200 copies. Published in conjunction with an exhibition at LE BAL (May 25, 2018 to August 26, 2018, here). Design by Roger Willems. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Batia Suter’s Radial Grammar doesn’t function in the way that most photobooks do. It doesn’t directly offer a selection of the artist’s works, it doesn’t deliver a narrative thread with a beginning or an end, and it isn’t particularly interested in the quality of the image reproductions it includes. It isn’t a monograph, or a catalog, or a zine exactly. And yet, for all these things that it so obviously is not, Radial Grammar is one of the more quietly mesmerizing and mind-engaging photobooks of the year. It is so very different from everything else that has wandered across my desk in recent months that I keep coming back to it, even if I can’t quite get my arms around what it is trying to accomplish.

Suter has built her artistic practice not on her work behind a camera, but in her sophisticated editing of found and scavenged imagery. Drawing on a seemingly massive archive of old books and printed materials, she has built up various compendiums of pictures (in particular, in her series of photobooks entitled Parallel Encyclopedia, but also in various physical installations in museums) that bring together photographs in unexpected ways, finding patterns, harmonies, and resonances in wildly disparate imagery. In a sense, she is actively stripping the images of their original context and applying her own new structure, thereby creating an alternate layer of logic that organizes the visual arguments. If this sounds obtuse and esoteric, it actually isn’t – she’s allowing relationships between existing photographs (formal, compositional, aesthetic, subject matter, etc.) to become fluid, and then creating sequences and groupings that encourage those characteristics to present themselves as a kind of meta-language.

At its core, Radial Grammar is “about” the visualization of a specific type of geometric balance, the kind we find in the spokes of wheels, the petals of flowers, or the pointed arms of a star. In theory, objects with this radial symmetry are generally circular in some way, everything emanating from or relating to a common center. As one component part of a larger visual “language”, radially-shaped things have a consistent structure, and as a result, we can derive a repeated sense of meaning or understanding when we see them. It’s like they have a “grammar”, or a set of rules that govern how they function and present themselves in the world around us.

Suter’s photobook takes us on an extended journey through the world of radial things, each page flip offering us a new example inside the larger definitional framework. Open the book in one place and we can follow the breadcrumbs from petri dishes, to molecule diagrams, to insects, to electricity, to tree rings, to human heads, to stadiums, to car tires. Open it somewhere else and the path moves from world maps, to orange slices, to clock faces, to silver goblets, to marching ants, to gemstones, to eyeballs, to musical instruments. Move a chunk further and we get an umbrella, a camera lens, more microbes, a can of Sainsbury’s new potatoes, car headlights, a thermometer, a snake skin, a Volkswagen logo, and a Lego Millenium Falcon. And jump toward the end and out pop octagonal tables, motors, keyrings, twists of metal, modern looking chairs, robot toys, insulated power cable diagrams, and a Claes Oldenburg soft lightswitch.

That all this eclectic diversity actually makes complete sense is a testament to Suter’s selection and presentation skills. Even when the objects in the images are unidentifiable or when they stray from the singular perfection of radial symmetry, we can still immediately understand why they have been included, and see the echoes of shape and structure that Suter wants us to see. Spending extended time with Radial Grammar has a “cabinet of curiosities” feel, and we are rewarded for our curiosity with each succeeding page of the familiar and the unimaginable.

Suter interrupts this flow a bit with a second layer of inking, effectively doubling or montaging some of the images. This is especially effective when she adds a layer of mechanical line drawing or scientific diagramming to something wholly unrelated, often mixing manmade and natural into hybrids that share a common structure. This also makes the baseline stream of consciousness flow even denser, with images bleeding together, intermingling, and becoming obscured. The result is a sense that everything is connected, the logic of the combinations (a light bulb and a chemistry model, an octopus and a distance diagram, a floor mosaic and a horned insect) both incomprehensible and obvious. Unlike many photobooks, this is one that can be looked at again and again, with new discoveries to be made with each encounter.

In the end, I think Radial Grammar‘s brainy seductions lie in tapping into the wonder of the visual world with such brash openness. As the pages pile up, there is a certain delight to be felt when she unearths something even weirder or more unexpected, the essential formal commonalities creating a roped off playing field in which to play. Following her mind is like tracing a network diagram with thousands of connections and nodes, each hop with the potential to amaze. I expect many will be mildly befuddled by Suter’s unconventional approach to photography, but there is no doubt that she has found both essential order and exuberant magic in the numbness of our image saturated world.

Collector’s POV: 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).

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