Susan Hiller: Rough Seas @Lisson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 9 photographic works and 1 multi-frame postcard archive, hung against white walls in the main gallery space and in the smaller back room.

The following works are included in the show; all are unique:

  • 3 sets of 9 archival pigment prints, 2014-2015, 2015, sized roughly 60×90 inches
  • 2 sets of 12 archival pigment prints, 2015, sized roughly 60×121 inches
  • 1 set of 9 c-prints, 1984, each frame sized roughly 22×30 inches
  • 1 set of 9 c-prints, mixed media, 1989, sized roughly 44×95 inches
  • 1 set of 9 archival pigment prints, 2009, each frame sized roughly 31×31 inches
  • 1 set of 15 groups of mounted postcards, archival print, 2015, each frame sized roughly 31×42 inches

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As more and more photographers decide to root their artistic practice in archival materials, we are in real need of a meta study of the various ways they are approaching and reusing these image banks. Did they find the archive already intact, or did they collect/assemble it themselves over time? Does it relate to family history or personal identity in some way, or it is more arms length? Was it a physical paper archive or a digital one (on the Internet or elsewhere)? And how has the archive then been transformed into new artworks – via storytelling, mark making, collage, appropriation, rephotography, or other means? There are lots of questions here, and few systematic studies of discernible patterns in the artistic answers.

Susan Hiller’s starting point was an old postcard, one she found in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, its image of waves crashing against the shore given the title of “rough sea”. In the years following, Hiller would go on to assiduously assemble a collection of nearly 500 postcards with similar views of coastal England, spanning more than 200 locations around nearly the entire circumference of the island nation and many featuring towering waves and extreme weather incidents. It is this image archive (which has been presented in its full catalogued glory in a smaller back room of this show) that forms the basis of the sampler of four decades of gridded works on view here.

Postcards, and the kinds of photographs that have been used on them, have been a source of interest (and obsession) for plenty of artists. Walker Evans, Stephen Shore (in his early days), and Gilbert & George (in their early days) all come to mind as artists interested in the mundane aesthetics and creative possibilities of postcards, and more recently Elger Esser has followed Hiller down the rabbit hole of coastal postcard imagery. If we start to add in the photo collage and montage artists who have cut and reassembled postcards for decades, the list of artists who are postcard fans gets large fast.

Hiller’s single subject obsession has kept her postcard interest narrow and tightly bounded, which of course has led her to dive deeply into the nuances of the available visual options and patterns. Most of the postcards in her archive come from the first decade or two of the 20th century, so they are essentially all in black-and-white, aside from those with some hand painting or tinting. The cards feature coastal scenes of rocky shorelines, cliffs, beaches, town boardwalks, promenades, piers, lighthouses, and other seaside infrastructure, along with an astonishing range of local once-in-a-lifetime weather incidents, including humongous smashing waves, stormy seas, dark clouds, whitecaps, and even a few shipwrecks. Many of the scenes have a vaguely Romantic air about them, documenting the awe inspiring power of nature and man’s relatively paltry insignificance in its presence. For the British tourist preoccupied with extreme weather, these postcards were likely a grand keepsake, or a dauntingly scary novelty to be sent to those back home.

Hiller’s grids gather sets of like imagery drawn from the postcards, the curated scenes generally cropped down and enlarged to highlight whatever common feature Hiller found most interesting. Given the scale of the resulting works, the enlargement process has exposed all kinds of printing imperfections, as well small areas of hand painting or retouching, leading to images that have an almost Impressionistic quality in some cases. Hiller makes the most of this dissolving expressiveness, her grids amplifying the painterly drama found in groups of images of crashing waves, moonlit nights, smoky brooding skies, and threatened coastlines.

With a nod to the anonymous artists (often women) who added hand tinting and painting to the photographic images on the cards, Hiller has similarly intervened in her appropriated fragments. One early work on view, from 1989, finds Hiller overpainting a group of frothy waves-in-the-air storm scenes, breaking them down into mistier approximations, like faded memories. In another, from 1984, Hiller has tinted the wave scenes a deep blue, with each frame doused in a slightly different shade of color, but all in the same blue family, like a subtle theme and variation exercise.

The more recent works in the show find Hiller deliberately going for more contrast and energy, tinting various groups of “rough seas” in shades of seething red and ominous green, the enlarged waves revealing their painterly touches and embellishments. Other grids employ a one-of-each color scheme, mixing orange, red, green, and blue tints into uneasy combinations; one work titled “Night Waves” (from 2009) heads for the darkest edges of mood and atmosphere, with eerier tints that make the waves look even more surreal and threatening, like stills from a silent horror film.

As with most archivally-based work, once we’ve surveyed the results, what we’re left with is a pair of fundamental issues to consider – what do we make of the conceptual framework Hiller has applied to her chosen archive, and how can we evaluate the ways in which she has artistically transformed the source material? In terms her framework, Hiller has applied a rich sense of “Britishness” to her findings, seeming to revel in the ways the postcards reveal the interests and mindset of the nation; she also seems to have focused in on the sublime nature of the events being captured, celebrating their most engrossingly chaotic passions. Her meticulous map of locations (in the back with the original postcards) also reminds us further of the seriousness with which she was thinking about the specifics of the British coastline.

Hiller’s transformations bring together scale and enlargement, typological categorization and presentation, and hand painting/tinting to further alter the tone and spirit of the tightly cropped images. The strongest of her recent grids are those that feature the most expressive waves, at the biggest scale, with the most boldly emotional additional hues and contrasts, the combinations in a sense overwhelming us with their visual power. In many ways, the more she has amplified these scenes, the stranger and more enthralling they have become, their ambience and aura nearly overtaking their content.

Perhaps the innovation that Hiller has brought to the artistic table here is to chart a path that moves away from the strict rigor of the typologies of the Bechers and makes room for typologies of edited archival material that can be filled with more intentional expressiveness and emotion. Anyone can made a straightforward grid of images of like objects; what Hiller has shown is that this same conceptual structure can also be interpreted in a more flexibly suggestive and evocative manner, that leaves more room to locate the viewer within the maelstrom.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show range between $75000 and $90000, with the postcard archive priced at $250000. Hiller’s work has little secondary market history, with just a handful of lots coming up for sale at auction in the past decade (with prices ranging from $6000 to $20000).

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