New York

Susan Eder

Siegel Contemporary Art and Marian Goodman Gallery

In many of her earlier photographic works Susan Eder plays one system of meaning off against another. This tactic has been familiar in art since Duchamp’s Ready-mades, in which the formal qualities of common objects are ironically contrasted with their mundane functions. Eder’s pieces too are humorous and heady.

In this earlier work Eder treats natural phenomena—clouds, leaves—according to various systems of analysis and ordering. In each piece in her “Ghost Images” series of 1976–79, for example, she juxtaposes two postage-stamp-size color photographs, one of an animal, bird, or fish, and the other of a cloud having exactly the same shape.

In Domino Game #2, 1980, she strings together 27 small color prints of parti-colored fall leaves, matching them end to end by color; yellow to yellow, red to red. Clouds Zero through Nine and Cloud Alphabet, both 1978, present photographs of clouds shaped like each figure and letter.

At first it may seem that Eder is attempting to deflate the romantic metaphors layered onto natural phenomena. Where Alfred Stieglitz tried to find “Equivalents” for ineffable emotions in clouds, Eder pins them down with abstract logical systems. But in fact her comparisons cut both ways. Not only assumptions about nature, but notions of representation and signification in general—the other element in Eder’s juxtapositions—are challenged as arbitrary. In fact Eder remains if anything a closet romantic, championing the poetic logic of “nature” against the culturally determined logic of sign systems. The familiarity of this sort of reflexive mix ’n’ match game, which echoes much conceptual work of the ’60s, is redeemed by Eder’s use of unusual ordering and representational systems such as games and calendars. In Sky Calendar, 1980, Eder photographed the sky every day, then mounted the prints in the pattern of date squares on a calendar.

Most of the work made in the last three years deals with two more unexpected ordering systems: origami and knots. One is representational, based on a folk craft; the other is practical and arcane. Both also involve the structural transformation of basic geometrical elements—origami, of a plane, and knots, of a line. In sequences of up to 16 photographs, mounted in grids, Eder records various actions she performs on her paper and string objects to analyze or elucidate them.

In several pieces Eder simply makes lame jokes by treating the origami beasts as if they were real animals. In Origami Beef Butchering, 1982, she successively chops up a folded-paper cow with an X-acto knife: it’s a one-laugh joke. But in other examples Eder suggests more complex connections between the structures of these creatures and their real-life models. In Origami Frog Dissection, 1982, her frog is folded out of paper that’s gray on one side and pink on the other; as she slices into the object, folding back the flaps of its belly, it turns out that its skin is the gray side of the sheet while its insides are pink. (A mirror-image frog could also have been folded, of course, with gray insides and a pink hide.)

Eder employs a similar color-coding tactic in several pieces dealing with knots. In On Understanding Change: Line, 1979, four photographs depict first a length of white string; then the knot it forms; next the string, untied, colored in equal sections of red, yellow, and blue; and finally the colored cord in a knot—each major section of the knot now showing a different color.

In a final group Eder juxtaposes before-and-after photographs of objects that she slices through to form cross-sections. Some of the objects are variations of those in her other work—a blue origami bird, a knot in a gold-sheathed cord or in a rep tie—while some are new: a pink hyacinth, a small cactus. The resulting sectional views have none of the pristine clarity of draftsmen’s abstracted renderings; they’re photographs, not drawings. And so they tell more about the desire to understand structure than about the specific structures being considered.

Charles Hagen