New York

Susan Hiller

Pat Hearn Gallery

If Susan Hiller’s recent exhibition here is any indication, there is currently a strong potential for a nostalgic revival of late ’60s and ’70s Conceptual art. The show included a portion of “Dedicated to the Unknown Artists,” an ongoing series that she began in 1972 consisting of framed arrangements of old postcards and statistics that she has compiled and cross-referenced (the section on view here was from 1972–76). This work maintains its potent communicative powers and makes the current spate of derivative abstraction seem wan in comparison. Hiller’s anthropological approach to gathering information from particular cultures and transforming it into art is a durable strategy that guides her work to the present day.

The pieces shown here consist of several framed panels of two types: those containing only postcards, usually in six vertical rows, and those featuring a single vertical row of similar postcards surrounded by Hiller’s typewritten compilations of data culled from the backs of the sentimental missives. (There was also one work with a handdrawn map of Britain flanked by two rows of postcards on either side.) Each of the views reproduced on these cards shows a “rough sea” off Britain’s coast, identified on the face of the card by a short caption (“Rough Sea, New Promenade, Blackpool” or “Storm at Bridington,” for example). Hiller found the cards, which span 70 years, long after the original purchasers sent them off to friends and family. Her arrangements of these elements are deceptively simple, and the ascetic look reflects the visual understatement typical of early Conceptual art. The pieces that feature the typewritten interventions, which resemble entries from a scientist’s logbook, have something in common with the work of Hanne Darboven. Like Darboven, Hiller incorporates found materials organized into a strict system of visual presentation; the works of both artists involve a combination of the anonymous and the personal, though perhaps in different proportions. Most of the cards feature photogravures that have been colored or sometimes painted over by artists who remain unknown (hence the title of the series), and handwritten messages by visitors to the places depicted, who, although they have signed their “work,” remain equally unknown to us.

Within Hiller’s format of very similar views of crashing waves in strictly ordered rows there are subtle variations of color, from sepia tones and black and white to pastel hues and bright, hand-tinted colors. The primary theme of these arrangements is the persistent repetition of an eternally frozen moment of nature’s rage, which transcends man-made attachments of individual authorship when translated into artistic objects. Through her methodical process, Hiller tries to convey a sense of neutrality that will both bring out and contain the metaphorical nature of these “found” images. The repeated central motif of a convulsive wave crashing against an insignificant wall looks like a polar cap, a sensual spray, an atom bomb explosion, an amorphous white specter, or a monster devouring its prey. As a result,there is an ambiguity to the work that opens it up to various interpretations. Hiller might be alluding to the indefatigable power of nature over civilization, or she could be instructing us about mankind’s sentimental trivialization of terrifying natural images in the form of commonplace postcards. The latter impulse finds its verification in Hiller’s compilation of information from the personal messages written on the backs of these cards, many of which contain surprisingly banal appraisals of these intimidating sites.

The show also included Magic Lantern, 1987 (a mixed-media, slide-plus-sound installation), and Beyond Intimate, 1984, a suite of four individual photographic enlargements of the same type of “rough sea” postcards, presented in somewhat more elegant frames stained a dark brown. Beyond Intimate demonstrates Hiller’s transition from making Conceptual art that tends toward a somewhat dry facticity to more evocative image-oriented works. This move away from the earlier image-text relationships is a strategy that draws the viewer in and sets up a less purely intellectual response. Enlarged, the images become more threatening; they resonate with the mysterious energy of nature on a rampage. The technical imperfections of this form of popular photography create wonderful visual accidents, such as the blurring of distinctions between an overcast sky and a large, abstract wave of the same tonality. Hiller’s greatest achievement in both the early and the later works is her ability to evoke the inherent tension between people as spectators and nature itself as a continuous spectacle. She distances herself from violent natural phenomena through a clinical process of investigation and presentation, giving the viewer a chance to gauge the intensity and complexity of the physical world.

Jude Schwendenwien