Los Angeles

Susan Silton


Though wildly diverse, Susan Silton’s works of the past decade nonetheless share elements of formal experimentation and aesthetic choice, and employ coded imagery and iconography to deliver socially and politically charged messages. Recently, Silton has made a series of works playing on stripes, including a project currently on view at the Pasadena Museum of California Art for which she covered the museum’s exterior in the sorts of striped tarpaulins used on houses undergoing fumigation, and another in which she filled an interior space with found objects unified only by their striped surfaces.

At Solway Jones, Silton displayed five works, all from a 2006–2007 series titled “The Day, The Earth.” These digital photographic prints are derived from stills from cold war–era doomsday-themed movies that revolve around the plights of people faced with impending or recent nuclear devastation or environmental disaster. Silton divided each still into eighty-four narrow vertical strips, then tinted each of these such that any one point appears as essentially monochromatic, while the hue shifts along the length of the strip. The gradated tinting also results in changing levels of saturation and contrast that variously enhance and obscure the photographic images.

Beside one another, the strips become stripes, with the contrast in hue, intensity, and value varying along the length of the border between any two of them, such that the entire composition becomes a shimmering field within which the photograph seems to fade in and out. The works thereby become destabilizing abstractions with the dazzling, dizzying effect of early paintings by Bridget Riley. Add to this lessons Silton learned from Daniel Buren’s plays on the stripe’s shifts in decorative, abstract, and referential potential with regard to context, and the sorts of wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing plays between imagery and abstraction, the onerous and the beautiful, found in Jack Goldstein’s paintings, and you begin to get where this work is going.

It’s easy enough to make out the mugs of Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner in Silton’s work On the Beach, 2006–2007, but you might not be familiar with the 1964 film from which it borrows its title and underlying image—a tale of post-apocalyptic survivors in the Southern Hemisphere coming to grips with their cataclysmically jumbled relationships and realities while awaiting the slow doom of radiation poisoning via fallout drifting down from the already annihilated north. And you’d have to be a serious movie buff to recognize amid Silton’s stripes images lifted from the films The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961), Panic in Year Zero! (1962), Ladybug Ladybug (1963), and Fail-Safe (1964). But you don’t even need to know the titles to know the sorts of story lines captured in these stills, populated by figures who wear worry on their faces as they variously brace and embrace one another, look off toward the horizon or up into the sky with gazes of curiosity and dread, and pray for release from futures of military and environmental horror.

Like the cyanide-laced cup of tea the character Mary opts for near the end of On the Beach, Silton’s photo-infused striped fields are sweet delivery systems carrying bitter doses. Consequently, their methods become their metaphors, as, too, does the perpetually shifting contextual play, as slivers of differently tinted information vibrate against one another while gelling into yesteryear’s visions of tomorrow that resonate today.

Christopher Miles