Los Angeles

Tamara Sussman

Rosamund Felsen Gallery

Los Angeles is constantly threatened by a variety of natural disasters: raging wildfires, giant mudslides, and—above all others—earthquakes. The arrival of “the big one” is generally regarded as a matter of when, not if, for Southern Californians. Despite that devastating inevitability, life goes on, more or less blissfully, and existential dread is largely sublimated or enacted in an endless procession of Hollywood spectacles. (Roland Emmerich’s 2012, in which the City of Angels slides swiftly into the Pacific Ocean, is only the latest.) Less dramatic, if no less frightening, is a list of recent earthquake activity provided by the Southern California Earthquake Data Center’s website, which reveals local tectonic plates to be in a near-constant state of agitation, generating small rumblers that usually fail to register at the level of human perception.

A similar state of continuous, low-level convulsion moves the narrative of Tamara Sussman’s “Tremble Series,” 2007–2009, in which photographs of landscapes are annotated with translucent lines of text. “The earthquake started so modestly only the geologists noticed,” reads the first of these, Geraniums, 2007–2009, in almost-invisible vinyl letters positioned on the Plexiglas along the bottom edge of an otherwise innocuous image of geraniums in a thicket of weeds. The story evolves over the course of eighteen individual works as a disaster in slow motion: The quake remains relatively small (“It hasn’t exceeded a 3.2 on the Richter scale”) but never ends. Over the weeks and months, the ceaseless vibrations alarm dogs throughout Los Angeles, the city begins to incrementally fold over onto itself, a neighbor’s house collapses amid a chorus of other structural failures, and so on.

All of the photographs are taken at night, with most framing brambles of undergrowth and overgrowth, or the untended collision of nature and culture (crumbling concrete steps, caution tape, construction debris); horizon lines are notably avoided in favor of claustrophobic views. Nothing is staged for the camera: These are essentially documentary images transformed into fiction with the addition of text. Sussman employs language to destabilize her images in order to manifest the ongoing—and, yes, destabilizing—vibration of the tale.

Though absent from these images, the human body is conjured by the first-person narrative, and the artist’s interest in bodily sensation is more explicitly addressed in two other works in the exhibition: Tremble, 2009, and Little Aches, 2008. The component letters of each work’s title are formed by collages of interconnected human body parts—arms and hands, mostly, punctuated with an intermittent leg or mouth—mounted atop individually framed sheets of paper bearing letterpress-printed text. (These pieces are taken from the series “A Palpable Alphabet,” 2008.) The letter L from Little Aches is titled L for a List of Things I Would Do with My Body If There Were No Permanent Consequences, 2009, and enumerates, “In no particular order: / Cut myself open and explore my organs. / Hold my intestines, smell my lungs, / Try to recognize myself in my kidneys. / Attach my left arm to my lower back, like a tail. / Hand-glide from the Chrysler Building to the Empire State Building. / Get blown up.” Littered with absurd humor and abject pathos, and vaguely recalling the typographic experiments of Guillaume Apollinaire’s Calligrammes or Alexei Kruchenykh’s zaum poems, Sussman’s texts reflect a fragmented subjectivity—linguistic corollaries of the severed body parts in their vicinity—and the tenuous connection between people and things. The sublime, geologically scaled version of entropic dread summoned by the “Tremble Series” is here fully eroticized and made intimate. In her solo debut, Sussman thankfully eschews the convenience of spectacle in favor of a more delicate display of quivering sensation.

Michael Ned Holte