Susan Seubert’s days of the dead

The Portland photographer's "Not a Day Goes By" at Froelick Gallery opens a door to thinking about suicide and its roots

They are masks, topographies, transparencies, transient spirits floating between being and nothingness, human faces shrouded in veils of plastic like a second skin. Composed and startling in their alabaster absences, they are images of the dead. And not just any dead, but the self-chosen dead. “If you Google ‘asphyxiation’,” the Portland photographer Susan Seubert notes with a hint of bemusement, “it’s not something you want to see.”

Nevertheless, she did. What she discovered, among other things, is that asphyxiation is the number one method of suicide in the West: cheap, relatively easy, relatively unmessy. And so it became the focus of her most recent show, Not a Day Goes By, which is running through May at Portland’s Froelick Gallery. Selections from it also will travel to the global showcase of the Venice Biennale in mid-May, a prestigious career boost: She’ll be in the collateral exhibition Personal Structures at the Palazzo Bembo, and by coincidence, she says, in the same space Oregon painter James Lavadour had in the 2013 Biennale, “a beautiful, big, nice space that’s got window light.”

Susan Seubert, “Asphyxiation #8,” digital photographic print on aluminum, 40 x 30 inches, 2017. Edition of 10

Death in Venice. Death in Portland. Death in the Arctic, in the Antarctic, on the high seas. Death wishes, death trauma, inevitable death. Death glorified, sanitized, hidden away. Death by one’s own hands. Seubert’s exhibit on a subject most people don’t like to think about includes two series: Asphyxiation, a grouping of 40 x 30 inch images printed on aluminum, and Method of, another series of smaller prints, 12 x 12 inches each, depicting various methods of taking one’s own life. They are passionate and controlled and free of irony. The larger images in particular are unsettling and revealing. These ghostly images of faces misshapen by clinging bags of clear plastic are confrontational, and yet they’re not. The photographs are beautiful, simple, gorgeous in a way that seems strangely moving and serene, like Pietàs of the underworld.

It’s this beauty, I think, that makes the Asphyxiation photographs so remarkable and close to heartbreaking. They are overt expressions of a mute muddle of anger, sorrow, confusion, and tears that have been purified into single images that are both stark and overflowing with intimation. Who are these people? Who were they? How did they get here? Why?

Seubert is a highly respected veteran fine art photographer who also has a successful career as a photojournalist, often traveling the world on assignment for National Geographic and other magazines. It’s her global perspective, partly, that put her in the frame of mind to dive into the meanings and metaphors of suicide. “It came from a very dark moment in my life,” she says. “It started last July. I’d just got back from somewhere … North Pole, South Pole …” she stops for a moment to laugh. “I’ve been so many places for my work I lose track.”

It was also about the time the national presidential race was beginning to tighten up, and she found herself both angry and despondent about it. “I was very depressed about a lot of things, but one was how far backward we’d gone culturally. I thought we’d moved past this as a human race. I found myself deeply saddened by that. … the rise of Trump and this utter disdain for restraint.”

Susan Seubert, “Asphyxiation #1,” digital pigment photographic print on aluminum, 40 x 30 inches, 2017. Edition of 10.

And so the photographs have a political impulse. But their intimations run broader, and deeper, than mere electoral issues or personalities, unsettling as those may be. The images of suicide suggest as well the willingness, almost the compulsion, of contemporary humans to commodify and destroy the larger world that keeps them alive, evidences of which Seubert has witnessed in her travels to the far reaches of the globe. “All of the dead animals I’ve seen, all the trash, up in the Arctic,” she says. “Mainly plastic. Plastic, plastic, everywhere. No matter where I go on the planet, it’s everywhere. Most of it travels on the oceans. And it does not decompose. It breaks down into smaller and smaller bits.” She’s seen whales entangled in fishing nets, and animals – like sea lions – growing in grotesque deformities around plastic six-pack rings that trap and squeeze them: “They’re just bulging.” The stubborn continuation of practices that imperil crucial environmental balances, and the push to strip away what safeguards exist, suggest a kind of human death wish, or at the least a willful denial that actions can have lethal consequences.

Looking at the Asphyxiation portraits up close got me to thinking of other artistic responses to death in this culture that is both obsessed by and, well, deathly afraid of it. I thought in particular of the exhibition Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America, which I saw a few months ago at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan, and which seemed almost the inverse of Seubert’s Not a day Goes By ­– not a contemplation of death as a reaction against life, but a celebration of life in spite of death. The paintings in Securing the Shadow, mostly from the early and middle 19th century and mostly made by naïve artists (there were also many postmortem “mourning portrait” daguerreotypes, the old technology giving way to a new and cheaper one), tended to be vividly colorful, unlike Seubert’s palette of cool receding whites and blacks and grays. Looking at them I had the clear sense that they were attempts to keep the dead alive, at least in memory, not as faded beings of sorrow but as vibrant everyday presences. If they were children, as so many were, they seemed active; ready to play. With childhood mortality so high, a relatively prosperous family might have three or four of these posthumous portraits on the wall, along with three or four or more surviving children: everyone together, dead and alive. Many of the paintings, if you strip away their circumstances, seem cheerful: bright pieces of Americana that you might hang on your wall next to a folk art weathervane or a painted wooden flag.

Death for sale: Items in the shop from the “Securing the Shadow” exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum.

The deaths addressed in Not a Day Goes By are different, because they are not deaths of disease or age or accident or even war but deliberate deaths, chosen by those who carry them out on themselves. Yet the act of suicide is both a response to and a negation of the world outside the self, and so what that world does and how it treats the matter of life and death are inevitably pieces of the process. And we are living in a carnival of death. As it happens, I saw Seubert’s show on the day the United States dropped “the mother of all non-nuclear bombs” on Afghanistan, a country that has been known as “the graveyard of empires” since long before American involvement in it. It was also three days before Easter, the day that much of the world celebrates the miraculous rising from the dead of a man-god. And it was scant days before, oh, let’s see: a triple slaying in Fresno by an apparent religious extremist; a “lost” U.S. aircraft carrier heading for a confrontation with a nuke-threatening North Korean despot except it turns out it wasn’t; and the apparent suicide in his jail cell of a onetime NFL football star convicted of murdering a friend after a tiff in a bar. Death is in the air, and it seems that much of the world is in love with it, even if it sometimes seems the love that dare not speak its name. As the old song goes: everybody wants to get to Heaven, nobody wants to die.

Leonardo Alenza, “Satire of the Romantic Suicide,” ca. 1839, oil on canvas, 14.4 x 11.2 inches, Museo Romantico, Madrid

Death, of course, is a natural part of life and regeneration. But violent death – by war or catastrophe or murder or suicide – tends to fascinate us. Maybe it’s the idea of the natural order being accelerated, or interrupted; of some violation in the ordinary progression of things, and wondering, considering the blunt force of private trauma and human history, whether the violation isn’t itself part of the natural progression. Artists have always responded to death, from the cave paintings of prehistory to the anti-vivisection jeremiads of Sue Coe’s paintings and the slice-and-pickle body counts of Damien Hirst’s cynical sculptures. The evidences in art history are too many to count. A million Crucifixions, corpus Christis, martyrdoms of the saints. Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith hacking off Holofernes’ head. The heroic martial images of Delacroix. Jacques-Louis David’s bathtub-murder scene The Death of Marat. Léon Cogniet’s piercing Tintoretto Painting the Portrait of His Dead Daughter, a heart-shattering study for which is in the collections of the Portland Art Museum. Images of suicide abound, too, from paintings and sculptures of the deaths of Cleopatra and Sappho and Socrates to Leonardo Alenza’s Satire on Romantic Suicide, an 1839 painting of an artist teetering over a cliffside. Many of these involve action, drama, even some sort of heroism, all of which are notably absent in Seubert’s portraits of quietude. The Catalonian sculptor Damia Campeny’s 1804 Dead Lucrecia, with its alabaster stillness and slumped absence of gesture and expression, comes much closer to matching the endgame mood of Seubert’s portraits.

Damia Campeny, “Dead Lucrecia,” 1804, marble, 53.1 x 49.2 x 24 inches, Llotja de Mar, Barcelona

Seubert’s aesthetic skill separates the photographs in Not a Day Goes By from purely political, and certainly from sensationalist, art. There is, to use an old-fashioned word, a strange lovingkindness to them; a sense of dignity and honor in spite of their contortions. The curves and crevices and striking whites leaping out of shadow give them a feel of marble: “The whites are what define the image,” Seubert says. The heads themselves are 25 percent larger than real life, so they dominate but don’t overwhelm. And crucially, printing the images onto luminous metal creates a shimmering, shifting, mirror effect, so that when you view one of the portraits you also enter into it. Seubert worked closely with digital expert Phil Bard and the San Francisco area lab Bay Photo to get the precise effect, which couldn’t be clearly anticipated earlier in the process. Until mid-December all of the images were digital, and Bard helped match the prints in color, tone, and treatment.  What Seubert refers to as “that performative aspect of seeing yourself in the image” creates a connection to, and so perhaps an empathy with, a person who has chosen to disconnect.

Susan Seubert, “Manner of: Tonto Sword (Seppuku),” digital pigment print on Thai silk tissue paper, encaustic medium, clayboard, 12 x 12 inches, 2017. Edition of 10

The smaller Method of prints that make up the second part of Not a Day Goes By are also technically precise, but with a very different layered approach that makes them look a lot like graphite drawings. “I decided they should be very dreamy,” Seubert says of these quiet images of the many methods of taking one’s life, from the ritual disembowelment of seppuku to syringe to razor blade, noose, handgun, bullet, pills, a bridge to leap from, a convenient tub for drowning. Each photograph is printed on Thai silk tissue paper (“I used that because it has a very drawn quality”), and coated via encaustic, or wax, to further the illusion of aesthetic separation from the reality they represent. Although they aren’t angry or satirical in the same way, and the images are much simpler, they remind me in approach of Goya’s The Disasters of War series, which is blunt in its depiction of atrocities but worked and shaped into contradictorily pleasing final form. I don’t see overt anger in either of Seubert’s series, although the expert craftsmanship may suggest a calculated fury.

Susan Seubert, “Manner of: Drowning,” digital pigment print on Thai silk tissue paper, encaustic medium, clayboard, 12 x 12 inches, 2017. Edition of 10

Creating a series about suicide is bound to be controversial, or just unnerve people for whom the subject is too close or disturbing. “I’ve gotten a number of personal messages from people who refuse to come see the show. And I understand that,” Seubert says. Yet in the end, what might have seemed a closing-off of conversation became instead a beginning. Not a Day Goes By, Seubert says, “opened up this odd door. Everyone was really open to it.” The covered faces in the Asphyxiation series belong to models, several of them Seubert’s friends, who agreed to be part of this photographic journey into the macabre: “It was such an interesting process. It made me realize I was not as isolated as I thought I was.”

Introduced to the project, people began to tell their own stories about suicide – of family members and friends who killed themselves; of helping a frail and dying friend hasten the end. “I didn’t ask people to share it,” Seubert says. “I showed them, and they shared it.” Not a Day Goes By, like most art, is not a suggestion or a prescription but an invitation to a conversation: a strange and fascinating transformation, this melting-down of pain and isolation into something embracing and somehow beautiful. It is, of course, one of the things art does. Things mystify and also open up. Even viewed though a glass darkly, there is a piercing of the light.

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Susan Seubert’s Not a Day Goes By continues through May 27 at Froelick Gallery, 714 N.W. Davis St., Portland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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