WHERE THERE’S SMOKE: If you didn’t know it going in, it might take you a few minutes to figure out the theme of Youngsuk Suh’s most recent series of photographs. There’s a foreboding silence in these hazy Californian landscapes and architectural spaces—a sense of something just out of sight. What they share, in fact, is a filter of smoke.
The series, now on view at Jane Deering Gallery (25 E. De la Guerra St.), is Calm in the Landscape: Wildfires & Wilderness. In it, the artist records the California brush fires of 2008 and 2009. Yet fire itself is strangely absent from these scenes. Instead of sweeping vistas of blazing hillsides or heroic close-ups of ash-smeared firefighters, Suh shoots from a middle distance, capturing the disconcerting way that life goes on, even in the midst of disaster.
In “Campers,” a shaft of light descends from the heavens like something out of a Constable painting, while in the distance, smoke rises from the gas grill beside a pop-up camper. The forested scene is almost bucolic, but for the yellowish sky. The same goes for “Bathing,” in which Suh turns again to European art historical traditions. Here, the tiny figure in question casts a dark reflection in the lake where he wades, while the sun appears as a pale disk, burning through the smoke. The nominal subjects of “Bather and a Dog” are so dwarfed by the landscape around them they’re not apparent at first. Instead, the eye is drawn up and out of the trees to the bridge that spans the river valley, its struts showing dimly through a haze of ash.
These are chilling scenes, especially for those who have witnessed wildfire close-at-hand and who know all too well what it’s like to see familiar places threatened or transformed by disaster. The overwhelming immensity of such a threat comes through in “Firefighters,” where tiny figures huddle in a clearing, their hose appearing from the distance like a delicate, colorful thread.
In most of these large-scale prints, Suh has digitally altered the color, pumping up his greens to super-saturated emerald. In the very architectural “Gas Station,” he commands the focus by dropping the spectrum almost to grayscale, so that the colorful logo on the gas pump pops dramatically. This is a place designed for human use, but it’s totally unpopulated, and the smoky stillness settling over field and road is frighteningly anaerobic.
Also on view in the gallery are a number of images from Suh’s previous series, Instant Traveler, focusing on National Parks and the shifting place of the wilderness in American consciousness as wild places become increasingly accessible. Among these works is “Badlands,” a painterly triptych in which South Dakota’s strikingly eroded buttes ripple across three frames. On the cliffs in the foreground stand Mennonite women in bonnets and long skirts, one kneeling to shoot a picture. In another frame, a video camera sits alone atop a dusty spire, its lens facing the parking lot.
Deering is in Santa Barbara through April and will be displaying one show of contemporary work each month until that time. For more on the gallery, call (917) 902-4359 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.