The Four Horsemen of our current impending secular Apocalypse — oil, pollution, global warming, and overpopulation — are finally getting some political attention, though, perhaps too little, too late. Many artists are dealing with these themes nowadays, albeit in the detached mode inherited from conceptual art and postmodernist theory, at least to those of us running around with our hair on fire, to use former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s colorful metaphor.
Belonging to this wave of environmentalist art are Youngsuk Suh’s “Wildfires” photographs, which on their surface reference the devastating fires that ravaged Northern California during in the past few years, fires arguably abetted by climate change. The tone is hardly propagandistic or alarmist, however, as we stand far behind the firefighting front lines, along with Sierra Nevada tourists and locals engaged in the normal recreations of boating, bathing, waterskiing, hiking and relaxing, with disaster present only in the luminous white haze that envelops and permeates everything.
With their ostensibly objective tone, these large photos hark back to the “New Topographics” works of Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and others, currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; in light of current events, however, at least for those attuned to inconvenient truths, they take on a subtly ominous note, suggestive of older antecedents, like Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” depicting a winged boy falling out of the sky to his death, unseen by plowmen and sailors going about their workaday business. Viewers will also discern in these works ironic updates on the heroic/mythic landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and that other Adams, Ansel; or, because of the vaporous, smoke-shrouded scenery, a Westernized version of traditional Chinese painting, with the tiny contemplative scholar-recluses replaced by modern surrogates. Beachgoers disport themselves under gray skies in “Bathers under Bridge.” Figures are so small and integrated within the landscape as to be nearly invisible in “Bathers and a Dog,” “Firefighters,” “Waterskiing and Conversation.”
Where the figures are even slightly more prominent, the irony increases to match: in “Cigarette” a yellow-clad firefighter takes a puff standing in the shadow of a tree amid parched grasses; the tiny animal in “Chipmunk” pauses, too, but alert to possible danger, at a human lookout point, too low to enjoy the view; in “Sunset and Bathers at Sunset” there is just haze. Where there are no human or animal presences, an ironic surrogate serves: in “Coffee” a highway sign advertises hot pick-me-ups, with the iconic painted steaming cup crowned by a six-tongued flame; in “Gas Station,” the immobile gas pump, telephone booth and utility pole are taunted by a dancing air-powered tubular figure with blower fans in its feet.
These are elegant photographs, and possibly subversive, too. Suh, who deconstructed the tourism industry’s illusions of romance and escapism in a previous body of reality-based work, seems more conflicted about his goals here, citing “the failure of the familiar nature-culture dichotomy” and “the ‘anxious desire ... to be ‘in nature’ ... [that is] continuously prolonged” as symbolized by the smoke. He also declares that nature is “an invention of ... modernity as history [is],” while denouncing the “sophisticated social engineering [of fire management] that is aimed at total control of [the] public psyche,” leaving us postmodern sheep “protected from ... direct contact and left with mediated images seen on TV and newspapers.” And art photos? Well, never mind. No time to lose.