Youngsuk Suh’s solo exhibition, “Wildfires,” features photographs of the California landscape during the brushfires of 2008–09. The dozen wide-format photographs feature monumental landscapes where his subjects often gather to work, swim, boat, and socialize in the shadow of an escalating and nearing catastrophe.
Evidence of the fires, or any palpable sense of danger, is not immediately obvious. In fact, the images appear pleasantly casual, with a lackadaisical opaque surface. In Cigarette (2009), a man stands on the side of a desolate and parched road, dwarfed by the hazy landscape around him. There is a sense of peace about the image, but looking closely one recognizes his uniform as that of a fireman. There’s a strange and private irony that he seems to be taking a smoke break. Like a vein, a deep red fire hose runs alongside the road, cutting across the bottom portion of the photograph. In many of Suh’s images, it’s banal elements that create composition.
Quirky humor flavors the show. In Coffee (2009), a very designer hand-painted highway sign illustrates a mug going in flames. Of course, the image urges us, it’s not as hot as what you’re driving us into. In other photographs a chipmunk takes pause or a large inflatable tube man rocks in the wind near a deserted gas station. This deadpan entails a mismatch of magnitudes-seemingly trivial or even oddities that prevail even amidst a looming natural disaster. Knowing as we do that the images were occasioned by catastrophic fires, Bathers at Sunset (2009) and a number of other follies that occur around California rivers, seem impossible under their circumstances, but the artist also truly cherishes the activity. The challenge, and the reward, is appreciating the parts of the images not dictated by the series’ premise.
With straightforward titles and current events as content, Suh inhabits the idiom of photojournalism. The images’ warm colors and crisp composition suggest magazine or lifestyle photography, and immediately undermine any association with objectivity. The real intention here is emotive, an invocation of the sublime in the American landscape and the Shakespearean gravity of the artist’s dramatic irony. Such pathos is part of a photographic practice whose reality is as mutable as it is routine.