Author: Rachel Greene
BE Magazine, Issue 8 2002

Sue de Beer - Recent Photos

From her oeuvre of recent photographs one will deduce that Sue de Beer is an active consumer of the darker products of culture. Recent photos take as their ur-texts and influences Nightmare on Elm Street, the Columbine High School massacre, and Dennis Cooper novels. Surveying them quickly, one has the sense that de Beer loves soap opera, and isn't interested in straightforward social documentary or critique. One sees immediately that de Beer is interested in a Proustian level of detail, the level of detail that professors and cineastes pursue, and, since high-low distinctions aren't made by de Beer, the level of detail one sees in the work of obsessive bedroom hobbyists, homepage makers, and devoted fans. Also, one will note that many of these carefully considered photos pivot around historical events or works violent or graphic in nature. The photo's graphic violence is, understandably, primary for some viewers, allowing them to ask questions about what artists get away with, why something is or isn't art, or what about decency and that whole caper. Other skepticism might focus more on the artist's own psychology and life experience: someone asked when seeing the slides and images I used when writing this essay, "Why is she so into mutilation?" or "Is she really disturbed?" Certainly, de Beer's works are unfamiliar in a contemporary art market in which images of violence are generally undesirable. There are also perhaps the premises that her work takes cheap, sensational shots, is cultish, or even that this kind of work would be more acceptable if produced by a male agent. Some of these concerns are perhaps fueled by the lack of overt emotion in many of the photos.

First, doubters should be reminded that de Beer's work is part of a pictorial history of the dead or violated body as seen in the art practices of Edouard Manet, Paul McCarthy, and Sue Coe (for starters). Besides this artistic continuum, the violence is part of a well-considered, structured project relevant in our American culture in which we are all asked to process profanities like the Columbine High School killings, Jon Benet Ramsay's exploitation and death, teens throwing babies in dumpsters (again, just for starters). De Beer embraces these events without shame, and explores them in depth. She has an interest in the evolution and production of violence, researching everything from set construction on films like Nightmare on Elm Street, to the particular family histories of school shooters, to the various landscapes of each game level in Quake. Simply, she is a kind of a fan or hobbyist, a close reader of what is not traditionally allowed in mainstream culture.

Her compositions tend to be highly structured, even diagrammed, but spare and lacking surface level passion. The ennui of the latest body of photographs is as deliberate as other formal aspects of their pictorial fluency. Quiet on the surface, the photos allow various contradictions and challenges built in to the experience of consuming horror to move into the foreground. For example, in Bed, based on a slasher film, blood dripping from a ceiling is one quiet part of a Žsomething wrong' architectural scene: the photo posits a number of spatial contradictions while a body falls apart. Or the photo of the artist giving birth to herself in a bloody mess (Untitled) inspired by a scene from Dennis Cooper's Frisk asks questions about bodily limits, fusion, and logic. Here, physicality, volume, the shape and line of the arms, the marble-white skin, these elements register while the overall affect is fairly flat. Consequently, the challenge of one adult giving birth to another seems corporeal rather than horrific, and the experience of looking at Untitled is troubling. In more character driven works like Sasha, a shot of an extra from a horror film, one almost forgets about the splayed abdomen on display in light of the sitter's ennui and Sargentesque*** diffidence. Though fictional, Sasha and the film she could have been in, the film's sets, codes, lighting, etc, these have their own virtues, possibilities and protocols that interest de Beer.

De Beer's unusual but rich microcosm for examining formal concerns and cultural phenomena puts her in the vulnerable position of having her work read as being morally dubious and suspect. Like with Gerhard Richter's Baader-Meinhof series, this vulnerability is one of the works' greatest sources of depth. There is more to them than cultish shock shlock: first, most of the time, historical events in general, or Columbine and other school shootings more specifically, tend to remain unfinished business for most of us. De Beer's work challenges their reification and let's us work through these events again. Second, one cannot help but enjoy her libertine approach and pictorial fluency. Third, her work doesn't feel formally or intellectually superficial (in fact, her self-portraits are epic): instead it's compelling.

* Twelve students and a teacher were killed on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, by students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. The two ended the rampage by killing themselves. This was the worst high school shooting in US history.

** Jon Benet Ramsay was found bludgeoned to death in her parents' home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996. Jon Benet was a frequent contributor in child pageants, winning ŽLittle Miss Colorado' the year before her death at age six.

*** One of the great painters of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) made his fortune and reputation as a portrait painter of the beautiful and influential. President Woodrow Wilson, oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, novelist Henry James, and art patron Isabella Stewart Gardner all sat for him.