Tue 14 Mar 2023 to Sat 15 Apr 2023
Artist: Susan Hiller
Lisson Gallery presents a survey of Susan Hiller’s Rough Seas works. The exhibition tracks Hiller’s investigation into a particular cultural artifact, the ‘rough sea’ tourist postcard, which she began in the early 1970s and continued until her death in 2019. Rough Seas represents the influential artist’s third exhibition with the gallery and first in New York since 2017.
Having moved to the UK in the late ‘60s, the US-born Susan Hiller was in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare when she came across an old Edwardian postcard bearing the image of waves crashing against the shore and the legend ‘rough sea’. Soon she began collecting similar postcards from junk stores in other coastal towns, recognizing them both as a form of collective portrait, a representation of Britain as an island nation, obsessed with the weather; and also as a domesticated, miniaturized version of the Romantic tradition of the sublime. Her first work to make use of this collection was the multi-panel installation, Dedicated to the Unknown Artists (1972-76), one of the best-known British conceptual works of the period (Tate collection). Positioning herself as curator, Hiller treated the postcards as miniature artworks, products of a previously unacknowledged artistic tradition in which anonymous workers, typically women, were employed to add hand-tinted effects and painted details to photographic images. Subsequent ‘rough sea’ postcards that Hiller continued to acquire, between 1976 and 1982, were made into various Addenda to Dedicated to the Unknown Artists: small, single works that focused on specific themes.
Hiller further explored the core relationship between painting and photography, first identified in Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, in her Rough Seas works. While some of the original postcards were printed versions of photographs that had been altered by hand and then rephotographed, others were photographic reproductions of paintings. The Rough Seas play out various permutations of these possibilities, enlarging the images and arranging them into gridded groups. In early works, such as Another Sea View (1982-88) and Storm Scenes (1987), Hiller adopted the role of hand-colorizer, modifying the images in a variety of different ways; later, she experimented with digital processes to produce ostensibly painterly effects and fantastic tonal shifts, in works such as Night Waves (2009) and Rough Dawns II (2015). In each case, the resulting scenes of storm-wracked coasts and churning waters seem to thrill us, and speak to our deepest cultural fears and desires, our complicated longing for wildness and otherness.
Installed in the gallery’s final room, On the Edge (2015) was intended by Hiller as a companion piece to Dedicated to the Unknown Artists. A similarly extensive, multi-paneled display, it eschews the earlier work’s detailed linguistic and pictorial analysis in favor of a kind of stately litany, the arrangement of 482 postcards proceeding geographically through locations around the UK’s coastline – a circumnavigation that describes the limits of terra firma, that ironically attempts to map the interface between known and unknown. The title also suggests the precariousness, the inherent lack of definition, of island boundaries, a concern more prevalent that ever in the age of climate change.
For over five decades, Hiller explored the fluid interrelation between the rational and the irrational, using her art to inquire into what she called ‘unstable zones’, where the liminal, the invisible, and the unconscious hold sway. The Rough Seas works exemplify this space. Positioning the heaving, crashing waves within the formal restraint of the grid, Hiller’s images throw into question the logic and order that the format has come to represent. “[T]hese images represent the uncontainable”, writes the novelist and critic Lynne Tillman in her 2019 essay, which has been reprinted to accompany the exhibition. “Through their infinite stasis, absolute stillness, the images speak to the permanence of the irrational and of Nature’s uncontrollable forces.”