April 9, 2010
Anyone who saw photographer Sarah Sudhoff's Repository last year at Art League Houston — work that grew out of her 2004 surgery for cervical cancer — already knows she turns an unwavering gaze on the body in medical contexts. Tissue samples, blood-soaked gauze, medical instruments, the artist herself — all were served up for the examination of anyone who dared to look.
In her second Houston solo show, At the Hour of Our Death at De Santos Gallery, Sudhoff again draws inspiration from personal experience. At 17, she lost a friend to suicide and watched a crew steam-clean his bedroom carpet, removing the signs of what had transpired just hours before. For her new series of color photos — all works date from 2010 — she's trained her lens on what trauma-scene cleanup crews whisk away from the scenes where death occurs.
It sounds morbid. But Sudhoff's preoccupation isn't so much with death's gruesomeness as our conflicted relationship with what is, after all, a process we all go through.
“Today, in Western society, most families leave to a complete stranger the responsibility of preparing a loved one's body for its final resting place,” Sudhoff writes in one of the clearest artist statements I've read in recent memory. “Traditional mourning practices, which allowed for the creation of Victorian hair jewelry or other memento mori items, have fallen out of fashion. Now the stain of death is quickly removed, and the scene where a death occurs is cleaned and normalized. … The modern means of dealing with death promises to shield mourners from the most graphic aspects of death, yet the emotional and psychological impact of such loss lingers long after any physical evidence of this process has been erased.
”Sudhoff photographs trauma-scene bedding, carpet and upholstery swatches — all stained with body fluids from a recent death — in a warehouse where they are temporarily held before incineration. She tacks each swatch to the wall, where it is illuminated by the crew's floodlights, and tries “to slow the moments before and after death to a single frame,” she writes.
She titles each 40-by-30-inch print with the cause of death followed by the gender and age of the victim. Because the color is gorgeously saturated and the compositions are reminiscent of post-World War II abstract painting, you're immediately drawn to their formal beauty, only to be stopped in your tracks by the truth. You might think you've seen the rich blues and stained composition in a Helen Frankenthaler painting, but Frankenthaler never painted Heart Attack, Male, 50 years old (II). No, that's not a study after a canvas from Adolph Gottlieb's Burst series; it's Suicide with Gun, Male, 40 years old.
The photos' richly textured beauty gives way to repulsion, then back to beauty again. A similar tension operates between feelings of immersion and detachment. Confronting Sudhoff's evidence on her terms — “to allow what is generally invisible to become visible, and to engage with a process from which we have become disconnected” — is both awful and strangely consoling.